Greater Manchester wants to tackle obesity, congestion and emissions with the "Bee Network" – a new walking and cycling infrastructure. Manchester councillor Mandie Shilton Godwin shares the four key pillars to success: leadership, well-organised user groups, loads of patience – and money.

17 Sep 2019

Summary

Although use of public transport is on the rise, 23% of all journeys in Manchester are still by private motor vehicles, making the city a congestion hotspot.

Faced with unsustainable emissions and rising obesity, Walking and Cycling Commissioner Chris Boardman has devised a bold plan to make Manchester the first city region in the UK to have fully joined-up walking and cycling infrastructure.

The project, dubbed "Beelines" or "the Bee Network", is a complex initiative involving 9 big local authorities and several grassroots groups. But the central idea is a simple one: make it easy and attractive for almost everyone to get where they need to go on foot or by bicycle.

If you’re campaigning for climate action in your local area, this is an inspirational example of how your council can encourage healthier and greener transport options.

Transport in Manchester

There are plenty of reasons for a modern city to promote walking and cycling. Greater Manchester is no exception. It has some of England’s worst health indicators, including an 8-year gap in life expectancy between the healthiest and least healthy areas – probably linked to inactivity, obesity and air quality. 50% of adults in GM are physically inactive and this is estimated to costs the NHS £500,000 a week.

And too many people shun public transport in favour of their car. "Since buses were deregulated by Mrs Thatcher we’ve just had ever poorer and poorer bus services," says Mandie Shilton Godwin, councillor for Chorlton Park, and the City of Manchester’s lead on Walking and Cycling. "So people rely on their cars. That’s one of the reasons for the terrible congestion." Congestion that’s estimated to cost Manchester businesses £1.6bn a year.

Then there’s the climate crisis. To play its part in the UK’s effort to limit global warming, Greater Manchester says its carbon emissions must fall to near zero by 2038. That means cutting emissions by an average of 13% a year. Nearly a third of the city region’s emissions are from transport.

How Manchester moves

Use of public transport – trams, trains and buses – across Greater Manchester has actually risen steadily over the past decade. It counts for nearly 2 out of 3 of all journeys made into the city centre at peak times. But 23% of all journeys are still by private motor vehicles. And while the proportion of trips made on foot has risen over the past decade (to nearly 12% in 2017), it’s actually fallen slightly since 2012. Cycling has grown by a hefty 50% in the same period but, at 1.8% of journeys, still accounts for a small chunk of the total.

The Beelines proposal

Under Mayor Andy Burnham and his Walking and Cycling Commissioner, Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman, Manchester has set out an eye-catching plan to become the first city region in the UK to have fully joined-up walking and cycling infrastructure. Boardman produced a strategy in 2017 called Made to Move, which set a goal of "doubling and then doubling again" cycling, and making "walking the natural choice for as many short trips as possible".

The Bee Network, which builds on that, is a complex initiative involving 10 big local authorities and a number of strategic partners. But the central idea is a simple one: make it easy and attractive for almost everyone to get where they need to go on foot or by bicycle. The usability yardstick is nicely human in scale: a 12-year old cyclist or pedestrian pushing a double buggy has to be able to use proposed routes, lanes, junctions and so on. The stated aim is to enable 92% of the population to use Beelines routes.

In terms of infrastructure the proposal outlines more than 75 miles of segregated cycling and walking routes. But dedicated lanes are not the only – or even primary – bit of hardware. The Bee Network places at least as much emphasis on enabling people to use quiet back roads. It’s also aiming to reduce danger and stress at junctions and crossings, and introduce so-called filtered neighbourhoods. This is where cars meet a cul-de-sac but pedestrians and cyclists are allowed through. The proposal envisages 1,400 new or upgraded crossings across the conurbation. Low- or no-cost options could include things like a painted crossing at a junction or experiments with planters.

Map all that across Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities and you begin to see a network of capillaries representing the myriad lanes and junctions joining every community across the city region. At ground level, users would navigate using a simple system of numbers: to get from A to B, follow route 1, switch to route 4, and so on.

Positive and negative reception

It’s an alluring promise of a cleaner, healthier, lower-carbon future. And it’s one that’s popular – on paper at least. According to the Sustrans report, Bike Life 2017, 69% of people in Greater Manchester think the city region would be a better place to live and work if more cycled, and 76% of residents would like to see more investment in cycling in the area.

Councillor Mandie Shilton Godwin says the popularity of the idea is one thing, but it’s just a step. "The Bee Network proposal has had a broadly very positive response from the public. But what you find is that people who support these proposals are happy to read it and say 'Fantastic, can’t wait, I’ll be able to cycle here there and everywhere.' But then they don’t contribute to the consultations on specific developments – they just trust it will happen."

"But people who fear some kind of detriment to their own business or their route to work do contribute to consultations. So it can get tricky. And of course legitimate concerns are being raised. Some people in Manchester worry that it will make long and frustrating car journeys worse in cars."

Part of the problem, she points out, is the bad press that cyclists get. "If people think this is about a cycle lane they get really angry. Of course you do see some aggressive behaviour from cyclists at red lights or whatever, but people forget that you see equally bad behaviour – if not worse – from people in cars. But driving around in cars is normalised, whereas if you’re on your bike people don‘t see it as normal."

"I spend a lot of time in Holland. They have a completely different culture towards bikes. They don’t see themselves as a driver or cyclist – they just choose the most appropriate form of transport for the journey. For them it’s not an identity issue. Here it’s a politics of identity. Which is why I think it’s so important to talk about walking as well – because everybody walks."

