Cycling is the biggest hack for this congested city

This weekend marks the inaugural Cycle Hack Manchester: part of a global movement to find ways to remove barriers that stop or inhibit people from cycling.

It sounds like an exciting and wonderfully positive event and even more so by being part of a global movement.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there. But I look forward to reading about what happens. Because I believe that cycling can be the biggest hack for this city’s greatest problem: congestion.

Cycling around Manchester is both a joyous and intensely challenging experience.

Manchester is one of the most congested cities in Europe.

It’s incredible to believe though when you consider the city centre has one of the lowest levels of car ownerships in the country. In 2010, before the endless development work and at the height of the recession, the average speed of traffic in central Manchester between 1700-1800 was barely 12 mph.

Cycling in Manchester does put you right in the middle of that slow, congested mess – but it offers a way out.

It’s by far the quickest way to get around, certainly for journeys up to 5 miles. It’s door-to-door and with a reasonable speed of 12 mph is no slower than the average speed of cars in traffic. The council leader even demonstrated this in a race between bikes, buses, cars and trams.

Getting more people moving is key to making Manchester the Northern Powerhouse it seeks to become. How can the city seek to deliver economic growth when you can’t even get to the office or to shops?

That’s why cycling could be one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective hacks to relieve this city’s chronically congested arteries.

This is the narrative that I’d like to see explored further when it comes to promoting cycling.

It’s not about endless training courses, or bits of plastic on your head.

Cycling can help solve congestion. It can get more people moving, quicker.

No-one can claim that this is a bad thing.

Yet politically, there’s much against people who use bikes to get around.

The (cycling!) council leader seems to hate cyclists. The police stop cyclists for minor misdemeanors whilst blocking bike paths and advanced stop lines. New developments ignore cycling provision or even dig them up. Metrolink, in particular, ignore the pleas of cyclists not to destroy key commuting routes. All while the council PR machine bleat on about training and helmets as the answer to getting more people on the road. I won’t even start about other road users who regularly terrorise vulnerable people on two wheels.

So – deep breath – what do we do?

Tweeting angrily to councillors is pointless. Making them sign petitions is worth little, particularly when there’s no opposition to hold councillors to account on their promises.

It seems to me that the only thing that has really seemed to make an impact in the short to medium term is harnessing the power of the business community.

The Cycling Works campaign in London showed that if you can get businesses & employers behind your campaign, using a narrative of reducing congestion, economic growth (and safety), you can make change. London is seeing the development of the biggest, most substantial and highest-quality cycling infrastructure it has probably ever seen – the East-West Cycleway.

It’s not perfect, but this type of fully thought-out, segregated and connected infrastructure will get even more people moving about by bike and hopefully lead to a snowball effect in the nation’s capital.

Contrast this to a councillor’s statement at a University of Manchester salon on cycling, that the inability for cars to get around the city centre due to the works would in fact lead to more people using bikes!

Manchester holds dear the platitudes of bygone heroes about progress and love.

Progress as a Northern Powerhouse is impossible without solving problems held over from the past.

Let’s work together with business and employers across the city to build a new campaign and show the same leadership and forward-thinking for which Manchester has historically been known.

Because cycling could be the biggest hack for this congested city’s economic growth.

Political leaders must commit fully to space4cycling

Update: Space for Cycling went ahead successfully last night, with various Labour politicians coming out to show their support. This morning, Mary Creagh MP, Labour Shadow Transport minister spoke at Labour Party conference at Labour Party conference. Depressingly, there was no real commitment to space4cycling, bar improving HGV safety:

Not the dedicated, segregated network that’s safe for ages 8-80 that we’d asked for. GMCC and CTC are now calling for a manifesto commitment – lobby your MP here.

Tonight, hundreds of people will gather at Manchester’s All Saints Park to participate in a Space4Cycling bike ride all round the city. Timed to coincide with Labour Party conference, the organisers say:

we’re riding to raise awareness of the need for Space for Cycling. We want the ride to be a fun, family friendly event where we ride as a group at a gentle pace for a short distance around the city centre.

