On the current state of active travel in Bury: a Walking & Cycling Forum and a vanishing popup cycle lane

It’s fair to say that Bury Council hasn’t traditionally been a leader when it comes to providing quality infrastructure for active travel – especially not cycling. Remember for example the manifold frustrations of trying to convince them to cycle-proof Prestwich High Street back in 2015? Or the almost exclusive focus on leisure cycling compared to active travel for transport outlined in the account of the first Bee Network planning session? So: three years into the Bee Network project, what, if anything, has changed? To  my mind, three topics are worth a closer look as at November 2020:

  • Bury’s newly inaugurated Walking & Cycling Forum,
  • The mystery of the vanishing popup cycle lane between Prestwich & the Bury/Salford border,
  • Other developments & outlook.

The Bury Walking & Cycling Forum

One of the founding principles of Walk Ride Greater Manchester was to ensure that each of Greater Manchester’s ten boroughs had a functioning active travel forum. Bury’s former cycling forum had been in abeyance for a number of years so, after lobbying by local campaign group Walk Ride Prestwich & Whitefield (WRPW), Bury Council agreed to look into setting up a new incarnation also incorporating walking. The timescale from the initial discussions between the Council & WRPW in March 2019 to the first meeting of the Walking & Cycling Forum in October 2020 (naturally exacerbated by Council capacity being severely stretched by the pandemic for most of 2020) is a good indicator of just how drawn out these processes can be. But we got there in the end!

A key feature of Bury’s Walking & Cycling Forum is that, unlike those operating in boroughs such as Salford, Manchester, Bolton etc., which are mainly driven by transport/traffic planners & associated infrastructure enthusiasts, this one is organised by the Physical Health/Wellbeing team and takes as its guiding principle the goal of enabling 75% of Bury folk to be active or fairly active by 2025 announced as part of the Bury Moving strategy. This is actually a genius idea: by shifting the focus away from the more typical, established “keen cyclist”, the Forum is by its very nature more accessible & appealing to people from outside that rather narrow demographic. Indeed, the Forum’s co-chairs Councillor Charlotte Morris and Councillor Clare Walsh – two women who have both only recently started cycling – are arguably the embodiment of the Forum’s target group – people who would like to travel more actively but to date haven’t felt able to. At the same time, the focus on physical activity should not sideline the urgent need for safe infrastructure: we need to be able to be active in all areas of life and no longer banished to the parks, woods and trails.

Bury Council’s rather charming title image for the new Cycling & Walking Forum.

The Forum itself was a hugely enjoyable event. Held online as almost everything is these days, it was chaired by ebullient Principal Wellness Development Officer Lee Buggie and facilitated by the ever-slick Claire Haigh from Collaborate Out Loud. Speakers included:

  • Jon Hobday (Consultant in Public Health, Bury Council), who outlined the current state of physical activity in Bury where around a quarter of the population are inactive, and explained that the Borough’s strategy would focus on walking & cycling as the most accessible forms of physical activity;
  • Louise Robbins (GM Moving Walking Programme Lead), whose role involves identifying barriers to walking, advocating for walking especially as a central factor in bringing communities together & who also talked about the GM Walking Festival;
  • Chris Horth (Environment Team Unit Manager, Bury Council), who spoke about clean air measures in the Borough, discussed how the Climate Emergency declared in July 2019 is now “high-level strategy” (i.e. informs all policy areas) and also discussed how the idea of integrating into Bury’s draft housing strategy the notion of a 15-minute neighbourhood – a concept that ensures that most, if not all, vital amenities are within a short walk or cycle ride for residents, which is essential if we are to reduce the volume of short car journeys, and
  • Steve Brace (Bee Network Consultant to Bury Council), who outlined Bury’s sadly scant progress on walking – but mainly cycling – over recent years and its handful current Bee Network bids.

And with a couple of breakout sessions to get to know each other and discuss the barriers to increasing levels of participation active travel (the need for safe infrastructure of course ranking highest), the Forum indicated a vigour, energy and enthusiasm around active travel that, with commensurate political will and funding, could help herald the step-change in how the good folk of Bury go about their everyday journeys. On which, more below. In the meantime, for Forum outcomes, next steps and useful links and addresses, click here to view the follow-up document published by the Council.

What happened to the popup Prestwich Cycleway?

Back in May 2020, at the height of lockdown, the UK government announced a swathe of emergency funding to enable temporary active travel infrastructure to be installed, to enable – principally – key workers who don’t own a car and would otherwise be reliant on public transport, which was running at severe undercapacity, to cycle safely to work, or to create large, safer pedestrian spaces so that people can go about their business on foot while observing social distancing. I blogged about it here at the time. Bury Council hastily submitted a bid for a popup, wand-protected cycle lane between St. Mary’s Park in Prestwich (sadly, it couldn’t have extended into Prestwich Village for reasons described in the first paragraph) and the Salford border. The idea was ultimately for Salford Council to extend the lane through their borough so people could cycle from Prestwich all the way into Manchester protected from motor traffic. Now this was was an exciting prospect: this was due to be the first on-road protected cycle track in the whole of Bury, a first iteration at cycle-proofing the A56, Bury’s supposed “big-ticket” Busy Beeway and a commitment to the government’s commandment to radically reallocate roadspace to active travel. The Bury Times even wrote an overwhelmingly positive piece on the proposed temporary lane. It looked like things really were changing.

