Chris Rushton Lead

COMMENT | The case for active travel: going back to the future

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Hand on heart, do we have the faintest idea of what the world of travel and commuting will look like in five or 10 years’ time, asks Chris Rushton of Hydrock’s transport team.

One of the pledges made by the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham is to create a “London-style transport system” for the city region, reintroducing bus franchising for the first time since 1986. That got my brain ticking. To make lasting progress, maybe we should be winding back the clock 50 years and identifying ways to recreate some common behaviours and values of that time, such as pride for our local towns and desire to use public transport as a means to getting around.

Let me explain…

I’ll hold my hands up: I lived blissfully in the city centre bubble of Manchester for years, with the world on my doorstep and little need for a DeLorean. Even having relocated to Urmston, the city centre remains only seven miles away, which means an easy cycle, train or tram ride home.

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But I grew up in Oswaldtwistle on the outskirts of Blackburn. Despite being only 25 miles away, my family visited Manchester seldomly.

Blackburn is also often remembered for its 4,000 [pot]holes, thanks to The Beatles. Perhaps the allusion made by John Lennon et al was that the market town wasn’t fit for modernity. More likely, faced by changing behaviours and demographics, the local authority simply couldn’t afford or justify resisting density.

As people became richer and cars cheaper, the nature of travel shifted drastically. In 1952, only 30% of distances travelled in Britain were by car, van or taxi; by 1970, that had risen to 75% and has since peaked to a constant 85% today.

The bustling metropolis became the place where local people aspired to live, work and spend their hard-earned money. In a familiar asymmetry, this provided the incentive for increased inward investment which might have gone elsewhere. Town centres were essentially archived.

But the climate crisis and the pandemic have shifted sentiment ‒ folk have fallen in love with their local town centres again. Reflecting this groove, the Government is giving 72 declining high streets around the country a share of £830m of funding to help reshape them for future communities.

For local authorities up and down the country, public transport is key to so many of the agendas that matter, and decarbonisation is at the very top. Getting more people to adopt public transport and ‘active travel’ will reduce our carbon emissions, improve air quality and create more sustainable communities.

Although we hear so much about electric vehicles being the answer to decarbonising our urban communities, there’s still no genuinely realistic route to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 that involves simply electrifying our current mix of journeys.

Several North West schemes are taking this very seriously and adapting their offer.

One example is in Merseyside, where St Helens Council is transforming infrastructure around one of its main railway stations. Having been awarded funding from Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, the council plans a network of connected cycle routes and pedestrian footpaths to encourage local residents to embrace a healthier lifestyle and to better connect people to the town.

We have advised on concept designs drawn up for a network of almost seven miles of cycleways and the Liverpool City Region’s first Cycle Optimised Protected Signals – or Cyclops – junction at Lea Green, which gives priority to cyclists and pedestrians and is loosely based on the Dutch-style roundabouts seen across parts of Europe.

In Manchester, the proposed Ancoats Mobility Hub plans to combine shared electric cars and e-bikes with a last mile delivery consolidation centre, for which we’ve provided design consultancy. The transformational development challenges the conventions of parking, street usage, mobility and logistics in a city centre environment.

One aim is to reduce the use of existing small pay and display car parks in the area and discourage on-street parking. The council intends to phase these out to make room for public open space areas and cycling and walking routes.

The mobility hub offers the community a neighbourhood depot for people to collect from, eliminating excess last mile courier journeys, plus small commercial retail units, a cycle hire scheme, and a ‘car club’ for locals. While serving existing residents of Ancoats, it would also meet future needs associated with the 1,616 new homes and up to 31,000 sq ft of commercial space identified within the Poland Street Zone Neighbourhood Development Framework.

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Ultimately, we need to provide better connectivity to all cities, towns and suburbs in a cost-effective and sustainable way.

How about reusing existing infrastructure? For example, breathing new purpose into rail routes such as the East Lancashire Railway line serving Bury, Ramsbottom, Heywood and Rawtenstall, which now only operates at the weekends for leisure trips onboard steam trains. If extended, infrastructure like this could provide greater connectivity to suburbs, which in turn supports inclusive growth.

Would it be utopian thinking to plan a future where the majority of short inner and outer city trips are made by a combination of shared pedestrian and cycle lanes and public transport, rather than counting lost minutes in congested traffic?

Innovation doesn’t always require novel ideas – the tools can be found in the past with some subtle repurposing and an open mind.

In the 1985 film Back to the Future, Doc Brown exclaims: “Roads? Where we’re going [2020], we don’t need roads.”

As the final thought about our direction of travel, I’d suggest: “More roads? Where we’re going [2050], we don’t need more roads.”

  • Chris Rushton is an associate in Hydrock’s Manchester-based transport planning team

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Back to the Future made us want to have hoverboards. A feature of today’s reality is we have e-bikes and e-scooters. E-Scooters are coming and not everyone uses them badly by the way. Battery assisted travel is popular and can help fill transport gaps left by public modes and the high cost of motor insurance for young people. These battery assisted modes may not satisfy some active travel purists or even guidance, but if some people want to get to where they need to be conveniently we should be open to accommodating them.

By Jim