This ride takes place about a year after the first Space4Cycling bike ride in Manchester, which was timed to coincide with the Conservative Party conference. Last year’s ride took place shortly after the announcement that Manchester had won £20m from the Cycle City Ambition Fund following a successful bid, titled “Velocity 2025“.

So what are we riding for? After all, we have the money – shouldn’t we be happy? Things can only get better, as I’m sure someone once said.

Happily, the Velocity proposals are now coming through. Unfortunately, having been filtered through the council’s town planning department, we’re beginning to see that the vision for a cycling city isn’t necessarily the same as reality.

I believe that dedicated, separate space for cycling is what we want. Not shared pedestrians paths alongside roads for cars, or an endless succession of toucan crossings.

And, honestly, money is not the only thing that’s needed to make this a reality. In fact, it’s probably not the first thing we need either.

What we need is commitment. Real commitment from our political leaders that cycling is a serious form of transport that will have does have real, tangible benefits: from reducing congestion, improving health and boosting our global competitiveness.

Without that, any new money will do little. And the Velocity schemes will continue to fall short of the vision with which they were funded.

Manchester: Let’s compete on liveability with London

Originally published as a Points North comment for Prolific North.

It’s time to realise that the north can’t compete with London. The sheer size of the place, the awesome edifices, the concentration of people and cultures – it’s an incredible place. No wonder thousands of people from across the country and the EU choose London as the place they want to go to live and work.

But there are a few of us who have moved the other way. After living almost my whole life in our capital city, I threw caution to the wind and moved to Manchester. Attracted by the lower cost of living and the imminent move of the BBC cementing its position as a media hub, it seemed a sensible move to “try out” for 18 months.

Six years later, I’m still here. Swapping my 45 minute car or Tube commute for a 10 minute walk (and now 15 minute cycle) was a revelation. I can live near the city centre for a fraction of what it costs to live anywhere that central in London. And when I need to head over to our York office every couple of weeks, the main train station is only a few minutes away.

Simply put, the north is already more liveable than London. So why isn’t this the main differentiator that we compete on when attracting talented, motivated workers?

I believe that if a city really wants to step up to the plate of becoming the UK’s “second city” then it needs to do so on the basis of being much more liveable than our capital city, not just the second most crowded. In many cities across the north, we’re already half way there: as Guy Garvey says of Manchester, “they return the love round here, don’t they?”. So we’ve got friendly, helpful people. But we need to do more than share northern charm.

One of the elements that I believe can massively improve liveability is to reduce congestion in cities. We can all agree that congestion is a bad thing – it’s wasted time and it’s wasted money. So why do we accept congestion as a fact of life? We say that it’s because of “traffic”.

There’s one flaw in this: if you’re in the middle of congestion, then you are traffic. And a congested city is not a liveable city.

This is why I’m passionate about the effect that walking and cycling can have on improving liveability in cities. But to do that, we need accept that private cars shouldn’t rule our lives and our political decision-making.

Trust me, I’m not some car-hating fundamentalist – I drive when I need to and I think that they absolutely have a vital role to play – but it shouldn’t be a default. I’m actually pretty ordinary: the fact is 45% of households in Manchester don’t have access to a car or a van. Yet Manchester is one of the most congested cities in Europe.

Political leaders across the north need to wake-up to this. Putting real money behind long-term, sustainable plans to shift people away from cars and onto bikes or walking will pay off in the long run. It will reduce congestion and increase the liveability of our cities. That in turn will attract talented, motivated workers who want to enjoy where they live and work – not just tolerate it for a decent wage. Just look at the examples of Copenhagen and Amsterdam – two successful cities, similar in size to Manchester or Leeds that are ranked extremely highly on liveability . Both feature a total modal share for cycling at around 40%; according to TfGM, just 2.1% of people in Manchester cycle to work (though amazingly, this outstrips the 1.3% that use Metrolink!).

