Review: A Cycling Infrastructure Safari
Words: Ian Pennington, RTPI Young Planners Vice Chair
It’s been called the single most important thing that mayors can do to tackle climate change: prioritising the needs of pedestrians and cyclists over space for cars.
In Greater Manchester, the active travel network – originally coined as the ‘Bee Network’, a moniker that has since also welcomed public transport under its wing – is underway with spades in the ground on a number of schemes, so a recent RTPI Young Planners event sought to find out how it’s all shaping up.
We teamed up with commuter cyclist, cycle blogger and founding member of Walk Ride Greater Manchester Nick Hubble to take fellow planners on an Infrastructure Safari around some of the new Bee Network routes – and the gaps in between. The idea was to explore the various highway interventions ‘in the wild’, not only to soberly assess them with our professional hat on, but to experience firsthand how various cycling interventions actually feel from a user’s perspective.
A lucky 13 – comprising 11 guests plus Nick and me – set out with our two-wheeled steeds from the long-established Oxford Road cycleway, some of us taking advantage of the new Beryl Bikes docked cycle hire scheme (named after multiple record-breaking cyclist Beryl Burton). We were armed with a simple survey compiled by Nick, asking us all to rate each of 17 stages, with pit stops after each of four legs to debrief and fill in our ratings (out of 5*) and comments.
Although our relatively small group – seven submitted their survey; three female and four male – hasn’t given us a scientific sample size, we do have an insight into the reactions to the different highway treatments of our participant cohort, whose self-reported cycling frequency spanned the full range from Hardly Ever to Most Days.
Of those who added an explanation of why they didn’t cycle more regularly, one tellingly wrote, “fear of death”. But change is coming. 89 km of routes (from a target of 100 km) were completed last year across Greater Manchester, and the Walking and Cycling Investment Plan January 2020 set a target of 1,800 miles in 10 years. So as we started our ride, it was recognised that the Bee Network, too, is still very much at the start of its journey and that it necessarily still has various gaps between completed schemes. Indeed, some of the more negative responses to sections of the route were perhaps predictable. Nonetheless, this concept of firsthand experience was important to show which stages were deemed better or worse.
Leg 1 was to cross central Manchester. The Oxford Road cycleway, which offers protection along the main carriageway, but not at junctions, scored in 3*s and 4*s, then the shared vehicle carriageway along Peter Street scored mostly in 3*s and a couple deeming it worse. ‘Traffic-free’ Deansgate, currently subject to a mishmash of temporary Emergency Active Travel Funded measures installed during the pandemic, scored mostly in 2*s or below, with one respondent noting the “terrible surfacing issues”. Since the event, Manchester City Council has unveiled plans for Deansgate as part of a wider City Centre Active Travel Scheme consultation, so positive change there is, one hopes, imminent.
Covering the route from Manchester Cathedral to, essentially, the University of Salford, Leg 2 saw a similarly mixed bag of scores. Navigating the littered, potholed and patchily protected Blackfriars/Broughton Cycleway during rush hour earned scores of mostly 2*s and 3*s, before respite in the form of the Trinity Active Neighbourhood (more commonly known as low traffic neighbourhoods or LTNs) collected mostly 4*s, and the short protected – and greened – Oldfield Road Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS) bagged 3*s, 4*s, and 5*s.
Onwards to Castlefield via Salford Quays, Leg 3 continued along the ‘wand’-protected Oldfield Road stretch (averaging out at a 3.14* rating) before entering the recently-completed Liverpool Street kerb-protected and chicaned cycle lane, which features bus stop bypasses accessible for pedestrians via mini zebra crossings and secured an average score of 4.14*. Middlewood Street, with its kerbed protection that cedes priority at side junctions, managed almost the same average, while the walking and cycling bridge back across the River Irwell divided opinions from 2* to 5*, albeit with three respondents awarding the maximum. Partway through this Leg, Nick suggested a future safari ride could include the forthcoming protected lanes along Trafford Road, which has the promising prospect of creating a continuous journey from Manchester city centre right up to White City and the Trafford Council border, with concomitant access to Salford’s Media City.
Finally, we pedalled alongside vehicles along the Chester Road dual carriageway and through its ‘hamburger’-styled roundabout (mostly 3*s and 4*s), then via the completed sections of the Manchester-Chorlton cycleway (a majority of six agreed worthy of a 4* score) to experience the infamous CYCLOPS junction design, which top-scored with five 5* awards. A comedown to the Stretford Road painted cycleway provided a contrasting 2.42* average, before a 3*-average beeline through the Manchester Metropolitan University shared space led us back to our meeting point.
A bonus round asked participants to compare two roundabout treatments on the route – the M602 underpass, and the more recent Medlock Street/Princess Road at-grade crossings. Although the latter gained better individual results, with a couple of 5* ratings, the former didn’t score badly, with predominantly 3*s and 4*s.
So, what did we learn? It’s fair to say that we were riding around an incomplete network; that was understood in advance. Rather, the aim was to understand which highway treatments were more favourable to our guests. Of the protected stages, the CYCLOPS junctions were best received in both ratings and responses to the question of ‘Which piece of infrastructure did you enjoy the most?’. The Medlock Street/Princess Road roundabout and Liverpool Street chicanes were also singled out for praise. On the other hand, paint-only lanes and shared vehicle carriageways were naturally low scorers throughout, whereas routes with poor maintenance – broken glass and potholes were cited in the comments for Deansgate and Blackfriars/Broughton – also came a cropper.
Key future questions depend on the art of the possible. In one final reflection to the survey, the respondent can now “see new possibilities but only where there is space to work with”. As planners, we play a role in ensuring our schemes contribute positively to the Bee Network, which has set its standards in the Greater Manchester Interim Active Travel Design Guide (March 2021) – notably adding that the national Cycle Infrastructure Design Guide, LTN 1/20 (July 2020), should take precedence in case of conflict. From now on, our delegates’ understanding will also benefit from greater firsthand experience of which treatments contribute to a better riding experience.
An edit of this review has been published on the RTPI website.