Active travel’s long and winding road: Economy Scrutiny Committee, July 2022

This month’s Economy Scrutiny Committee brought us an update on Manchester Active Travel Strategy and Investment Plan, a report that I would only recommend to the nerdiest of active travel nerds, as it’s very heavy on strategy-speak and light on digestible content.

 I had initially scratched my head as to the purpose of the report, until I remembered that during January’s Economy scrutiny committee, Steve Robinson, Director of Highways, made a vague reference to a ‘strategy’ that was going to sort out the disconnected walking and cycling routes across the city. What we’re seeing at this committee isn’t that strategy, rather an update on where we are with its development. I think.

 So, the ‘MATSIP’ (Manchester Active Travel Strategy and Investment Plan) “aims to create a city-wide, Manchester-specific strategy and network plan for active travel investment and a prioritised pipeline of measures to deliver across the city.”

 Translation: this is how we’re going to improve active travel across Manchester, and the stages we’ll do it in.

 (The update comes from an officer whose name we can’t see and is introduced only as “Rob”, so no disrespect intended for not using his full name here.)

 Walking and wheeling

 The plan is going to cover all forms of active travel, including walking – which refers to wheelchair users and all other pedestrians – wheeling and cycling in Manchester. (I wonder if we’d had this strategy in place last year, we might not have ended up with 80 digital ad screens cluttering the pavement at major pedestrian pinch points, but never mind.)

 The committee members ask several questions relating to issues such as wheelchair users navigating uneven pavement surfaces; safety at junctions and ensuring pedestrians truly are at the top of the hierarchy (yes, there’s a hierarchy); and finding revenue to maintain these schemes rather than just the capital to fund their initial construction. The officer gives reassuring answers to all of these concerns.

 There isn’t any hard-hitting scrutiny happening because at this stage, there’s not much to scrutinise. The strategy is in its initial stages: some ‘stakeholder engagement’ is happening, and we’ll be back in November for a report on the engagement results.

 Bee (bike) in the council’s bonnet

 Manchester’s bike hire scheme is discussed, with Cllrs Emma Taylor (Sharston), Irene Robinson (Ancoats & Beswick) and Tracey Rawlins (Baguley) all expressing a desire to see the scheme extended to their wards, with Wythenshawe highlighted as an ‘active travel desert.’

 It seems there is a limited amount of funding to deliver this scheme, and although the contract with bike-share provider Beryl does include provision to ‘investigate’ expansion to other parts of Manchester and wider districts, there is no timetable currently in place to do this. So, for anyone hoping to see little yellow bikes popping up on a street near them, we’re sorry to say it’s unlikely this is going to happen anytime soon.

 Good is GASlit

 Cllr Alan Good (Ancoats & Beswick) says he’s glad that the strategy will ‘analyse the gaps’ in active travel, hoping that it will address the absolute shitshow (my words, not his) that is Great Ancoats Street (GAS). This road-widening scheme, that the council touted as a tree-lined ‘European boulevard’, ripped out the existing cycling provision and has since been the site of at least one collision with a cyclist

 It is really disheartening to hear Cllr Rawlins dismiss these concerns as ‘casework’ (especially since she had her own Wythenshawe-related whinge earlier). This demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the strength of feeling around the issue from cyclists who feel their safety has been disregarded. The GAS fiasco is a prime example of the council failing to be bold on active travel, resulting in £9 million spent on infrastructure that will inevitably be revised in a few years’ time. Or, as Cllr Good puts it, “a failure of consultation and scrutiny.”

 Phil Havenhand (interim Head of Infrastructure and Environment) weighs in on the debate, as he was part of the scrutiny committee when the GAS project was approved. Apparently, the whole point of it was to ‘improve connectivity’ by installing a few more pedestrian crossings, while continuing to support the same level of traffic as it did before. So the answer to gridlock is… more gridlock?

 It seems the council is still stuck in the way of thinking that congestion and pollution can be solved by making it easier to drive to places when mountains of evidence show that it does not work. The only way to reduce traffic is to take cars off the road, and dedicating more public space to private vehicles will not achieve this.

 **SOMEONE MENTIONS THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY KLAXON**

 The best bit of scrutiny during this session comes from Cllr Luke Raikes (Baguley), who makes the keen observation that time and time again we see reports that merely reference one another, but don’t actually ‘knit together’ in a meaningful way. “Public transport is how we tackle the climate emergency,” he tells the committee; so how will the strategy line up with this? We’ll be interested to see how this develops and whether Cllr Raikes continues to push on the issue.

 It feels like we’ve a long road ahead of us on active travel, especially when the council seem unwilling to admit their mistakes and learn from them, or show the kind of leadership required to usher in the revolution needed to hit our now terrifyingly huge carbon reduction targets of 16% per year.

 Climate Emergency Manchester aims to put consistent and substantial pressure on Manchester City Council and other local centres of political, economic and cultural influence, so that Manchester’s responses to climate change are rapid, radical and do not harm the poorest and marginalised in society. This blog is part of the work of CEM’s Team Scrutiny Fabulous, which reviews the workings of the Council’s scrutiny system and its implications for local responses to the climate crisis. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch with us via contact@climatemergencymanchester.net

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