Andrea Sandor says we must seize the zeitgeist or concede to Birmingham leading the way

Cities across Europe are taking on one of the biggest carbon emitters and air polluters: the motor car. Car-free days, car-free streets, and restrictions on diesel cars are staples in an increasing number of cities championing ‘people first’. Oslo is leading the charge and practically car free already, while Paris’ mayor has announced ambitions to make Paris a ‘fifteen-minute city’ with everything you need within a fifteen-minute walk or bike ride.

Birmingham’s plans to reduce cars include reclaiming car parks for new housing

Here in the UK, cities are at it too; from Edinburgh’s monthly car-free day to London’s plans to close half its streets to cars to Brighton, Bristol and York announcing car-free ambitions this week. The biggest news, however, comes out of Birmingham - hitherto known as Britain’s ‘motor city’ - whose plans to get people onto bikes and buses goes out to consultation this week.   

2020 01 29 Roads Breaching Air Pollution Levels
152 roads in Greater Manchester are in breach of legal air pollution limits. One in 23 deaths in GM is linked to air pollution, according to a new study released this week TfGM

Their plans take inspiration from the Belgium city of Ghent, whose zone-centred traffic plan was introduced overnight in 2017 and has been a roaring success. With fewer cars on the roads and cycling booming, air quality has significantly improved, and the number of restaurant and bar startups have increased by nearly a fifth.

In Manchester, young city centre councillors are taking action and pressing for car-free measures. But will we be too late to pioneer the UK’s car-free revolution? 

Let’s take a closer look at Birmingham’s plans and how Manchester stacks up.

2020 01 24 Transport For New Homes Royal Arsenal Riverside
TfNH 2019 award-winning Royal Arsenal Riverside cycle route into London along the Thames

Why should we go car-free?

But first, why has the tide turned against cars? Simple: cars are the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in the UK. In fact, transport is the only sector not to have cut emissions since the 1990s, which isn’t surprising considering car sales continue to rise.

Car adverts still promise us open roads, freedom, and status. They would do better to show us wasting our lives away in traffic jams while poisoning the environment and children’s lungs. Electric cars aren’t the solution because they produce particulate air pollution too, and don’t make any difference to chronic congestion.

This is the reality of cars: apart from being responsible for 20% of the world’s total C02 emissions, around the world they kill 3500 people a day (more than any other mode of transport) and result in 11,000 new cases of child asthma a day. Cars are part and parcel of the obesity crisis and linked to cardiovascular disease, and they’re an equality issue, with the poorest in society not owning a car and cut off from job opportunities inaccessible by public transport.

While countries such as the Netherlands have spent decades phasing out the need for cars, the rest of the West is finally catching up. Those cities taking swift, bold action will be tomorrow’s leaders.

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Birmingham’s ambitious plans

In this respect, Birmingham is pulling its weight ahead of Manchester. They declared a Climate Emergency a month before Manchester and now they’re planning to adopt Ghent’s zone-based city centre traffic model. In this model, the city centre is divided into zones and cars can drive in and out but not across zones, while buses and bikes can. In Ghent the result was a drop in car journeys from 55% to 27% and a 60% boom in cycling. This clever model doesn’t ban cars but makes public and active transport the natural choice for short journeys, while roads become less congested for those that have no choice but to drive.

Manchester could take a leaf out of this book, as currently one in three journeys under 1km (⅗ mile) are made by car in Greater Manchester. There’s no reason most people could not easily walk or cycle this distance. 

Moreover, most people don’t drive into the city centre. According to property data analyst UrbInfo, 60% of Manchester’s transport infrastructure is dedicated to motorists, even though they only account for 13% of journeys. Birmingham’s plans to reduce cars include reclaiming car parks for new housing. With cars taken out of the equation, we’ll have more space to live, breathe easy and enjoy our lives.

2019 07 17 Great Ancoats Image
Manchester City Council’s £9.1 million revamp of Great Ancoats Street removes cycle lanes and maintains motor vehicle capacity through the city centre

What does Manchester have planned?

