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Can Boardman deliver gold for Greater Manchester’s streets?

Olympic cycling gold medallist Chris Boardman has swapped the cycle track for the street in his mission to make active travel the first choice for the residents of Greater Manchester. Deniz Huseyin finds out how the conurbation’s cycling and walking commissioner is getting on after two years in the job

Deniz Huseyin
16 August 2019
Stamford Street in Ashton-under-Lyne now (left) and how it should look after pedestrianisation. This is one of 57 Bee Network schemes approved for funding by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority
Stamford Street in Ashton-under-Lyne now (left) and how it should look after pedestrianisation. This is one of 57 Bee Network schemes approved for funding by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority


If Chris Boardman’s vision becomes reality, ten years from now streets across Greater Manchester will feel very different, with cars no longer dominant, and more space for people on foot or on bikes. He acknowledges there will be significant challenges to overcome along the way, not least a funding shortfall. But his default position appears to be doggedly optimistic. This, perhaps, has something to do with his track record: Olympic glory as a racing cyclist and success as an entrepreneur and innovator, most notably as co-founder of Boardman Bikes.  

Boardman has been Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner for two years, and is busy laying the groundwork for a 1,800-mile ‘Bee Network’ of  walking and cycling routes, which will cost an estimated £1.5bn. This features over 400 miles of what Transport for Greater Manchester describes as “Dutch-style segregated cycleways”, with the remainder being non-segregated routes, made up of mainly quiet back streets, canal paths and other off-road routes.

So far, Boardman and TfGM have approved 57 schemes, but there is an all too familiar funding problem. “We’ve created a pipeline, and we’re in the position we wanted to be in... but we haven’t got enough money to cover it.” In addition, it appears that some of Greater Manchester’s ten district councils have yet to fully subscribe to his vision.

The benefits of naivety

Boardman, who reports directly to Greater Manchester’s elected mayor Andy Burnham, says the role allows him a “frightening amount of freedom”.

When the mayor offered him the role he sought advice from Andrew Gilligan, London’s former cycling commissioner. “I asked Andrew what I needed to succeed and he said, ‘You need control of the cash because that gives you leverage and a loud voice’. He also told me this is all about culture change, so the mayor has got to want it as much as you.

“I told Andy [Burnham] that these were my basic conditions and, without hesitation, he said ‘Yes, absolutely’. I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ve painted myself into a corner here!’ But I realised it was a job I had to take.”

Boardman produced the Made to Move report, setting out 15 steps required to transform Greater Manchester into one of the best places in the world to walk and cycle. They included: publishing a detailed walking and cycling infrastructure plan; creating a ring-fenced £1.5bn infrastructure fund; temporary street improvements to trial new schemes for local communities; partnering with schools to make cycling and walking the first choice for the school run; and prioritising investment based on measuring people movement rather than motor traffic.

“I told the political leaders, ‘This is what you’ve got to do. If you don’t want to do it then that’s fine but I’m off.’ They said, ‘No, absolutely, we want to do it’, so I had that mandate. What it boils down to is this: whatever we build has to be used by a competent 12-year-old. They’d want to use it and their parents would let them.”

Boardman admits to a certain naivety when he started. “You don’t know what you can’t do and you don’t know which questions not to ask. Sometimes you point out the bleeding obvious; I spent three months just exploring and I came at it from the end user point of view.”

He quickly realised that experienced cyclists were not the best people to consult on how to build cycle lanes. “This isn’t for cyclists; they are already doing it – you need to speak to people in cars and find out what they need to get out of their cars. It needs to be things that are important to them. They don’t care whether it’s healthy; they want quick, they want easy, they want pleasant. If you can’t offer those things why would they get out of a car?”

He says that in Greater Manchester about 30 per cent of car journeys are less than 1km and over 80 per cent are less than 5km. “That’s 250 million car journeys a year of less than 1km. The potential for change is huge.”

Talking to the districts

Political support for the Bee Network has come from all of Greater Manchester’s districts, although “some have been more courageous than others”, he says. Some council officers have erred on the side of caution, he thinks. “When you are an employed person, and you need to keep your job and pay your mortgage, then you need a lot of support from your boss.” 