At WRPW we did everything we could to make this a reality. Working with Commonplace, Walk Ride Greater Manchester and Bury Council, an emergency consultation was run where residents could post suggestions for interventions they wanted to see. WRPW even sent a member out with Bury Council highways engineers on a site visit to draft up an initial design for the Prestwich Cycleway, as I really wanted it to be called.

Freshly painted line supposedly in readiness to create a wand-protected cycle lane, September 2020.

However, weeks, months idly passed. In September a few lines were painted on the first stretch of the proposed Cycleway, pavements were prepared for a couple of new crossings. But no sign of the wands. By October, heart-wrenchingly, some of the lines were being removed again.

So what went wrong? Well, I’ll summarise what we know here. I’ve put in a freedom of information request for the documents relating to this project and will do a fuller post on the topic in due course. The following is a synopsis of the reasons we were told by Councillor Lucy Smith, Bury Council’s Portfolio Holder for Transport & Infrastucture, at a meeting between her, her deputy Councillor Richard Gold and WRPW at the end of October 2020.

  • Although the project was signed off in May 2020, it was subject to a number of delays.
  • Chiefly, there was a national shortage of basic infrastructure elements such as armadillos, wands etc. as many local authorities across the country were rushing to install temporary infrastructure at the same time.
  • There were also issues with lines of communication between Bury Council, TfGM and third-party contractors, which compounded delays.
  • The original plans for the Bury side of the scheme were revised numerous times, principally to satisfy bus operators that bus stops remained accessible, & as such no longer resembled the original plan.
  • Salford Council allocated its emergency active travel funding elsewhere, meaning that this lane would have stopped at the Salford border and would not have extended all the way to Manchester as originally planned (although linking Prestwich Village with Sedgley Park would in itself have huge utility) .
  • Complaints about the lack of consultation had been received, spurred to an extent by clumsy opposition to the scheme by local Lib Dem councillors.
  • In mid-October, Grant Shapps sent a letter sent to local authorities urging councils to “balance the needs of cyclists and pedestrians with the needs of other road users, including motorists and local businesses” which, to those of us who’ve been round this stuff for a while, is essentially code for preserving the status quo/not upsetting people driving cars, and disappointingly contradicts the government’s own bold advice from earlier in the summer.
  • By this point the Council had serious concerns about the wisdom & cost-effectiveness of implementing a temporary scheme that was going in so late and risked being removed before being of any real utility. So the decision was taken to allocate the funds to a less potentially problematic scheme elsewhere in the Borough (for the record: not in Prestwich). Lucy’s focus is on permanent, lasting schemes (of course, temporary schemes can be a stepping-stone to those, but not if the government is creating uncertainty about its actual level of support).

And that is why the Prestwich Cycleway now won’t be built. As discussed, I will write a fuller account when in receipt of the FOI documents, but that’s the official line for starters.

This far and no further: the end of the line for the Prestwich Cycleway.

What else is going on in Bury on the active-travel front?

Well. Compared to where we have been historically, Bury is in a much stronger position thanks to the appointment of Lucy Smith. She seems to instinctively “get” active travel, she knows what the issues are, knows where the obstacles lie, is honest about Bury’s poor track record in the past and really seems to be finally fighting our corner on this agenda. We were told she is drafting a transport plan for the Borough to ensure that new developments have active travel integrated from the outset, is fighting to bring appropriate funding into the Borough so we can make up ground lost by not bidding as actively as we might in previous Bee Network rounds and wants to use the Forum to develop the all-important pipeline of schemes that can be quickly made into bids as funding is made available.  So the mindset, the attitude, the approach all seems to be right. But, as I pointed out: the proof of the pudding is in real infrastructure changes on the ground, and three years in, Bury basically has nothing to show for its part in the Bee Network vision.

Conclusion

So in sum, things are edging forward ever so slowly. We have opened up a dialogue with Bury Council about active travel, they are reaching out to the community via the Forum and infusing active travel into broader physical health, environmental, planning & transport policy. We have an ardent advocate in the form of Lucy Smith. At the same time, having missed out on swathes of funding and an acknowledged capacity bottleneck within the Council, progress will remain slow for a while yet. That said, we’re further on than we were a year ago and groups like WRPW have influenced that not insignificantly. Not so much a marathon as cycling into a fierce headwind. Although the loss of the Prestwich Cycleway is disappointing in the extreme, we do seem to be moving in the right direction – but of course the acid test is seeing actual schemes going in on the ground, and that needs to start happening with some urgency.

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