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.

The Best Bike Route Planning Startup You’ve Never Heard Of – 30 Days of Biking: Day 29

Following yesterday’s blog post about the brilliance of OpenCycleMap and the Wikipedia-like service that it’s built on, OpenStreetMap, I’ve been thinking: wouldn’t it be useful to be able to plan a complete bike-friendly journey, complete with turn-by-turn directions and maps? 

That’s where journey planning startup CycleStreets comes in.

CycleStreets is not-for-profit cycle journey planner for the United Kingdom. Founded in 2009 as an outgrowth of a Cambridge bike journey planning tool, CycleStreets uses the power of OpenStreetMap and other open data to generate sensible cycling routes from and to virtually any point in the UK.

Even though it’s described as “beta”, I’ve found CycleStreets’ journey planning to be far superior to that provided by Google Maps. Their secret sauce is their mapping engine which properly uses bike routes marked on OpenStreetMap and accounts for factors like slowdowns on  hills, traffic lights and other crossings.

CycleStreets offers a desktop site, mobile site and mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry (all open source).

CycleStreets screenshot

Try this journey from Chorlton to MediaCityUK – perfect for the new BBC commuter. Each route conveniently gets its own URL that can be shared easily and in addition to the map view, there are turn-by-turn directions below. 

CycleStreets offers a choice of route suggestions: fastest, balanced and quietest, each catering for a different type of rider, and also offers timings based on your average speed (I choose “Unhurried!”). Usefully, there is a ‘quietness meter’ which gives an indication of how quiet/busy the roads will be, based on their size and also an elevation profile so that you can see at a glance if there are any big hills!

That particular route isn’t the most complicated, as there’s designated bike route for most of the way (NCN 55). The difference between the three options is that the fastest route briefly follows a dual carriageway, then offers a slightly hairy right turn (!). Not for the faint-hearted, but you get my drift.

This exposes one of the major flaws with any automated mapping service – the lack of intelligence, but also giving you what you asked for – the fastest route, as calculated. CycleStreets, though, is designed for cyclists by cyclists so a lot of work has gone into making even the fastest routes reasonably sane so as to offer options to stronger riders. The default mapping style also emphasises the quality of the bike infrastructure installed (if any) so users can make an informed choice about the routes suggested. For more info, you can project the route onto other map layers like Ordnance Survey, Google Maps and its Satellite view.

The turn-by-turn instructions below the route also help inform riders of what they’ll experience along the way, including: surface conditions, whether cycling is legally permitted (as you could be routed over a footpath if that’s the best way) or things to watch out for like bollards and level crossings. All of this is based on data submitted to OpenStreetMap.

Conveniently, there’s a link to Google Streetview at each stage but where possible, there’s also a link to CycleStreets’ user-generated Photomap. This means you can see photos of potential pinch points or areas of concern that are bike-only and where Google’s Streetview cars simply can’t reach.

As an example, I added a photo of the Latchford Locks on the Manchester Ship Canal from last week’s bike ride to Liverpool. The map suggests the locks can be crossed – and they can – but adding a photo and some detail can help riders choose a route that suits them. I, for one, would not cross those giant locks at night!

For such a young organisation, it’s a shame that Google stole a bit of their mojo by adding cycle maps in 2012. Still, CycleStreets happily acknowledge that putting cycle route planning into Google is likely to help more people get on their bikes for short journeys. This is a good thing for making cycling sexy… or at least, normal.

Unlike Google though, CycleStreets is free and does not show advertising. However, they’d love a donation, or maybe you know a local authority or organisation that wants to promote alternative travel options? CycleStreets will also happily build a custom mapper or perform a site integration for a sensible fee. Developers are also welcome – check their API and code on GitHub.

CycleStreets is an invaluable, free resource that harnesses the data freely available and volunteered by the public, as well as open data sources, to suggest reasonably sensible bike routes.

Discover new bike routes in your area and try CycleStreets now.

Bike back to work – 30 Days of Biking: Day 22

I saw a surprising update from Transport for Greater Manchester today:

It turns out that TfGM are offering a free bikes to people who have recently found work in the Greater Manchester area. Not only that, but they also include accessories, a helmet and access to TfGM’s cycling training and maintenance courses.

This is a great way to get people into cycling to work routinely and help with the costs of travel in the early days of a job. Cycling to work can also help productivity as well as offering low running costs.

As an extension to this, I’d like to see cycle training being offered as one of the courses at Jobcentres and perhaps even access to bikes for travel to job interviews. It would certainly help towards ‘normalising’ cycling in Manchester and show those looking for work that there are alternative ways to get around.

Last year, Jonnie bought a bike from one of the scheme suppliers: Bespoke Cycle Recycling.

They’re a unique social enterprise that’s offers people who need a “second chance” in life the opportunity to learn new skills. It’s great to see them being supported by TfGM too.

(I know the latest updates have been a bit light, but I’ve got work to do!)

Liverpool – 30 Days of Biking: Day 20

Well, we made it to Liverpool!

We set off from Chorlton about 11 am and arrived in Liverpool shortly before 6 pm – that’s around seven hours with four of those in the saddle.

The weather was fine – overcast but dry so no direct sunshine, though the constant light breeze did begin to take its toll by the end of it. The route was also predominantly flat, apart from a couple of short climbs in Liverpool proper. Along the way, we followed the route of NCN 62, aka the Trans Pennine Trail though avoided the mucky bit through Trafford and used the Bridgewater Canal as a smoother alternative. After that, we joined the disused railway to Lymm, crossed the Manchester Ship Canal at Latchford Locks and lunched in Stockton Heath. After a shandy, we continued on recently resurfaced (!) canal towpaths past Fiddlers Ferry Power Station to Runcorn before hitting a bigger road to drop in at Liverpool Airport for a snack break.