So in conclusion: if we want to make our northern cities more competitive with London, and attract talented, motivated workers, not just wage slaves then we should build on our lower cost of living to make them even more liveable. One way of doing that? Well, it’s as easy as riding a bike.

Fixed – 30 Days of Biking: Day 12

It’s 12 months since I converted one of my bikes to fixed-gear:

A fixed-gear bike is one that has a drivetrain with no freewheel. Most modern bicycles have a freewheel as part of the rear sprocket (cog) so that you don’t need to constantly keep pedalling while the bike is in motion: that is, you can coast without pedalling.

A fixed-gear bike, or “fixie” has the rear cog bolted directly to the hub of the rear wheel so you can’t stop pedalling: when the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn in the same direction. Conversely this also means you can “brake” using your legs and body, by resisting the rotation of the cranks. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

The bike is a beautiful ride. It’s an old steel-framed Raleigh racing bike dating from the 1980s that I found on Gumtree in 2011. It’s since had new wheels and new drivetrain (both twice now in fact!), as well as new brakes, pedals, tyres and a complementary second-hand saddle. I’ve also added a classic looking bike light and a loud shiny bell that I picked up in Amsterdam.

I have to admit, I never expected that I would enjoy riding fixed. But it’s true that there is an added dimension of control and enjoyment that you get only from being directly connected to your bike’s motion: the bike becomes a part of you, and you become part of the bike.

I did use to think it was dangerous – what if you forgot, and stopped pedalling, or went down a hill really fast? And then there was the issue of brakes. The law says you need two brakes and, whilst a fixed-gear counts as one, a front brake makes sense to me. I like the control of a brake caliper and I’m just not into skidding to burn off speed – and rubber.

I think I finally decided to convert the bike for two reasons: one was that Jonnie had built a fixed-gear bike and become an advocate through the obvious joy he got from riding it. Many of my questions about how to ride a fixed-gear bike were answered too. Once you’ve had a bit of practice, it becomes second-nature. And those odd moments when you try to freewheel become much less frequent after you’ve been jolted almost out of your seat a few times!

The second reason to convert it was being inspired by a documentary. Böikzmöind follows the fixed gear riding community in Bristol and answers the question: why would you ride a bike with no gears in a city of hills?

This is definitely worth a watch and it’s now free on Vimeo:

Do you ride fixed? Why do you enjoy it? Let me know in the comments below:

Quick post on the move – 30 Days of Biking: Day 8

I’m shortly heading off to tonight’s event, “can Manchester become a cycling city?” which I mentioned briefly yesterday.

There’s a related blog post here by the two University of Manchester researchers that are involved in the Manchester Cycling Lab project. I don’t want to summarise the detail, but it’s exciting to see data from sources like Strava being used to help find out how many bike riders are in Manchester and where they’re going.

For the first time, it seems there’s real data and analysis going on. The question is whether policy will be changed as a result of the outcomes. We already know that politicians don’t always make policy based on evidence, because that’s not always politically expedient. However, with real, measurable data behind the arguments for cycling, it will be much harder to ignore.

Just today, the All Party Parliamentary Commission on Physical Activity said we need to “move more” and launched a campaign to get young people moving for just one hour a day. According to their research, “today’s kids are the least active in history”. The majority of 12-year-olds do not meet the minimum guidelines of 60 minutes of activity per day – pretty shocking given that physical inactivity on the whole is said to cost the UK £20bn per year and a bigger killer than smoking.

It’s not just kids though – it’s grown-ups too. The great thing about cycling is that it usually gives me 30 minutes of activity per day (the rest of which is spent sitting at a screen).

Still, that’s more than most people and it’s a really easy way to introduce some simple, low-impact activity into an already busy daily routine. Given the news articles I see about ‘congestion’  and physical arguments during the school run, surely we’ve got to realise that “active travel” like cycling is a potential solution and it has to start young.

