Jonathan Schofield looks at the figures to see if the experiment was a success
Trafford Council have called the lockdown coning off of a whole A56 carriageway, in each direction, for exclusive cycle use, a 'success'. But was it really?
The 'pop-up' bike lanes took in three and half miles from Dane Road, Sale, to the City of Manchester boundary at Cornbrook via Bridgewater Way. Most of the route has now been re-opened to all vehicles on both carriageways north and south.
Many private vehicle drivers were angry that they'd suffered inconvenience and 'pointless traffic jams' when so few cyclists appeared to be using the new provision. Their frustration has led to the dismantling of most of 'pop-up' lanes.
If the council figures for cycle movements are accurate, this has been a very disappointing experiment.
Confidential has taken a look at the stats referring to the period of the full implementation of the temporary cycle lanes up to the end of August. Trafford Council says: ‘The average daily number of people using the pop-up cycle lanes has increased from 102 in June 2020, to 336 in August 2020. This is a 421 per cent increase of cycle journeys in comparison to figures from August 2018.’
Before considering whether this is an impressive figure let’s see what Trafford says about their present retreat from those miles of cones.
Cllr Steve Adshead, Executive Member for Environment, Air Quality and Climate Change at Trafford Council said: “The temporary cycle lanes along the A56 were brought in during lockdown to enable people to keep their distance for safe, essential journeys and exercise and were a huge success. The cycle lane was the longest in the country and our work here will provide a legacy for cycling throughout Trafford which we will continue to support.
“But following the easing of restrictions and an increase in traffic, we have made further changes. Moving forward we will be looking closely at how the adjusted measures will ease congestion along the route while protecting the most vulnerable road users. This will help us move towards a place that we want future generations to be able to enjoy, while protecting the integrity of all road users.
“We plan to develop segregated cycleways wherever possible and keep the traffic flowing by opening lanes to motor vehicles. This will help deliver Trafford Council’s longer-term ambitions for a cleaner and greener transport network that will support and encourage more active travel and reduced car journeys across the borough.”
Cllr Adshead is using carefully chosen words trying to balance motor vehicle and cyclists interests. That's difficult.
What is apparent is that the volume of complaints from motor vehicle users prior to the removal of the cones on A56 became louder and louder. As stated above, drivers and passengers were caught in congestion on a single carriageway at junction hotspots. Their ire might have lessened if there had been hordes of cyclists using that whole carriageway dedicated to them, but there weren’t.
Let’s break down those cycle journey figures.
The reported daily bike journeys were 102 in June and 336 in August. So, over a 24 hour period we get 4.25 bike journeys per hour in June and 14 per hour in August. If we take it over a twelve hour period then then that’s 8.5 per hour and 28 per hour respectively.
It’s clear that if the council figures for cycle journeys are accurate, this has been a very disappointing experiment. Trafford calls the 'pop-up lanes' a 'success' but an average of 14 journeys per hour over a 24 hour period is anything but. As a cyclist myself who regularly used the route I can vouch for the fact there were very few fellow cyclists using the A56 in the quiet lockdown months despite the extra measures in place. There’s no point being doctrinaire about cycling when those facts speak for themselves.
On 21 October I cycled to the corner of Grosvenor Street and Oxford Road and fourteen cyclists pedalled past on the dedicated cycle lane in seven minutes. Of course, that is an unfair example but is shows the potential of carefully planned measures.
For the record Confidential asked how many other vehicle movements took place in that period as a comparison. Those figures were unavailable. We also asked whether the figure was generated from the average number of cyclists taken from various locations along the road or from one spot? Trafford Council said the answer was ‘gathered using data monitors along the stretch and averaged out’.
They also told us: ‘(The) temporary measures were put in place using £5m of emergency government funding made available to Greater Manchester Local Authorities, through the Mayor’s Cycling and Walking Challenge Fund. The pop-up cycle lanes enabled people to keep their distance for safe, essential journeys and exercise during the Coronavirus lockdown.’