Boardman says a crucial part of his job is finding out why people are resistant to change. “For the person in the car, it is about looking out the window and seeing something that is easier than what they are doing now. With officers, you need to give them a solution that deals with their fears and worries.” As for politicians, they need schemes that will win local support and boost their chances of being re-elected. 

Last year the mayor allocated £160m to the Bee Network from Greater Manchester’s share of the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund. “The Transforming Cities money could have been spent on anything – for example, Manchester needs to buy trams – so that was a really big commitment right at the start, which has really helped,” says Boardman.

The 57 schemes approved so far include: a £10.7m cycling and walking corridor in Rochdale; an £11.6m route between Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria stations through the Northern Quarter; a 100-metre cycling and walking bridge linking Stockport railway station with the new bus interchange and Mersey Square; a £14.6m cycle route between Leigh, Atherton and Tyldseley; and a £8.4m scheme to improve walking and cycling routes in Ashton-under-Lyne. 

TfGM says the schemes approved so far would bring the total value of proposed cycling and walking projects to around £339m. Taking into account the £160m Transforming Cities money and the £120m from local contributions, another £74m needs to be found to cover the cost of all the schemes. 

Active travel funding won’t be shared equally across the districts, he says. “We said right from the outset that we are not divvying up the money equally [across the conurbation]. We have got a ring-fenced pot of money to get going, and we want the districts to match-fund. It is about seeing who has the ambition to deliver quality infrastructure to that standard required for 12-year-olds. Some districts have steamed ahead while some have said, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that’.”

TfGM are taking submissions for schemes from districts each quarter. “The districts are in charge of what they do and what they don’t do, but we won’t let them build crap.”

Some districts, such as Bolton, are likely to take longer to develop less car-centric streets, says Boardman. “It is taking them time to get up to speed and they are facing bigger challenges.” Others, such as Salford City Council, are making swift progress. Salford has a network of traffic-free cycle routes and Quietways, many of which were built thanks to Cycle City Ambition funding from the Government. “Salford City Council were already on this mission before we arrived, so they just hit the ground running. They had trained officers that were ready to go.” 

Boardman insists that the £1.5bn required for the Bee Network would be money well spent, resulting in significant economic, public health and environmental benefits. So, where will the funding come from? Boardman begins his answer by pointing out that, at the outset of planning a road scheme, its funding is not normally “in the bank”. 

“What is important is that you have a big plan; we have turned a bike lane here and a crossing there into a region-wide network, which is deliverable and would be phased every year for ten years.”

A compelling case for funding support will be presented to central government, he says. “It is like going to a bank for a loan where you can see what the returns are going to be.” He thinks it will be hard for the Government to refuse further funding “when we are facing a climate crisis, a health crisis, etc”. Part of the funding will come from local sources.

We just want to make nicer places to live, that is the goal, and it just so happens that the bicycle is a fantastic tool.

Bee routes: shaped by locals

The quality of the Bee Network will be consistently high, says Boardman, unlike those Quietways in London that run across junctions with no protection for people on bikes. “As soon as you do that you damage your brand. You think, ‘I’m not going to let my 12-year-old use it because it might be okay or it might stop’.”

The process of developing the network involved early engagement with local people. “We went around each district, gave people pens and a blank piece of paper, and asked them to tell us where they couldn’t go and where they wanted to go.

“We didn’t want to go to consultants, and spend half a million quid and two years, and then come back and try and sell it.”

Leaders from all the districts agreed to this approach, which culminated in all the information, comprising about 4,000 comments, being compiled and assessed. 

This feedback resulted in the Bee Network growing from the original 1,000 miles to 1,800 miles. Andy Burnham stated last month that he wants the network to be installed at a rate of 10 per cent each year over the next decade. 

Boardman describes the Bee Network as his proudest achievement as commissioner so far. “People did this for themselves across a whole city region. They designed their own network, in six months, probably for the equivalent of £60,000. No one had done it like that before, and done it so quickly and cheaply. We were prepared to fail, but we got away with it. The process was wholly owned by the districts – it has given us one hell of a headstart.

