On the evening of Tuesday 4 December 2018, around 300 people gathered at the Friends’ Meeting House in central Manchester to attend the inaugural meeting of what was billed “a new Greater Manchester-wide, non-political advocacy group promoting walking and cycling as solutions to the big crises of our era —inactivity, air pollution, climate change and congestion.”
The background to the event was quite simple: walking and cycling in Greater Manchester are being increasingly foregrounded as mainstream modes of transport. However, while there are a number of campaigning groups currently agitating on various aspects of cycling and/or walking in our region (e.g. Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign/Love Your Bike/British Cycling et al. on the cycling side, Ramblers/Living Streets etc. on the walking side, Sustrans with irons in both fires), is that enough? Or is there a need for a new group specifically campaigning on a combined agenda for walking and cycling (and other human-powered modes such as scooting, skating etc.) in the Beelines mould?
This was the question Guardian journalist Helen Pidd (acting here in a personal capacity) asked herself having organised a successful protest against police inaction in the face of a spate of robberies and bikejackings on the Fallowfield Loop in October.
So Helen canvassed the views of various folk who were more or less known quantities on the (Greater) Manchester (mainly cycle) campaigning scene: cycling lawyer and Team Glow grandee Nadia Kerr; ex-BBC staffer and organiser extraordinaire Claire Stocks; surgeon, bike-rider and the man behind this summer’s Made2Move4Macmillan event Dom Slade; veteran environmental & Love Your Bike campaigner Pete Abel; sustainability and social activist and graphics guru Steve Connor; and me, sometime gobshite on a bike.
After initial discussions we decided that, while we thought there was scope for such a movement, it’s always best to ask people just to make sure. Thus, we resolved to hold a public meeting to see if the good folk of Greater Manchester agreed with us that this would be a good idea.
Fast forward three weeks or so and it’s the day of the meeting. We’ve shifted a few hundred tickets, lined up what we considered an engaging programme and have even secured the attendance of Chris Boardman himself. People started arriving a good hour before the official start time of 6:30 and there was a palpable buzz in the room.
The event itself kicked off with Nadia setting the scene, saying that her day job of cycling accident solicitor frankly shouldn’t exist. We have come together, she said, because we share the vision of a better Greater Manchester and feel the time is ripe for change: we have money to spend on walking and cycling projects; we have Mayor Andy Burnham’s appetite to be in the “top flight of world class cities by 2025”; we have targets for carbon cuts in that Manchester wants to become carbon-neutral by 2038; we have clout in Chris Boardman as the city-region’s first Cycling and Walking Commissioner, and expertise in the experienced team he has assembled around him; and we have many, many people who care about this agenda.
As such, Nadia continued, we feel the need to create a movement that doesn’t duplicate the work of other groups, but rather amplifies their voice, and would like to build a coalition of forces to highlight all feasible options for the movement of people around Greater Manchester.
Hence convening the meeting: we think there is a need for something new and bold, but want to get feedback and hear views before we go any further. And we need a good name, which we would like the meeting to vote on.
Nadia then handed over to Helen. In today’s day and age (Brexit, Trump, who will win Strictly etc.), Helen said, it is easy to feel helpless, especially when it comes to advocating walking and cycling in an apparently car-obsessed region. At the same time, Manchester’s traffic-related problems are rarely out of the news – be that the school that can’t open its windows due to high pollution levels, or Man United almost missing a match because the team bus was stuck in a jam – causing manager Jose Mourhino to actually walk to the game.
Helen continued that many people appear to want the same: for children to be able to play out, or for more people to be able to leave their cars at home, or fewer pollution-related deaths in our region, or no more cyclists ending up under the wheels of juggernauts, as recently happened to a woman in central Manchester.
She spoke about the Fallowfield Loop protest she had organised and announced that funding to address safety concerns on the Loop was nearing approval – so we’re already making a difference by getting organised. And Helen finished by saying she wants a situation where we don’t go to Copenhagen or Berlin and come home depressed about how good their infrastructure is, but instead her vision is for the Danes and the Dutch to come to Greater Manchester and think: this is our kind of place.
Then it was my turn. My remit was to demonstrate that what we’re campaigning for is by no means a pipe dream, but is entirely realistic. I started by showing pictures of good and bad local walking and cycling infrastructure I’d crowdsourced on Twitter using the hashtags #BobbinsInfraGM and InfraAmbitionGM. Of the two categories, the bobbins group yielded the most hits, and I displayed a few categories of poorly thought-out and/or implemented cycling and walking provision: obstructions, barriers, ineffectual painted bike lanes.
I then shifted into a more positive gear, pointing out examples of good provision we already have (without talking about Manchester’s Oxford Road, believe it or not) and that we’re perfectly capable of building decent walking and cycling environments when we put our minds to it. I also had a slide about some information I’d received from a group called Standish Voice, who were doing interesting stuff up in Wigan Borough. Moving on, I highlighted some fairly standard yet highly beneficial design features you commonly see elsewhere: huge Dutch cycle park, nice protected bike lanes in the Netherlands, Denmark and London.
The next slide showed places from around the world that are turning their backs on car-centricity in favour of walking and cycling: Tokyo, New York, Oulu (Finland), Berlin, and Bogota (Columbia). After highlighting how important the Chorlton Cycleway consultation is to secure an early success for the Beelines vision, I closed with a few ideas of truly ambitious projects we could start thinking about as we become more comfortable with being a touchstone for quality cycling and walking schemes, including a mooted Mancunian Way for bikes based on the Copenhagen bike snake.
