Helen Wilkie thinks those in power need to gently let go of the brakes
When Liverpool lost its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in many quarters the reaction was a collective shrug of the shoulders. Many felt, rightly or wrongly, that the status held us back and what was more important was our regeneration and continuing evolution into a modern, innovative city.
The Mayor's pledge to be a zero carbon city in just 9 years by 2030, is ringing very hollow right now
Sadly, one of the first major announcements from the council didn't inspire much hope that Liverpool would be embracing its future: a cycle lane on West Derby Road was to be removed. It was one of seven "pop-up" routes that were originally promised as a safe alternative to public transport during the pandemic.
Only three were ever delivered, despite the second tranche of funding being awarded in October 2020. Now, one was being removed so car journeys could be quicker. Not only that, the message - from the Cabinet Member for Climate Emergency no less - was that we could "rest assured" no more space would ever be sacrificed to those of us without a car.
Rather than being assured, cyclists, pedestrians and climate activists on social media - not only in Liverpool, but as far away as California - were united in disbelief and anger. A picture of Councillor Steve Radford gleefully waving bollards above his head like an Olympic champ was ridiculed by the BBC's Jeremy Vine on Twitter. Not a great first step in the right direction for this new, UNESCO-free era.
QUIZ. Who is this man, what is he doing and why? pic.twitter.com/AQVEN1n4VH
— Jeremy Vine (@theJeremyVine) July 29, 2021
But it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. As ever, Liverpool has an abundance of home-grown talent with solutions at their fingertips. The University of Liverpool is home to the world's oldest School of Planning, founded in 1909 (when the traffic on West Derby Road was mostly bikes, horses and electric trams).
I spoke to Dr Alex Nurse, lecturer in Urban Planning, about the work he does to shape the way we move around Liverpool. He wasn't pessimistic. His experiences of working with the Liverpool City Region have been positive. He provided the data that informed last year's pop-up cycle lanes and assisted with bids for Department of Transport funding. He's about to start work on a project looking at how we can implement the "15 minute city" philosophy right here in our communities.
This concept was the brainchild of Californian Dan Luscher, in response to US car culture moving retail and leisure into out-of-town complexes with acre upon acre of car parks. Instead, he argued that wherever possible, urban dwellers should have access to essential services within a 15 minute walk or cycle.
Dr Nurse believes, with the right planning and oversight, this is easily achievable here in Liverpool.
"There's no real natural barriers to active transport in Liverpool,” he said.
“Compared to other cities we're flat and we have a better climate than, for instance, Copenhagen. And we're quite a dense city, especially as we're bounded by the river on one side.
“What's more, politically it makes sense - politicians who bring forward these changes are usually rewarded for their courage at the ballot box. If you look at Ghent (Belgium), the deputy mayor received death threats when it was announced they were radically redesigning their city to remove through-journeys by cars. At the next election he increased his majority".
Indeed, according to Sustrans, 69% people in the city region support more segregated cycle lanes, even if it means taking space away from cars.
This may strike a chord with Scousers who are cynical about the changes being made to the Strand, to reduce the number of lanes and improve its dire record for fatalities. The current roadworks are causing headaches, and as a cyclist it's easy to forget the frustration of congestion as this simply never affects us.
However, Mayor of Liverpool, Joanne Anderson, seemed optimistic that this reallocation of space will bring improvements. She joined the many who enthusiastically retweeted 20 year old Todd Lithgow's even more radical designs for a lush green linear park along the Strand, with cars and buses still allowed access but priority given to those who are there to spend time, not just pass through.
Todd, a second year Town & Regional Planning student at the University of Liverpool, started catching people's attention this year when he shared CGI redesigns of familiar Liverpool locations on Twitter.
He creates these in his spare time, but the quality, imagination and expertise outshine the types of plans we're normally offered. For cities like Paris and Amsterdam, you can find before-and-after photographs showing congested, polluted roads from the 1970s transformed into leafy, relaxing spacious places to live. Todd's images give us a glimpse of now-and-possible-future for Liverpool.
Does Todd think these could one day be our reality?
"Absolutely. Cycling and active travel is on more and more people's agenda,” he said.
“I've tried cycling with friends around Liverpool and they've not enjoyed it. But there's no reason it can't improve."
Todd gives examples of measures that other cities have used - congestion charge, clean air zones, workplace parking levies - and you realise the changes we've already made have been far from radical. To start, he suggests concentrating on one area.
"That way people notice the benefits quicker, and the city centre is somewhere everyone goes".
Politically, there seems to be some disconnect between the Liverpool City Region and Liverpool City Council. LCR recruited BAFTA award-winning TV presenter and ex-Brookside actor Simon O'Brien as its Active Travel Commissioner. The city council, however, has had a vacancy for its Cycling and Walking Officer since at least May this year.
But should active travel (which includes walking, using mobility aids, scooters) be the role of a detached team or embedded in everything the council does? Reacting to the news about West Derby Road, Simon says the issue needs strong leadership.
"I hope that The Mayor and Council have a solid plan to quickly put in an equally safe and direct replacement route before we end up at the back of the queue for desperately needed investment,” he said.
“Sometimes it's about doing the right thing even if it’s unpopular at first. When it is said that there was no consultation for the “pop-up” bike lanes, I ask if there was ever consultation for dangerous levels of air pollution and terrifying road conditions throughout our city?
“The Mayor's pledge to be a zero carbon city in just 9 years by 2030 is ringing very hollow right now."
So what is stopping us? This city has the expertise, the space, the need, the potential - and if we could play our cards right, even the money. All we need is for those in power to gently let go of the brakes and get the wheels spinning. It takes bravery at first, but the rewards are endless.
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