She stresses that it’s a question of getting past these barriers: "I suspect that when things are in place and settle down, that will go away. You have to get to that hurdle and over it but it’s time-consuming. You have to go through the formal process. You have to really engage with the process and do your best to take people with you."

The power of grassroots groups

When confronting such hurdles it’s helpful to have a well-informed grassroots network on side, says Mandie. She highlights the decades of work by user groups and local campaigners. "Many strands of this had been going on for years and years – climate change, air quality, cycling. We got 20 mph speed limits here just after I was elected in 2014 – they came more from the road safety lobby."

Devolution brought Andy Burnham to power in 2017 "and brought with it a significant amount of money" she says. But she thinks the local cycling lobby was particularly helpful in shaping the Bee Network. "I take my hat off to the best of them," she says. "We’ve got a really effective cycling lobby. They’ve been plugging away at this for years and they are very, very good. Our best cycling lobbyists are measured, knowledgeable, considered, constructive, quite forgiving, and patient."

“That lobby was already active when we were faced with devolution and the mayoral elections. They set about organising, lobbying all candidates on what they would want to do for walking and cycling should they be successful.” “I would say they managed to convince Andy Burnham that the solution to congestion in the city was not to build more dual carriageways.”

"Andy probably knew all about [the benefits of walking and cycling] as former Health Secretary, but still he went around asking people what they wanted and needed. What came back was that walking and cycling and making them easier had to be a core part of what he would set out to do. He hired Chris Boardman and, crucially, Boardman said he wanted to be cycling and walking, not just cycling commissioner. But I would say the cycling lobby here has been very effective."

Mandie says the Manchester Friends of the Earth local group is "brilliant" and singles out the group’s Pete Abel as "the best campaigner we have. If I want to know something and I don't think I’m being told the truth by somebody I’ll phone Pete. I’ve never known him not know about something or have an opinion. He’s really knowledgeable and a useful to resource to me."

And the walkers? "It’s starting to build now, which is good. The Ramblers have shifted their emphasis and they have become much more effective." She says relative newcomers Walk Ride GM are doing useful work and focusing on other issues such as the safety of routes to school and pavement parking.

Any tips on what campaigners should avoid? Bearing in mind there’s only so much time in the day, she offers this: "Don’t tweet me a picture of every junction you come off at or every driver who’s been an idiot," she says. "I can’t do anything with it – and actually it just makes me less inclined to look at your next tweet."

Resource squeeze

Even with a well-organised, expert lobby, we’re talking about local authorities saddled with unprecedented funding cuts. Add the uncertainties over Brexit and it seems near miraculous that any of this is happening at all.

Mandie admits the City of Manchester has found it difficult: for example, it is short of capacity to design and develop schemes. In her patch, Beelines outlined 279 new or upgraded crossings and 3 miles of segregated lanes. As yet, though, the City doesn’t have a Bee Network project live on the ground. "We’ve had 40% cuts since 2010. It’s also a massive issue because of Brexit – people with the knowledge are not necessarily from the UK."

"There’s £160m allocated to this phase [for the whole of Greater Manchester] and the estimate is that it would cost £1.5bn to create the environment that you’d want. We’re into the second year of announcing where expenditure is going. The money is held by the Mayor’s office and overseen by Chris Boardman, and his role is to run a quality rule over any proposal made by the borough councils and or city councils. It’s down to each authority to identify their own priorities and put those forward. The City is absolutely doing its best to get the scheme through but we are in effect competing against one another."

Lessons

Mandie says devolution was the turning point in getting the Bee Network to where it is today. Before that, she says, "there was the will but not the capacity. The capacity issue still exists but with devolution came more support and a bigger voice at a higher level. And money. Money."

Crucially, she says, the proposal is broader than cycling. "Chris Boardman said he wanted to be the walking and cycling commissioner, not just cycling. And I think that’s absolutely right – it means you can speak to more people and get more people on board. It means you can cut through that barrier created by the word 'cyclist'. The sight of a bit of lycra and a helmet acts as a huge red button for many people who prefer to travel by car."

Mandie says it’s also critical that the scheme is "very much intended to improve the walking and cycling environment for women, older people, people with disabilities and children. That’s really clear."

In practical terms that means focusing on cycling and walking rates where people are not already doing it.

"If you just use the cycling propensity tool to work out where to put your interventions they will target the better-off areas of the city because those are the people that are cycling more now – and it’s flatter. A lot of the poorer areas of Manchester are also hillier, so the cycling propensity tool will show you people are less likely to bike in those areas. That’s really quite a hill to climb."

"So we’ve got to be mindful of how we can increase rates of cycling and reduce that inequality. And it’s a tough nut to crack. Our current thinking is that we should be looking as much at walking schemes in the north of the city and finding plateaus where you might get a walk-to-school and bike-to-school thing going."

Ask Mandie what the future looks like if the Bee Network lives up to its billing, and she reels off the wins: "Better physical and mental health, improved community cohesion, improved performance at school, better air quality, reduced congestion, increased productivity. Happier people. More connected people."

Boardman’s strategy looked at the annual cost of doing nothing. It reckoned that congestion cost £1.3 billion, air pollution £1.1 billion, casualties £800 million, inactivity £300 million, and global warming £250 million. That’s a total cost per year of £3.75 billion.

But even with all this to recommend it, Mandie says, "you’ve got have the leadership and political will right at the top and you’ve got to have the money."