Even the most diehard petrolhead would admit to the fact that driving in Manchester during rush hour is not a pleasant experience. Like many other large cities, it is struggling to cope with the sheer number of motor vehicles fighting for limited space on the road.
This isn’t a problem that will be solved by current advances in automotive technology. The utopian dream of electric, self-driving cars just won’t work if there isn’t enough space for the vehicles to actually move.
The sad fact is, given the choice; too many people will choose to sit in a slow-moving vehicle to travel a relatively short distance rather than take an alternative method of transport. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that more than 250 million car journeys of less than 1km (0.6 miles) are taken in Greater Manchester every year.
Factor in the time it takes to travel such a short distance in an overly congested city before finding a parking space at either end of the journey and you have to wonder why more people don’t walk (15 minutes) or cycle (5 minutes) more? It should also come as no surprise that Manchester has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the UK.
Manchester’s current addiction to the petrol engine is costing the city dearly in terms of pollution, health and lost productivity. A recent study suggested that pollution costs Greater Manchester more than £1 billion every year and lowers life expectancy by upwards of six months. Something has to give, attitudes need to change and lifestyles need to be adapted.
But change doesn’t come easily, particularly when the current road system is not suited to the less confident cyclist. As a cyclist myself, I wouldn’t be comfortable riding on many of Greater Manchester’s roads and I certainly wouldn’t be happy with my 13-year-old daughter fighting her way through such heavy traffic.
A New Route Forward
Thankfully, change is on the horizon. The announcement of a £500 million investment into Greater Manchester’s cycling and pedestrian infrastructure promises to transform the city from a gridlocked nightmare into a fast-moving, modern, safe city with people (rather than vehicles) at its heart.
The Beelines scheme (named after the city’s civic symbol — the worker bee) will see around 75 miles of “Dutch-style” segregated cycle paths built across Greater Manchester, creating the largest joined-up network in the UK.
A number of busy roads in and around the city will be reduced in width and priority given to cyclists and pedestrians. The project will also see the introduction of 1,400 safe crossings and 25 “filtered neighbourhoods”, where the priority is given to the movement of people as well as creating places to sit, play and socialise.
Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist, Chris Boardman, who is supporting the scheme is completely unapologetic that cyclists and pedestrians will be prioritised over motorists.
Speaking to The Guardian, Boardman said: “If you want to make people change their habits you’ve got to give them a viable alternative and in some cases that’s reprioritising streets and that’s what we are doing.”
Boardman believes the Beelines project will give people the confidence to choose cycling as a safe, reliable form of transport around the city, suitable for even a competent 12-year-old.
Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s mayor, added to Boardman’s statement by telling journalists: “Greater Manchester has a long history of doing innovative things and our approach to Beelines is no different. This proposal is bold and I make no apology for that. If we are to cut congestion and clean up our air, decisive action is needed. I want to make Greater Manchester one of the top 10 places in the world to live and it is action of this sort which will help to deliver that promise.”
Not Everyone Is Happy
Not everyone is happy with the Beelines project. The Daily Mail newspaper reported on the project with the headline: “Fears of traffic chaos as £500m plans to build Britain’s biggest urban cycling network requires miles of A-roads to be dug up”.
The famously anti-cycling newspaper chose to feature comments from a spokesperson from the Road Haulage Association before looking at any benefits.
James Wilson told The Daily Mail: “The people in charge get into office and seem to be able to take decisions with impunity. But they don’t consult the main users of the roads such as the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. Anything that frustrates our journeys increases our costs, which have to be passed on to the customers.
There was no comment from the Road Haulage Association about how their members would benefit from less congested roads.