Let’s hope that the Cycling Lab results are taken seriously if we want to bear out this vision.

Here’s the infographic from the Commission:

PS Talking of Strava, I amazingly shaved 66 seconds off my commute time this morning compared to yesterday:

…though I’m pretty sure a combination of low traffic and catching the “green wave” of traffic lights at times meant I maintained a higher average speed than usual.

Still, it’s nice to show that even a minimal amount of extra exertion can pay benefits. As ever, I rode safe and in “normal” clothing: a shirt, jumper, jeans and a hoody. Definitely no Lycra skinsuit…

Multimodal – 30 Days of Biking: Day 6

I’m feeling increasingly a fraud as I’ve not cycled for three days straight now. Sadly there was no opportunity in London to hop on a bike, but I continue to be impressed by how many Londoners now take cycling for granted as a completely normal mode of transport.

I was even more surprised to see vans, HGVs and buses regularly obey the (admittedly limited) bike infrastructure such as bike lanes and advanced stop lines (ASLs). London still needs better infrastructure and separation is in many ways an ideal, in my opinion, but it was refreshing to see compared with what I’ve experienced in central Manchester.

Talking of infrastructure, I took the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) for the first time in many years this afternoon. The DLR is a light railway that connects much of London’s regenerated east and docklands. Uniquely, it’s computer controlled and the member of staff on board is usually only responsible for passenger safety and operating the doors .

DLR B07 rolling stock...

DLR B07 rolling stock…

Apart from the sheer excitement of sitting at the front and watching the train drive itself, I was pleased to see that the DLR now allows full-size bikes aboard during off-peak hours. This instantly increases the choice for customers who may wish to take a “multimodal” journey, particularly leisure travellers and helps provide another way for bikes to cross the river. It’s interesting as an example for Manchester too, as the Metrolink tram system does not allow full-size bikes at any time, despite the similarities: both the DLR rolling stock and Metrolink trams are built by Bombardier and derived from a German design for light rail vehicles with on-street running.

...Metrolink M5000 (by Dan Sellers)

…Metrolink M5000 (by Dan Sellers)

I can understand a ban at peak times, as the crowding is pretty extreme. But during off-peak hours, Manchester’s trams often have a reasonable amount of space. This should get better as double-trams are introduced across all parts of the network at all times: some lines only operate singles.

I hope the lessons of the DLR trial, which resulted in the positive change in policy, are studied closely by TfGM and I know that GMCC have an active campaign. Incidentally, the Tube has allowed bikes  on most sub-surface lines for years during off-peak so I don’t buy the ‘safety’ argument. The DLR scheme does ask cyclists to apply some common-sense rules and in my opinion, that’s all that’s really needed.

And finally, one of the reasons I was in London this weekend was to attend an Angela Lansbury film festival in Poplar, where she has strong family connections. “D’m-angela”, as I’ve taken to calling her, is best known to many as Jessica Fletcher in the popular TV mystery show ‘Murder, She Wrote’ where she famously rides a bike in the opening credits:

…and for an 88-year-old, she’s looking and moving pretty great. I hope that inspires more older people to get out and ride too!

Takk Manchester review – 30 Days of Biking: Day 4

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m off in London for a couple of days so posting new content and riding is a bit more difficult. Still, I’ll try and do my best. No riding today, but here’s something I wrote earlier as part of a series featuring bike-friendly businesses in Manchester.

Earlier this week, I met a colleague at Takk, one of the (relatively) new cafes on Tariff Street at the edge of the northern quarter.

Takk is an Icelandic themed cafe occupying a space in what I think was formerly a fashion warehouse or outlet. It prides itself on the fantastic selection of coffee on offer, including: espresso-based drinks; good filter coffee and also Aeropress. They also offer cakes, some pastries (which are gone by 10 am) and freshly-made sandwiches at lunchtime, made on bread baked down the road at Barbakan.