The low usage means it’s hard to draw any conclusion other than the A56 measures were a well-meaning but a hasty waste of money (and looked bloody awful too). Oh to be a traffic cone manufacturer in Covid-times.
We need far more and better cycle lanes but they have to be done properly and they have to connect with other cycle lanes. Preferably they arrive as an integral part of road planning. Where they are retro-fitted on existing roads they need to look and feel safe.
There will be no true revolution in bike journeys until nervous cyclists feel secure. The low numbers of people using the A56 scheme indicates people didn't feel secure. Indeed, even with a whole lane dedicated to cycling the measures on the A56 did not feel safe particularly at junctions.
As an example, where some of the cones remain on the A56 coming north past Old Trafford to the left turn onto the A5063, the bike route becomes actively dangerous. Motor vehicles turning left when the lights change cut through the cycle cones going straight into the city centre and there is no signage to indicate this might happen.
Talbot Road parallel to the A56 is much better for bikes. It has a protected cycle lane that looks and feels like a cycle lane and is permanent. It gives nervous cyclists confidence. Of course it’s not as ‘protected’ as say the lanes on Oxford Street/Road with their clear full kerb barrier between bikes and traffic, but that scheme took a long time to deliver and was hugely expensive.
If we can start to quickly deliver on existing roads the lanes we see on Talbot Road and Stretford Road and elsewhere across Greater Manchester then prospect of safe cycling might encourage more to make up this pleasant and healthy way of getting about.
In hindsight it seems rash to have wasted so much money on the ugly experiment on the A56. The good news is that Trafford seems to have learnt that lesson and we can look forward to better cycle lanes on the A56 as the map below shows. Shame the lockdown emergency funds weren’t used as Cllr Adshead says ‘to protect the integrity of all road users’ from the get-go. It seems another example of the incautious use of national and local government money during the Covid crisis.
Yet maybe this is too harsh.
Claire Stocks of WalkRideGM, one of the more literally titled agencies, says: "There are problems with just using data to judge the scheme. It was never properly linked to the city centre as Manchester refused to play ball at Cornbrook.
"It was never linked to anything. One lonely A56 bike lane that links nowhere isn’t going to provide a key plank in helping non-regular cyclists feel safe enough to pick up cycling especially with their kids.
"Commuter cyclists are important but while enabling them we should think about lateral routes between suburbs and local amenities. Routes linking neighbourhoods are even more important especially for (many) women, kids, older people and so on. It's more about using amenities than going to city centre".
She adds: "Still, our view is Trafford deserves praise for trying something. The scheme has underlined the disfunctional work across the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester (GM). There isn’t even the start of a network yet.
"The mission is to enable one million fewer car journeys a day across GM. We want to make walking the natural choice for shortish trips and to quadruple cycling. Targets such as Manchester's of zero-carbon by 2038 need the boroughs to plan on how they get car use down.
That lack of linked up thought and linked up cycle lanes is absurdly apparent at the border between Trafford and Manchester where the cycle lane abruptly ends. This is compounded by the fact the final portion of Trafford's 'pop-up' lane is presently narrowed to the width of a single bike by a building site. You have to be a trick cyclist to negotiate it.
This region needs secure cycle lanes that don't drive other road-users mad and it needs routes to be linked. If we are serious about cycling with all the health and environmental benefits it brings then rushed schemes such as the A56 initiative, while well-meaning, do little to move those goals forward.
Trafford's revised plans following the 'experiment' on Chester Road. These follow-on from their ‘data-led decision based on increasing traffic volumes’ as lockdown eased and involve:
Temporary cones being removed from Dane Road to the Chester Road Recycling Centre and realignment of the road layout.
Providing better cycling infrastructure from Chester Road Recycling Centre to Talbot Road.
Temporary cones being removed through Gorse Hill along the A56, from Talbot Road to White City Circle
Upgrade to the existing temporary cones along the A56 to provide better cycling infrastructure from White City Circle to Cornbrook Road.
(We asked what upgrading ‘temporary cones’ mean? The reply was: ‘(An) upgrade to temporary cones will (mean) a series of works including relining the carriageway and providing a protected cycle lane.')