On Manchester’s infernal congestion crisis and how we think we can solve it.

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:

GM clean air plan map: 152 stretches of road likely to have nitrogen dioxide levels in breach of legal limits beyond 2020 if no action is taken.

GM clean air plan map: 152 stretches of road likely to have nitrogen dioxide levels in breach of legal limits beyond 2020 if no action is taken. Original available here.

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.)

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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:

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Or the hefty fares, especially at peak times, commanded by the Manchester Metrolink:

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Or this wishful thinker’s dream scenario, worthy of Schroedinger himself, where cars get all the space yet public transport somehow magically also works:

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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:

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Or this one, who clearly regularly drives a distance that could be easily and efficiently tackled by cycle:

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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:

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Or:

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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:

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  • 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):

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  • Or the this excellent take-down of a call to scrap all bus and cycle lanes:

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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.

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Fed up of congestion in Manchester? Why not buy a car.

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!

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10 Responses

  1. Clive Durdle says:

    Having a chance to see how it is done elsewhere. Washington DC suburb pedestrians and cyclists look extinct. Cannot imagine how anyone lives without a car – saw a drive thru bank. The belief that you cannot live without a car is continually reinforced here, and if you attempt to you are very strange. And these relibeliefs are exported everywhere with the £200 a month deals and the impressive adverts.

  2. Raymond Arnold says:

    Hi nick i cycle every day to Trafford Park its unbelievable all the standing traffic something needs to be done

    • nhb-admin says:

      What do you think needs to be done, Ray? Look at the people you work with, for example. What would it take to get them to make fewer car trips?

  3. Andy says:

    As you’ve described brilliantly this is a cultural problem. Changing a culture is a torturously slow process – nevertheless it’s got to start somewhere.

    To get my friends and colleagues on bikes would need a vast segregated cycle network that prioritised speed and safety of cyclists. I say speed as well as safety because the infrastructure provided has to be usable. A new dual-carriageway has just opened near me. It has a segregated cycleway along side and covers 9 of my 12 mile ride to work. So far so good. Unfortunately, to access the cycleway I have to cross 10 lanes of traffic using a shared pedestrian/cycle crossing. It can add 15 minutes to my journey time so I don’t use it. I will cycle anyway (on the old road) but part of the purpose of new segregated infrastructure should be to encourage new cyclists, which this badly designed example will not do. (I fear it’ll then be used by authorities as justification for low investment – “look, we provided the infrastructure and you don’t even use it!”).

    So I think junction design should start with prioritising pedestrian and cycle traffic, and work out how to fit cars around them, not the other way around.

    I think this kind of infrastructure investment is necessary but not sufficient to get people on bikes. Some road sharing will always be necessary as we will never have enough cycle paths to cover all cycle journeys. To make road sharing safer and less confrontational we need motorists to see the benefits to them cycling. There are journeys not suited to cycling and being able to make those journeys in a sensible timeframe is not unreasonable. When motorists come to genuinely believe cycling is part of the solution to congestion, rather than it’s cause, then perhaps a more tolerant relationship will develop between road users, encouraging more new cyclists on to the road. Here’s hoping.

    • nhb-admin says:

      I have very little to add to that. I know that Brian Deegan who is the chief designer involved in Beelines here in GM sets a lot of store by crossings: his philosophy is that upgrading crossings is relatively uncontroversial, and once you have a bunch of safe crossings again makes sense. We’re still waiting to see the first true Beelines standard designs rolled out here, but as you say, here’s hoping.

  4. Andy says:

    Yeah I’m looking forward to seeing Beelines implemented. Glad to hear crossings will get some attention.

    As a regular cyclist I tend to think changing attitudes to allow safe sharing of the existing road network is the best way to go, but there are two obvious problems with that approach. The first is that my non-cycling friends wouldn’t dream of riding on the road under any circumstances – culture change or not. They say it looks terrifying and I must be mad. I sometimes find it hard to disagree.

    The second is that culture change requires political leadership. Chris Boardman seems to be doing a great job and I’m glad he’s involved – but I mean leadership in national politics. Unfortunately we seem to be living through an era of an astonishing failure of leadership. If the majority ‘want’ a particular outcome it’s simply up to politicians to deliver. Never mind that the ‘want’ comes directly from political discourse. The tragedy/clusterfuck that is brexit is obviously the prime example. If our so called leaders can’t make the case for remaining in Europe I have little faith they’ll make the case for safe road sharing. Still, you never know. Here’s hoping!

    Just discovered your blog. Very much enjoying 👍.

    • nhb-admin says:

      Again, very little to add. Have you seen the Brexit post? I bang on about that as well: https://nickhubble.bike/2018/07/24/on-brexit/

      Are you involved in advoacy yourself, or are you merely a very perceptive and erudite rider?

      • Andy says:

        Totally agree with your brexit post. I’m Mancunian, northern, English, British and European (and world-ish 🤔). None of those identities are diminished by the others. Really, this helps me see all of them as made up stories. They’re no less important for that – but they are social constructs. As Jo Cox put it so well, we have far more in common than things that divide us. To hear Theresa May applauded when she triumphantly declared “the era of free movement is over” in her conference speech was devastating to me. How can we have reached a point where that is seen as a good thing…?

        I’m not involved in advocacy – just enjoying the opportunity to bang on about some stuff that’s important to me!

  5. ClaireS says:

    Andy – ‘’junction design should start with prioritising pedestrian and cycle traffic, and work out how to fit cars around them, not the other way around’’

    Agree but more – ie ALL city centre urban design should prioritise walkers, cyclists – anyone not in a car.
    Car drivers have to come expect the opposite – fine on motorways or ring roads but not in residential areas and shared spaces like city centres.

    What should be done?
    1. Tax fuel much more heavily (we seem to all find it ‘acceptable’ to pay heavy taxes on booze and fags – things people like doing but know are bad for them – to fund ‘better’ things.)
    Carbon emmissions need to be highly taxed for the same reason and to account for their true costs.

    2. Introduce a Congestion charge – it’s a no brainer – and use funds for similar at a local level

    (Ie Money invested in walking cycling infrastructure and public transport.)

    3. Introduce a carbon tax fund for large carbon emitters in the region to pay into which is invested in sustainable transport and living (as Washington state in USA is trying to do).

    4. Nationalise trains and subsidise to make cheaper than planes (which of course plane travel isnt cheaper overall if you take into account environmental impact

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