I’ve been into Takk a few different times during the day. It’s a great place to grab a cup of coffee and do a bit of work, or just meet people who might be stopping by: think of a common room, particularly for creative and digital types, which explains the number of Mac users. Takk happily caters for them: there’s decent wifi, ample power sockets located around the room and the mix of individual and communal tables is ideal for having some quiet thinking time or getting a group together to flesh out some ideas.

They also do a stunning Brie, apple and jelly sandwich.

Takk is notably bike-friendly: whenever I’ve been in, there have been a few bikes stacked up nearly beside the coffee counter. It’s a warm welcome to riders, if ever there was one. It helps that many of the staff cycle into work too. Unfortunately, there’s no official bike parking outside and a neighbouring local grinch business wasn’t too happy with cyclists locking up against their railings opposite. Takk gracefully responded by inviting anyone who cycled there to bring their bike indoors.

This isn’t a problem unique to Takk: Tariff Street is one of these new bits of Manchester that has yet to benefit from bike parking. Hopefully, we’ll see bike racks appear nearby very soon. It’s something that I raised at the nascent NQ Forum.

I’m looking forward to returning to Takk soon. I still think about that sandwich. But if you can’t be a regular, they do offer roasted coffee ready to take away so you can try and recreate it at home. Just make sure you have an array of Mac laptops to complete the experience.

Takk Manchester, @takkmcr, 6 Tariff St M1 2FF

9-6 every day (I think!)

Just a normal day hauling hard drives in the middle of the road – 30 Days of Biking: Day 2

After yesterday’s sunshine, the weather in Manchester was back on form – looming grey clouds and an unhelpful wind that buffeted me unexpectedly when I rode out to work. Again, I’d failed to leave early for the fabled ‘long ride in the morning’, but I will get around to that very soon.

One of the things I noticed on my ride to work this morning is that there’s a road safety campaign in full swing. I’ve seen it on the back of buses, reminding drivers to check for cyclists and junctions. And on Sackville Street there’s a prominent poster suggesting cyclists ride central on narrow streets (“…like this one”, I thought in my head as I went past).

Riding in “the primary position“, or “taking the lane” is something I’d first learned about from this brilliant blog post from London Cyclist: 7 mistakes you’re making with your cycling and how to correct them. I actually first started commuting properly by bike in London back in 2010 when I was seconded to another department, shortly after I bought my first bike as an adult. Andreas’s post was a great way to avoid some basic mistales that I might’ve made, starting out commuting on London’s busy roads. I recommend even experienced cyclists take a look and check they’re not making any obvious errors out of habit.

But equally importantly in this campaign is educating drivers about why cyclists might not be riding in the gutter or using the marked bike lane. As anyone who rides regularly will tell you, there are a few drivers who still refuse to accept that anyone with fewer than four wheels is allowed to use the road. Hopefully, this government-backed intitiative will remind everyone to look out for one another and explain some sensible cycling techniques.

This evening, I cycled home more laden than when I arrived. I had to take home some components for a new PC that I’m building, including two hard drives and a motherboard.

You might think that delicate components like hard drives should probably be transported by courier or, at least, Royal Mail. I decided to wrap the two full-size drives in bubblewrap and shove them in a small parcel box I had spare from an eBay delivery. I’m happy to report they made it home fine, snugly fitting in my pannier alongside the motherboard box and my laptop. I suspect, to be honest, that they probably got the same amount of bouncing around as they would do in the back of a Royal Mail van, but they are designed to be transported and cycling is a perfectly acceptable way of doing so.

Of course, I haven’t yet needed to move an entire server by bike but I’m sure some bungee cords would be fine…

Taking a longer road home – 30 Days of Biking: Day 1

After what seemed like weeks of grey and wet, Manchester’s weather today ended up being perfect to kick off 30 Days of Biking:

My original plan for today to get up early and take a long route cycling into work. Unfortunately, I’m still not enjoying the switch to British Summer Time and when I looked out of the window this morning, the raindrops clinging to the balcony glass didn’t inspire me. It also meant that the route I’d had in my head involving part of a canal path might be slightly muddy.