“And the point is this has got nothing to do with bicycles directly. It was about giving people the option of not having to drive, and when you put it like that people think, ‘yeah, I quite fancy that’. We just want to make nicer places to live, that is the goal, and it just so happens that the bicycle is a fantastic tool to get much of that job done.”

Learning from London

Boardman has observed with interest street improvement projects in the capital, especially the ‘Mini-Holland’ boroughs of Waltham Forest, Enfield and Kingston. “The work done in London has been pioneering and they have put in the hard yards.” He refers to the work carried out by former TfL employee Brian Deegan, who is now a design engineer at consultant Urban Movement and Greater Manchester’s lead engineer on walking and cycling projects. “Brian learned a lot working with Waltham Forest and Enfield, and we are using that. So, what happened in London, particularly in Waltham Forest, has been absolutely invaluable for us.”

He sees a case for focusing more on small-scale projects rather than placing too much emphasis on large flagship schemes. An example of the small scheme approach is  ‘modal filters’ in which a through road is closed to motorised traffic but not to cyclists, with Boardman citing their installation in Waltham Forest. “The filtered street stuff in Waltham Forest can be done relatively cheaply and more quickly than the superhighway schemes. But they can still have a big impact. And once they are in you can then bolt on the sections of superhighway you have to fight for.”

Overcoming barriers

The way improvements are marketed will be key to their success, Boardman believes. “Look at how a car is portrayed to show freedom; you never see a car in a traffic jam, the motor industry has lobbied very effectively. But we bang on about evidence and then circle back around to the original point. You have to talk to people about things they care about; we make decisions on what is easy, saves us money, saves time and is pleasant. That is what we need to be talking about.”

There is good reason to believe that behaviour change is possible as long as people can see the benefits of the alternatives, he says. “You could take anybody from Greater Manchester and stand them on a street in Copenhagen and say, ‘Okay, 30 per cent of people are cruising along on a bike, and 50 per cent of kids ride a bike every single day’. And if you asked, ‘Which do you prefer, our streets or this?’ they would all say, ‘I like this’. No one has got a problem with the destination – it’s how you get there.”  

Making the case for side road zebras

Installing zebra crossings on side streets in Greater Manchester would be a cheap and easy way of improving safety for pedestrians, believes Chris Boardman. But the DfT has stated that under UK law zebra crossings must be wired to the electric mains and have Belisha beacons and zigzag markings. 

“The rest of the world does this with just some stripes for crossing on the desire line for pedestrians,” says Boardman. “We know what crossings mean in this country – there are thousands of them across the UK on private land and, in a lot of cases, on public land. There are zebra crossings in supermarket car parks and, by and large, when a pedestrian approaches one the driver stops.” 

Zebra crossings with Belisha beacons and zigzags cost £30,000 to install while it costs just £300 to paint a zebra crossing on a side road, he says. 

“This means we could do an entire estate for a few thousand pounds in a week. We are considering 20,000 sites for the side road zebras, with 2,500 that we are very interested in.” 

The DfT said it would consider a change to regulations for zebra crossings only after robust research and off-road trials. This has prompted TfGM to commission the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out a seven-month study of unauthorised zebra crossings across the UK. The DfT are represented on TRL’s research board. 

“TRL will run off-road trials, and if that shows that people know what crossings mean and it shows that it makes crossing roads safer we will then install some, which we will monitor,” says Boardman. 

He stresses that the zebras would be installed only on side roads where traffic is fairly light and not at busier crossroads. Installing them “will strengthen the rights that pedestrians already have,” he says. “It could well be the difference between a parent saying, ‘No, I will take you to school in the car’ and ‘Well, go on then, but make sure you wait until the car stops’.” 

“When you’ve got 250 million journeys a year of less than a kilometre in a car and 20 per cent of those are school runs, then you can see how much difference we could make very quickly.” 

If the DfT gives its consent for zebra crossings on side roads, “it will save everybody a hell of lot,” he says. “All the other cycling and walking commissioners in this country are waiting to see what will happen.” 

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