The last 10 or so miles took their toll, with the constant oncoming breeze even though it was mostly on the route of the disused Liverpool Loop line. Turning off at Gateacre, we hit a couple of short unexpected hills. After 40 miles, they were not particularly welcome but eventually the bizarre structure of the Liverpool Catholic Cathedral was in sight.

A quick snap and it was to the Liverpool Philharmonic Dining Rooms for a few more pints and a well-earned meal before the train back. I took a few photos along the way and I’ll post them once I’ve got a bit more time and I’m not looking forward to falling asleep! For now, enjoy the route:


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:

Long ride, short post – 30 Days of Biking: Day 10

I knew that work would be extremely busy today, so I decided to kick-off the day with a good ride. Exercise before work increases productivity, we’re told and I definitely needed it today.

I haven’t been this way for some time. Surprisingly, a lot of it has been resurfaced which is a darn sight better than the mud or gravel that I used to encounter. I’ve taken some photos and will upload them along with narrative soon.

Make cycling sexy – 30 Days of Biking: Day 9

Work is pretty busy at the moment. I really enjoyed yesterday’s Cities@Manchester event, which sought to discuss whether Manchester can be a cycling city. I’m working on a response (and a collection of social media from the event) but, for now, I’ll just leave it at this picture:

Yep, that is Jason Orange of band Take That on his bike out and about in Manchester. And I think this is one of the key takeaways from last night: to become a cycling city, Manchester has to help riding a bike become ordinary (and perhaps even a little sexy).

Tonight, I’m off to another cycling event – this time, it’s the third birthday of Keep Pedalling, my local and brilliant bike shop.

“KP”, run by partners Shona and Rich, is my local bike shop. Over the last three years, they’ve sold me more bikes or parts than anywhere else: both my bikes are bought/built mostly from KP components. It’s brilliant that there’s a place nearby where I can pop in and chat without any pressure to buy or pay. It’s why I consistently recommended it to friends looking for a friendly, reliable bike shop. 

Happy birthday and I’ll see you shortly!

Back in the saddle as a lab rat – 30 Days of Biking: Day 7

Well after three days off the bike, I didn’t expect to get back in the saddle and beat my best weekday commute time.

(It shows second place because my ‘first’ place is when I rode right past my work on the same route heading off to Chorlton.)

I use Strava to track most of my riding as it’s the best app I’ve found for Android. Before I switched, I used Cyclemeter, which is iPhone/iPad only. Helpfully, you can export your rides from Cyclemeter to Strava by simply emailing your ride straight from the Cyclemeter app to uploads[at], using GPX format.

Strava has had a bit of a bad rep at times, being derided in media for ‘turning streets into race courses’ and encouraging reckless riding. Again, this is an area where common-sense has to be applied. Any road user can make poor decisions, putting themselves and others in danger. And the bigger road users tend to get off without injury.

Nonetheless, there is an enjoyable competitive element and I do like seeing how I’ve improved – or, sometimes gotten worse! – over particular sections of roads. Following my friends on Strava also inspires me to go out and ride, or check out different routes. I don’t consider myself an athlete by any means, but it’s a nice extra dimension to riding, if that’s your sort of thing. Plus I love geeking out over the stats – average speed, stopped time and so on.

If this sounds like fun, why not join the virtual 30 Days of Biking club on Strava?

Finally, I’m off to an event tomorrow hosted by the University of Manchester’s urban research group on the topic of whether Manchester can become a cycling city:

It’s one of the events linked to the Manchester Cycling Lab, a project to turn Manchester into a real-life lab for the study of cycling. The panel features researchers and figures from local cycling groups, including a local councillor. My prediction is that everyone will agree – but what defines a cycling city and how far we’ll get there remains to be seen.

Slightly predictably, there appears to be no bike parking around the venue on OpenCycleMap (denoted by a blue square usually), but the organising team have researched some possible locations and plotted them on Google Maps. I’ll be writing a bit more about OpenCycleMap and its basis on the editable OpenStreetMap soon.

I’m not sure about being a real-life lab rat rider, but I hope to learn more about the Cycling Lab project tomorrow. Anything that experiments with ways to improve cycling in this city is sure to be a good thing and I look forward to seeing the results.

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!

Breakfast – 30 Days of Biking: Day 5

A really short post from me as it's been an action-packed day. This morning, in search of breakfast, we dropped into London's famous bike cafe: Look Mum No Hands!

It's a brilliant place – part bike workshop, part cafe-bar where bike bits hang side-by-side with bags of coffee and boxes of bananas. It was busy of course on a weekend, but served up breakfast til 1 pm – ideal for assuaging a hangover.

It's a place that you pop into, find a table then order at the bar. We were warned our veggie breakfast and orange juice might take some time, and they did. Still, this gave us a chance to absorb the array of bikes hanging from the ceiling and also the Look Mum branded puncture repair kits, which were just some of the memorabilia available. I resisted buying a pack of pants.

The veggie breakfast was okay. Sourdough toast was a nice touch as were the almost endless sea of scrambled eggs. Unfortunately, the onion and black pepper sausages were pretty tough and overdone and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the spinach leaves. The coffee was pretty good though, coming from the Square Mile roasters.

I did love the vibe and atmosphere. Old Street is particularly busy for passing cyclists it seems, despite lack of dedicated infrastructure, so it benefits from a regular stream of drop-ins kitted out in everything from ordinary street clothes to full Lycra bodysuits. The breakfast just felt a bit below average for what we could've got elsewhere.

To be fair, the friendly staff did warn us that it was busy and I'm sure I will go back on a future occasion. I'll also be reviewing Manchester's own answer to bike cafés: Popup Bikes.