Harry Gray, campaigner and cyclist, offers a personal vision for a notable street

What is the purpose of a street? 

Asking this question is key to the success of a modern city. There is one street in Manchester which sits at the forefront of our desire to make cities more liveable and it’s Deansgate. 

What’s come out of this tangle of interests is a mess. A temporary arrangement.

The story of Deansgate is the story of Manchester. One of the earliest in the city, a Roman road, it’s position parallel to the Irwell gave it great importance. It grew as a narrow, medieval street, then, in 1869, it was widened and straightened.

This reinvented thoroughfare represented the growth and prosperity of the industrial age. Fast forward a century or so, and the importance of Deansgate is on the minds of Mancunians again. Since the Victorian boom and subsequent mid-twentieth century decline, Deansgate has come to represent a confused city centre, to my mind, one unsure of its purpose and identity.

Many suburban residents, who mostly see the centre as a place to shop or work, regard it as a crucial traffic artery into the city. The run in to Deansgate once even had a flyover installed from Chester Road, which was subsequently demolished. 

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Harry Gray, the author of this opinion piece Image: Harry Gray

The situation has changed with the city centre. In recent years thousands of residents have moved into the city centre and there has been a groundswell of support to pedestrianise Deansgate and rid the street of motor vehicles once and for all. 

This clash has caused some pushback, notably when the issue came to a head in 2019. Extinction Rebellion (XR) parked a massive yellow submarine on the main junction with Bridge Street and occupied the road for four days. Pat Karney, the notoriously vocal local councillor, came out on camera to lambast the actions of XR. 

"Closing off one of the main streets in Manchester, I’ve just been in the cafes and the shops and they are all empty, so the economic impact on low paid workers on this street is just immediate right away, and I think they will lose public opinion if they stay here for four days.” 

But the closure to motor vehicles was not like many of the other XR protests seen since. Instead of gluing themselves to the tarmac, they put a show on. There was a stage with music, free vegan food being served en masse, and a programme of festivities with which passers-by could engage. What followed the four-day event was a general pushback on Pat Karney’s comments, local businesses claimed more people visited the street than before. Residents enjoyed the lack of traffic and pollution. People had seen a vision for the future and they liked it. 

Deansgate Cycle Lanes 1
Confused and confusing: the crazy new Deansgate Image: Confidentials

The genie was out the bottle. 

Now people had a taste for a pedestrianised Deansgate, the pressure mounted to deliver something that lasted longer than four days. 

The perfect opportunity came, during lockdown the government gave councils extra powers to close busy streets to traffic and open then up for social distancing. The council immediately closed the street. These few months were Deansgate at its best, but it came to an end, as a legal dispute with the Diamond Bus company led to vehicles returning. 

This created more discussion about what form Deansgate should take. What does pedestrianisation actually mean in this context? 

The present problem is many parties want a slice of Deansgate for their vision of Manchester: al fresco dining like Northern Quarter; a linear safe cycle route across the city; bus access for artery Bee Network routes into the city. 

Deansgate Cycle Lanes 2
In the UK drive on the left but now we'd like you to cross the right side of the road Image: Confidentials

So what’s come out of this tangle of interests is a mess. A temporary arrangement with wands, plastic bolt down kerbs and rhino barriers scattered down the road - signs and clutter are everywhere. Cyclists now have to cross the road twice in the space of 100 metres. In a sense, these interventions epitomise the confused demands of many with the accelerated Deansgate debate from 2019. But despite this, critically motor vehicles, expect buses and taxis, have once again been banished from the street.

The overall vision for Deansgate seems to have been lost. By conceding space for linear movement of bikes and buses, that feeling XR managed to give to the street in 2019 has been marginalised. Pedestrians are still pushed to the side, and the street feels like any other, just with lower traffic levels.

But there is a chance to be bolder, a chance to create a greener, more hospitable and lived in street. With more space comes more opportunity. Currently the offering on Deansgate as a destination has been stunted by the traffic - with poorer quality leisure and hospitality opportunities.

If the street were to be fully pedestrianised alongside a well implemented cycling infrastructure that could change. (Confidentials.com proposed complete pedestrianisation here). Deansgate will become the first street tourists flock to while attracting quality operators along its length. They will flow off other pedestrian areas such as Lincoln Square and St Ann’s Square. The city will be better connected together.

Cities like Barcelona and Paris have managed to make this vision a reality. The success of Manchester depends on the final designs being drawn up by council consultants right now. They have the burden of balancing the many vested interests required to create a better future for Deansgate. 

Harry Gray is a campaigner for walkable cities and bike lanes. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This is a freelance opinion article. Agree with it? Disagree?

If you disagree or agree we’d like to hear from you. We want a range of opinion on Manchester Confidential. As we said here in January: ‘We have a policy of freedom in writing and do not hold any doctrinal, political or ideological position. Nothing is cancelled and all sensible stories will be considered. Of course, writers must provide high quality, punchy and grammatically tight content.’

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If you liked this story read these: 

Transforming Deansgate: too fast too soon

Maddest new cycling roundabout in the country

And if you want a laugh read this April Fool about Deansgate


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