As I left work on Tuesday (23 October), I noticed a denser level of traffic than usual around Deansgate, the air seemed that extra bit noxious and there was palpable frustration emanating from the occupants of the hundreds upon hundreds of near-stranded vehicles. My first thought was to do a witty Twitter post along the lines “another driver protest in Manchester tonight – they’re blocking all the roads again,” but once I was whisked away by the tram, I put it to the back of my mind.
Well, at least until reports started filtering through of just how bad things had got that evening, described by the Manchester Evening News as “The night Manchester ground to a halt“. Traffic was apparently so bad that a rich man even had to walk half a mile to work.
This is nothing new: in fact, the appalling levels of congestion in and around Manchester are rarely out of the local news. Only last month, September 2018, were we told that “Manchester has the worst traffic congestion of anywhere in England outside of London“. Just have a browse through this Google search to get an idea of how perennial the issue is here.
This time, however, the reports of these industrial-strength levels of congestion were accompanied by an article on Wednesday 24 October warning of dangerous levels of air pollution across the Greater Manchester region: unless something radical happens, 152 roads across Greater Manchester are at risk of “killer levels of air pollution” – shown on the below map:
With this perfect storm of never-ending carmageddon and an impending pollution-fuelled public-health emergency, I was curious as to how prominently active travel (cycling and walking) would feature in the discussion around possible solutions. After all, Chris Boardman has been in post as Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner for over a year, and in June 2018 – almost four months ago – he unveiled his ambitious Beelines vision, which aims to make active travel the default option for short trips for all citizens across the GM region. But are Mancunians getting the message? The short answer is: no, not really.
To get a rough handle on the status of the current debate, I’ve spent the last couple of days following the media reports and trawling through the comments (yes, indeed. The lengths I go to for you lot!). So what have people been suggesting?
Well, many still cling to the fallacy that the more roads you build, the smoother traffic will flow. Take for example, the nightmarish vision proposed by this commentator who wants to live in a city where roads are piled high on one another:
Or the many who resent road space being given over to the much more efficient modes of buses or cycles. Mode shift is far from this poster’s mind – once a motorist, always a motorist:
There is also an apparent deep distrust of the political sphere and its supposed big-picture intentions for transport across GM. Frequent mention was made of the gridlock, and indeed the poor air quality, being some kind of sinister conspiracy to sneak in a congestion charge by the back door. (Background note: GM held a referendum on a congestion charge in 2008, which was roundly rejected, and investment in transport has strruggled ever since. Referendums of course being a snapshot of public opinion on a given day that takes on the permanence of a biblical commandment, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Where alternatives to driving were mentioned, it was to public transport that many looked as a potential solution. However, being as unreliable, overcrowded and overpriced as it currently is (we recently had a little look at public transport here), public transport isn’t exactly converting drivers in droves.
For example, this commentator refers to the torrid time rail commuters have been having at the hands of the hapless Northern Rail:
Or the hefty fares, especially at peak times, commanded by the Manchester Metrolink:
Or this wishful thinker’s dream scenario, worthy of Schroedinger himself, where cars get all the space yet public transport somehow magically also works:
Other drivers admitted to making miniscule journeys by car without the slightest hint of self-reflection that they may somehow be part of the very problem they’re complaining about. For instance, this person spent three hours driving a mile out and back, which could be walked in about 40 minutes or cycled in 15, gridlock or not:
Or this one, who clearly regularly drives a distance that could be easily and efficiently tackled by cycle:
And that reflects the powerlessness that many feel in the face of a transport system that effectively works well for no one. Traffic is someone else’s fault – and we demand a solution now:
Of course, there were one or two doughty active-travel proponents wading through the torrents of impotent rage, making excellent points such as:
- If you cycle, congestion is something that happens to other people:
- Infrastructure is slowly being built that is making active travel a more viable option (I suspect this poster is talking about the Stretford Cycleway which is currently nearing completion):
- Or the this excellent take-down of a call to scrap all bus and cycle lanes:
But overall, it’s a pretty bleak picture out there. Many drivers seem to subscribe to some kind of utopian vision of a day where there are no roadworks, no potholes, no bus or bike lanes, where parking is free and ample, cars emit the aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls and we can all drive everywhere unimpeded.
This tweet to me beautifully sums up the folly of that viewpoint:
Others acknowledge the need for a radical overhaul of how we get about, but – justifiedly in many cases – see any prospect of effecting such change to lie outwith their personal scope of influence.
And there are those valiant few who, as best they can, are being the change they want to see, eschewing as far as possible the single-occupant vehicle for cleaner, more sustainable, more sociable modes of transport.
However, there’s clearly still a long way to go until active travel is as embedded in Mancunians’ minds as driving, and its poor cousin public transport, currently are. Individual action is always commendable and to be encouraged, but car-centricity is a deeply systemic issue, that demands systemic solutions. The fact that the Manchester Evening News, with no irony whatsoever, saw fit to advertise cars on the article about the failure of Manchester’s car-based transport system is but a small example of our blind spot around this issue. You really couldn’t make it up.
So: what do we need to do, individually and collectively, to make sure that the message gets out there and that active travel has its rightful place on the transport agenda and broader social discussion in GM? Thoughts please!