COMMENT | Manchester’s recovery is about ‘putting people first’


Friday will see the deadline for cities across the UK to submit their bids to the £250m Emergency Active Travel Fund, supporting ‘bold’ and ‘speedy’ action to create pop-up infrastructure for cycling and walking, writes Steve Connor, chief executive of Creative Concern

Greater Manchester will be one of those submitting a bid, with around £16m possibly earmarked for the city region.

The Emergency Active Travel Fund will support measures to create segregated routes into our towns and cities, in particular making it possible for thousands of city centre workers to get back into offices when lockdown is loosened.

The routes for Greater Manchester under discussion include some the major arteries into the city centre such as the A6, A56 and A5103. The pop-up measures, including barriers, planters and ‘wands’, could lead to longer-term infrastructure making more space for bikes and people choosing to walk.

Rescuing space for cycling into our city safely is an economically smart move. Public transport is currently being discouraged by Government and will be running at radically reduced capacity. More than a third of households don’t even own a car and the road space we do have has no capacity whatsoever for an uplift in personal car use.

People-powered travel is the best and probably only option to get the city back to work en masse and across Greater Manchester the shift is already underway. Last week alone saw a 42% increase in cycling as all other modes continued to show relatively little change. It’s heartening growth, but after all cycling should be a pretty easy sell for Manchester, with a relatively flat landscape and over three-quarters of all journeys taken being less than five miles.

When the city starts to come back online, ideally through people choosing to leave their car, if they have one, at home, then a recently assembled collective of experts, businesses, local residents and activists has put forward a vision of a new kind of city centre, almost entirely free from private cars.

In our draft vision we’ve called this the ’20 minute city’ because inside the inner ring road encircling Manchester city centre and skirting city centre Salford, everything you could want is about 20 minutes’ walk away, or even less depending upon your level of mobility. If you alight at Victoria, Piccadilly or Oxford Road, you are likely to be a short walk from where you need to be. If you have to drive to a parking area somewhere on the edge of the city centre, again, you’re just minutes away from live, work or play. And if you’ve taken the even smarter choice and chosen to cycle, it’s the 10-minute, not the 20-minute city.

This alternative vision of a car-free city centre is where businesses thrive because it’s people that spend money, not cars. Imagine the ‘City as a Park’ where the space we’ve liberated from cars can become playful and forever green. Currently, at least 8% of our surface area in the city centre is for parking cars; this needs to change and is a wasted resource. The spaces and places we enjoy across the city centre can become more animated, leaner, greener and cleaner – with people put first in urban design.

As you start to feel the seasons change, we believe the experience of the city centre will be transformed. Spaces will be shared, and enjoyed. In fact we already know what this looks like – anyone been to St Peter’s Square recently? Cars don’t make a space vibrant and beautiful, all too often they are its undoing.

This vision is of a more inclusive city centre, not least because the vast majority of people who already travel into the city centre don’t do so by car, and yet the noise, pollution and danger of cars is pervasive and felt by all. With lockdown in place, air quality has seen a dramatic and swift improvement, more than 70% improved in Manchester city centre. Grasping the opportunity to keep the air clean and the noise levels down has to be of paramount importance as we work to ‘build back better’ and drive an economic recovery.

More green and permeable spaces will also make us more resilient to the climate emergency; trees, parks and green spaces instead of car parks and traffic queues will pay dividends even in the near future; and, of course, we will sound, feel and look like a premier global city, joining the ranks of a huge number of cities that are deciding urban centres are for people, not cars.

We all know that a perfect world can be the enemy of a good one, but the details will matter in securing a car-free city. Car-free does not include essential access for the disabled, or indeed for the emergency services. If you need to make bulky deliveries, pick up an elderly relative from hospital or carry equipment of some kind, we’ll need a permitting system for occasional trips.

The car needs, at most, to be an occasional guest in our city centre – certainly not the guest of honour.

A fund of £16m to help more pop-up cycleways will help us on our way to making walking, cycling and then public transport the only ways in which you’d choose to come into the city. Post-Covid change is inevitable and already across the world cities are making this shift in the way people move around their dense urban centres. If we want to be a magnet for talent and famed for our progressive approach and great quality of life, this cleaner and greener transition has to start now.

Steve Connor is chief executive of Creative Concern, a communications agency.

The collective that is building the car-free vision detailed above includes Urbed, Civic Engineers, Planit-IE, Sustrans, Living Streets, WalkRide GM, Love Your Bike, GM Cycling Campaign, as well as academics, local residents and concerned businesses.

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