Usually, my two mile commute from my flat in Ancoats to the office in Hulme takes less than 15 minutes – barely enough to break a sweat, now that I do it every day. That’s the most direct way: if I was more disciplined and woke up an hour earlier, I could easily make it a 10 mile daily morning ride, using mostly traffic-free routes.

So after a day spent mostly inside, tapping away at my computer while the sun blazed through the windows, I was pretty set on riding home on a longer route. And suddenly, it’s hurrah for BST: 6pm and it’s still plenty light.

Leaving the office, I headed south to along one of Manchester’s major bike routes – National Cycle Network (NCN) 6, which in Manchester is a pleasant mix of traffic free and residential streets. It seemed the good weather had brought out a lot of riders on a wide range of bikes, rather than just the hardcore who do it everyday. Kids on mountain bikes, a few Dutch style city bikes and, of course, the odd racer joined me on the ride through Alexandra Park down to the Manchester Cycleway.

The Manchester Cycleway is one of Manchester’s ‘hidden’ cycling gems. For most of its route, it’s made up of the glorious Fallowfield Loop, a disused railway that’s been reborn as off-road pedestrian and cycle route that stretches from Chorlton all the way to Gorton in east Manchester. It’s a joy to ride and I’ll definitely be covering it in a future blog post.

This evening, I only cycled a couple of miles along the ‘Floop’ if that, turning off after Sainsbury’s Fallowfield to take the quiet bike routes through Owens Park campus then up along Oxford Road’s cycle lanes and bus lanes to get back into town. The faster road made for a pleasant contrast as I took advantage of the full width of the bus lane to pick up speed (and happened to pick up a personal record doing so).

So, in all, a relaxed start to 30 Days of Biking but a positive one nonetheless. If I can hit 10 miles a day at least, then I’ll be finishing the month way up on my average, though I’m off to London this weekend and I don’t think I’ll be riding then.

For anyone interested, I’ve included the route below and you can check out my other rides from my Strava page.

Happy riding!

I’m taking part in 30 Days of Biking

Last April, I began seeing tweets tagged with #30daysofbiking appear in my timeline. It turned out 30 Days of Biking is a campaign founded in Minneapolis that seeks to share and promote the joy of cycling. Now in its fifth year, #30daysofbiking has become an international month-long celebration of cycling culture wherever there are tweeters and riders.

Being a regular cyclist in Manchester, I joined in with a few tweets last year to share my daily riding experience. I didn’t keep it up too closely, though I did cycle most days as it’s how I get to work or to the shops.

This year though, I’m going to go one step further by pledging to cycle daily from 1 April. I’ll also be trying to write a related blog post, either of the ride, or maybe a review or advice: anything, really that helps me share why I genuinely love going out on my bike.

I’m doing this because I believe that cycling is an amazingly positive and liberating activity.

It requires very little fitness to get going, is generally considered low-impact on your body and can show benefits quickly.

And perhaps surprisingly, Manchester is a city that’s well suited to cycling: it’s generally flat (at least in central and south Manchester), has access to some particularly stunning bike routes and also has a number of groups that are actively passionate about getting people riding. 

You don’t need a fancy bike either. I love to geek out about bike frames, components and accessories, but the truth is, almost any old bike will do. Just make sure it’s roadworthy – your local bike shop can help you with that.

Sounds good? Want to read more? Check out 30 reasons to take up cycling. And once you’ve done that, go and rummage around your garage, dig out that dusty old two-wheeler and take it for a spin.

For more advice on getting cycling for fitness, check out the NHS choices website.

Me and @samscam after completing the Manchester to Blackpool ride

Me and @samscam after completing the Manchester – Blackpool ride for the first time