Manchester may be the home of British Cycling but it is some distance from being a city where it is normal to cycle.
That is the view of experts from the cities@manchester project at the University of Manchester, who held a public forum at the Anthony Burgess Foundation this week.
Four panellists discussed the question ‘Can Manchester become a cycling city?’ looking at the barriers to it becoming more cycle-friendly, and how these barriers might be overcome.
The cities@manchester forum followed figures from the 2011 Census which indicated that the city had seen an 82.8% increase in cycling to work over the last decade, although Pete Abel, from Love Your Bike, said that this did not allow for population growth and in reality cycling in the city had gone ‘from abysmally low to slightly less abysmal’.
Indeed, Manchester’s increase – from 4,610 to 8,426 – was poor compared to some areas of London, where cycling rates had risen by over 200%, and was even below Brighton and Hove and the City of Bristol.
The North West of England overall had seen a very small increase in those cycling to work, 4.7%, between 2001 and 2011, which in fact represented a proportional decrease (from 2.3% of all North West workers to 2.1%).
cities@manchester, which consists of a group of researchers based at the University of Manchester, aims to find ways to make cities more sustainable, tackle inequalities and engage with key decision-makers in Manchester and beyond.
After a brief introduction by Dr James Evans, who chaired the event, Graeme Sherriff of the University of Salford sought to define ‘the cycling city’.
He said: “A cycling city is where it is seen to be normal for people of all ages to cycle and feel safe doing so.”
This drew a distinction between cycling as a sport and focusing on cycling as a means of getting to work.
He, and the speakers who followed, were of one mind that cycling remained marginal in Manchester, and the UK, but they had some differing ideas about how this might be changed.
The issues faced by cycling which were discussed included a lack of political leadership – Manchester lacks a Boris Johnson figure – the erratic nature of funding, a reluctance to take space away from car drivers and integration within Manchester, with the incoherency of cycle lanes a significant problem.
A change of attitude, as suggested by Sherriff who cited Manchester City Council’s website, which until recently classed cycling under ‘Crime, antisocial behaviour and nuisance’.
He added: “We should not so much tolerate cycling but encourage it.”
There were two different strands of thought on how cycling should pitch itself.
While Steve Connor, CEO of Creative Concern, believed that it should be made ‘sexy, chic and aspirational’,
Councillor Kate Chappell, of Manchester City Council, argued that it needed to be ‘boring and safe’ before becoming sexy with Abel pointing out that the majority of people who would be interested in cycling are intimidated by the dangers involved.
That ‘intidmidation’ may explain why the male rate of cycling to work was more than double the female rate in the Censuses of 2001 and 2011. He stressed that cycling needed to be ‘coherent, direct, attractive, safe and comfortable’.
Coun Chappell, a keen cyclist as well as member for Rusholme and Manchester’s Executive Member for Environment, said road surfaces are the priority, with potholes a huge issue.
“If road surfaces are better, that tells cyclists they are welcome in the city – at the moment we are telling them the opposite,” she said.
She added that the problem faced by the Council is that, having previously had £10 million per year set aside for maintaining the roads, budget cuts had seen that figure fall to £3 million.
Abel, however, argued that the money to aid cycling was there: “If Manchester can spend £290 million on six miles of road between Stockport and Manchester Airport, why can it not invest in cycling?”
He concluded that cyclists should demand more from candidates at the upcoming local elections, holding them to commit to a further 10 years of funding for cycling.
The counter point made was that cyclists have to do their part to be more accepted – Connor stressed the importance of shared space and cyclists not disregarding the rules of the road, as well as asserting their having the same right to use the road as car drivers.
In the subsequent Q&A some audience members made it clear that police enforcement of good driving was the key, while others bemoaned the glorification of speed among the ‘Top Gear generation’.
Abel suggested that the UK could learn from other countries and reduce speed limits, making 20 miles per hour the default speed in urban areas.
Another question was whether the Council planned to place restrictions on car use. Councillor Chappell made the point that it will be harder to get into the city over the next two years due to more infrastructural changes taking place – and that the council will be reviewing how many parking spaces are available.
The overall conclusion from the panel appeared to be that greater emphasis should be put on the benefits of cycling – the money saved, the health benefits and the reduction in air pollution – than the money required to boost its presence in Manchester.
For find out more about the work of cities@manchester log onto www.cities.manchester.ac.uk
Picture courtesy of distillated, with thanks.