Jonathan Schofield thinks the pedestrianisation scheme is neither one thing nor the other
Deansgate is going to become an experiment. It’s going to be part-pedestrianised between King Street West and Blackfriars Street, or in plain English for those unversed in street nomenclature, from House of Fraser to Tesco.
According to Manchester City Council: ‘This (plan) will initially take place under a temporary “experimental” traffic order, allowing officers to assess the impacts of the measure and make any necessary changes, with a view to potentially bringing forward a permanent closure of part of Deansgate.'
This particular Deansgate plan seems half-hearted, masquerading as radical and progressive
The ideas is to create ‘an enhanced shared space for pedestrians and people on bikes enabling visitors and workers to socially distance more easily as they return to shops and offices in this thriving part of the city centre.
‘The part-pedestrianisation will create new space for events and markets to be installed, stimulating activity and increasing footfall as restrictions on movement to limit the spread of COVID-19 are lifted.
‘By encouraging the use of sustainable modes of transport, it is also intended that the recent drop in air pollution and congestion will be maintained, supporting the city’s target of becoming zero-carbon by 2038 at the latest.’
The closure will be imposed by ‘removable bollards, which can be taken down over a short prescribed period once per weekday, allowing windows for local businesses to accept deliveries.’
The Deansgate news caused Helen Pidd, The Guardian’s northern editor, to write ‘Let joy be unconfined.’
Pedestrianisation, or rather pedestrianisation and cyclisation (I’ve just made that word up), is the direction of travel (forgive the pun) in city centre management. You can understand why: better air quality, less congestion while removing the anxiety of getting knocked over. Pursuing these worthy ends has produced an ocean of agreement among a broad section of society, most vociferously among environmental campaigners and evangelical cyclists.
Yet, Helen Pidd’s joy should perhaps be confined. This measure applies to a tiny distance. If this is the direction of travel, let’s apply the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ argument. Why not close the whole of Deansgate from Liverpool Road all the way past House of Fraser and connect it with the Victoria Street pedestrianisation in front of Manchester Cathedral?
That’s a distance of 1.22km and would give the scheme critical mass, turning Deansgate into a long promenade. Closing around 250m is neither fish nor fowl, and will reinforce the conversion of the parallel and narrow street of St Mary’s Parsonage Gardens into a rat-run.
Indeed it’s a moot point whether a longer closure would cause any more congestion in the city than this mealy-mouthed one - certainly if traffic were still allowed to cross Deansgate at Peter Street, John Dalton Street and Blackfriars.
And please, for God’s sake, dear City Council, make the changes look good. When the ‘temporary’ Victoria Street closure in front of Manchester Cathedral became permanent in 2012 we were promised a ‘piazza’ and the beautification of the area. Eight years later - eight bloody years later - the whole street is a mess of kerbs cutting across each other, uneven surfaces, a rubbish children’s area and various types of street furniture. Will it be the same on Deansgate? When the pedestrianisation inevitably becomes permanent will the public realm be upgraded, will ‘the look’ of the scheme make any sort of sense?
The Arndale Centre stretch of Market Street is the perfect lesson in a total balls-up of pedestrianisation. Market Street is the one major street I avoid as a tour guide especially in the evening, when it’s scary and lined with those most bleak of urban forms, rows of shuttered shops. If there were a limited movement of vehicles, such as black cabs and free buses, after the shops close the street would feel kinder, more alive. Ok, Market Street doesn’t have the food and drink culture of Deansgate but the principle still applies.
Overall then, a better scheme would be for the whole of Deansgate to be temporarily pedestrianised from Liverpool Road, with vehicle crossing points, to Victoria Street. However, to avoid the desolation of Market Street we also think there should be - in the evenings and quiet periods - access for taxis and some buses at 10mph, to help animate the street.
Crucially, we think this should be a flexible and fleet-of-foot pedestrianisation, allowing vehicles back if the whole thing is an economic mistake. That latter point is important. During this temporary 'experimental' traffic order on Deansgate let’s have a close evaluation of the economic impact of the scheme.
We all know this will inevitably cause distress and delay to people who have to travel into Manchester by car, or even by bus, as vehicles are shoehorned into alternative routes. Business traffic will be affected too. Traffic jams will happen. Again, and as usual, with these schemes there seems little thought for those who live too far away to cycle or have health issues or need to access places because they are, perhaps, disabled.
In summary this particular Deansgate plan seems half-hearted, masquerading as radical and progressive, when, in fact, it’s neither one thing nor the other. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover leaves a bad taste.
Still, at least the city will now have an alternative location for more Christmas Market stalls. Albert Square is unavailable for a few years.