Next up was Claire, who set out our policy goals:
Traffic-free Deansgate (which was received by a spontaneous round of applause);
Manchester should be a city centre that prioritises people over vehicles. Deansgate should therefore be a showpiece boulevard that symbolises the kind of place we aspire to be. Not only that, it would help link up various traffic-free pockets we have dotted around the city centre. Places like Madrid and Oslo are making their centres traffic-free – and we should too.
Crackdown on pavement parking
You can’t have a people-first place if you allow pavements to be blocked by antisocially parked cars. It’s banned in Scotland and in London, so we want a crackdown, to be able to empower communities to make it socially unacceptable and to impose bans around schools and other hot spots.
Trial of bikes on trams
This is a no brainer. Let people cycle to a tram stop, take their bike on, cycle to their destination at the other end. It’s allowed in Minneapolis, it’s allowed in Edinburgh. So let’s trial it here: one line, off-peak times, non-home match days. If the world doesn’t end, let’s reconsider the current ban.
Civilise the school run
Across the country, the number of kids walking, scooting or cycling to school is declining, while one in four cars during the morning rush hour is dropping kids off at school. The reason so many kids are driven is because parents consider the streets unsafe… So we want to work with organisations that have already launched initiatives in this area (e.g. Living Streets, Sustrans) to help break this cycle.
Then it was time for Helen Pidd’s interview with Greater Manchester’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, Chris Boardman (the following is typed up from my notes so not verbatim).
HP: What does the role of Walking and Cycling Commissioner entail?
CB: It’s an extension of the mayor’s role. CB had been campaigning for better cycling infrastructure for several years when Andy Burnham offered him the position. Before accepting he spoke to Andrew Gilligan, who had held the equivalent post in London, who told him he would need control of budgets and to answer directly to the mayor. Burnham agreed with these demands and Boardman took the job.
He sees it as a political role with the aim of changing how people travel and has built a team to help him achieve his goals.
HP: What is the role of a movement such as we are proposing?
CB: Primarily: to hold him to account, to put the spotlight on important issues and to make contact with people who don’t ride bikes. It’s important not to talk about cycling per se, but travel. When the Beelines schemes go out to consultation, we need to be there making the right arguments as many people will be concerned about the implications of such changes.
HP: Which councils are currently on board, and which need to pull their socks up?
CB: Salford are very good, and Manchester have recently put the Chorlton scheme out for consultation. Rochdale have also been really ambitious. As for the other districts, it’s for them to hold each other to account. Boardman’s impression is that while the council leaders are wholeheartedly behind the Beelines vision, there’s a nervousness in the middle, at councillor and officer level, that we need to address.
HP: What can people do to help?
CB: They can respond to consultations, badger their MP and councillors.
HP: Would CB be open to attending several of these meetings per year?
CB: Yes, he wants to be held to account.
Chris Boardman then took several questions from the floor.
1) Why did he say he’s reluctant to mention cycling when he’s talking about Beelines to people?
CB: Because it tribalises people. He tries to use language that appeals to people.
2) This question was of a technical nature and was addressed to Brian Deegan, Boardman’s design advisor. To be honest, I understood neither the question nor the answer. Sorry!
3) Does Chris Boardman consider education for errant cyclists who “give us a bad name” to be necessary?
CB: No, there are enough people with that on their agenda, and plus he doesn’t believe in collective responsibility. There are other things that would make a difference, and this is way down his list.
4) The next question came from a representative of the National Federation of the Blind who asked for assurances that the design processes would include engagement with disabled people.
CB: He said he is aware of the concerns, engagement is important and he will make sure that this feeds into the designs.
5) How does the Beelines stuff fit in with car-centric out-of-town planning and e.g. the 2040 GM spatial framework?
CB: He liaises with the relevant teams. Although he doesn’t have a direct vote, he does have a strong voice.
6) How do we best have a dialogue with drivers who often see this as a competition for their space?
CB: Try not to tribalise, even though you can’t keep everyone happy and there will be friction. Yet, he has a sturdy soapbox, and we are starting to create good reference schemes. Temporary measures are a useful tool as well, as is measuring: pollution, happiness.
7) How do we get planners to start thinking differently?
CB: They have to be aware of a demand, and that’s why this group is important.
And thus the interview ended.
After a couple of questions for the panel from the floor, the audience was given around 10 minutes to form groups with the 4-5 people nearest to them to discuss:
- Would you support this campaign & its draft goals?
- What do you want to see to improve walking & cycling in GM?
- Have we missed anything?
We then took feedback from the floor, covering issues such as the fact that the stated goals were too Manchester-centric; that all public transport needs to be more joined-up, not just trams; that we need to change the image of cycling so that it’s not considered an act of bravery; that people need to be enabled to engage with the Beelines process in their communities; and that disabled people are also impeded by poor parking, which is often compounded by the school run.
After this was the all-important vote on the name. As it happened, there was no consensus in the room for either of the names we had proposed:
- Everyday Journeys or
- Walk Ride GM
So we decided to defer the name selection to an online vote, to be arranged after the meeting. (This is now concluded, and the name Walk Ride GM prevailed after all!)
We then adourned to the pub, and that was the end of the first meeting.
In summary, it was quite an event. The appetite for people to be involved in this project was humbling. To put it it clear terms: around 300 people came out on a Tuesday night in December to talk about local transport policy. This stuff matters to people, there is a demand for these changes to happen, and people want to be part of that. Now we’ve established that, we need to start tackling the goals we’ve set ourselves. So let’s do this!
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