This week, councillors agreed to investigate prohibiting through-traffic inside the inner ring road, a proposal introduced by city centre councillors Marcus John and Jon-Connor Lyons. This is excellent news and no surprise it’s come from two of Manchester’s youngest councillors.

The proposals also include exploring feasibility of an ‘ultra low emissions zone’ as in London. The recent council meeting also saw councillors supporting no idling zones outside schools and the announcement that 21st June will be a car free day. This is all very promising, as are plans to pedestrianise Albert Square. 

However, we need to act fast on Johns and Lyons no through-traffic proposal if we’re to catch up with Birmingham who has already drawn up plans to prohibit through traffic and put them out to consultation.

Moreover, and amidst all this positive news, is an alarming number of multi-million pound road expansion projects currently underway across the city centre that faced strong public opposition and feel wholly out of step with the times. Work on Great Ancoats Street has commenced, which removes cycle lanes. The Princess Rd roundabout works expand vehicle capacity and will make it slower for pedestrians to cross. Hyde Rd is another road widening scheme that doesn’t include cycle lanes, and will sever the second busiest cycle route in the city for 12 months. The Council also plans to use the former Central Retail Park as a temporary 24/7 440-space car park next to the city centre’s only primary school in an area where the level of air pollution is 'lethal and illegal.' Compared to our young councillor’s ambitions, these projects are characteristic of a Council that prioritises the private car as though it were the 1990s.

2018 08 06 Sustrans Women Cycling
Chris Boardman, Manchester’s Cycling Commissioner, is working with Mayor Andy Burnham on an ambitious plan for 1,800 miles of joined up walking and cycling routes

Manchester can lead the way

Manchester’s in a brilliant position to pioneer a car-free city, though. Along with young, forward-thinking councillors is the recent announcement that Northern Rail have lost their franchise, and the likely re-franchising of buses. This would bring local rail and buses under public control and the aegis of Andy Burnham, the GM Combined Authority (GMCA) and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), who have their finger on the pulse when it comes to the future of transport in cities.

In 2017, Burnham appointed Chris Boardman as the UK’s first cycling commissioner right here in Manchester. They unveiled a proposal for Greater Manchester to become the first city region in the UK to have a fully joined up walking and cycling ‘Bee Network’ covering 1800 miles, which could be a 'national blueprint' for the UK. This would make cycling a serious mode of transport, following in the footsteps of cities like Amsterdam where 72,000 commute by bike, double the number of cars in the city. 

Last year, Burnham also announced plans for a ‘London-style’ integrated transport system for the region, which also expands the network so public transport becomes a default way to travel. TfGM are anticipating Manchester’s population boom, putting themselves at the heart of new housing developments so new homes are built around public and active transport and not the car. For this reason, Simon Warburon, Strategic Director of TfGM, hailed the ‘Northern Gateway’ development plans as an “urban renaissance” at an event last week.

Warburton also said we can expect to see money coming our way for transport. Labour voters may cringe, but our Prime Minister seems to have our transport interests at heart, at least for the moment.

What’s holding us back?

GMCA and TfGM have the vision for an integrated public and active transport region. However, they need buy-in from all 10 Greater Manchester councils to make it reality.

While councillors like Johns and Lyons are moving us forward, Manchester Council’s road widening schemes and slow up-take of street closures is not the stuff of world leading cities. Nor is this insight from Manchester Council Leader’s blog last year: “Parked cars are zero emissions, they’re only a problem when they move.” Richard Leese has been leader of the council for nearly 25 years, about as long as Johns and Lyons have been alive.

Now is the time for bold leadership. Our young councillors are leading the way.

Follow Andrea Sandor @wordstoseeby

What you can do:

Learn what you can do to campaign for improved walking and cycling in your neighbourhood @walkridegm

Sign the petition to pedestrianise Deansgate

Sign the petition against using Central Retail Park as a temporary 440-space car park

Contact your local councillor and ask what they’re doing to move towards a ‘people first’ approach in your ward