4 years since the climate emergency declaration – and only just getting moving on transport

To mark the 4th anniversary of Manchester’s climate emergency declaration, we are looking back at climate inaction in the city and what still needs to change, broken down by our three main emission areas: businesses, homes, and transport.

Transport is arguably the issue that best represents the rhetoric-reality divide on climate action. Leaders at the city and combined authority level fall back on statements that Manchester is leading the way (in some cases, those exact words). Yet most external assessments put MCR much further down the pack. Three weeks ago, a new report by the Clean Cities Campaign declared Greater Manchester the worst city in Europe for clean and green travel (behind others in the UK, with London and Glasgow mid-table). Quibble with the methodology if you will, but it’s clear we’re significantly off the pace.

Transport matters because it is responsible for 23% of Manchester’s direct emissions. Transport also matters because of the huge impacts it has on our health. Active travel can help to combat diseases exacerbated by physical inactivity, as well as isolation and loneliness. Then there’s the link between polluting vehicles and our lungs. We know that toxic air kills over 100 people a year in Manchester, putting those with underlying health conditions at risk. Manchester air contains double the amount of NO2 that the WHO considers safe. Let’s not lose sight of this evidence at a time when some national politicians shy away from spelling it out for fear of electoral defeat.

Finally, as councillors remarked at February’s Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny committee, transport matters to residents. Cancelled buses, poor street crossings, no street crossings… these are issues they hear all the time on the doorstep. If it riles up residents, isn’t it time it riled up elected members too?

What did the emergency declaration promise on transport?

Dust down the declaration text, consigned to the recesses of the council website (for now, it may one disappear altogether, buried with the carbon budget). That document contains several specific commitments on transport.

Encourage all staff on council business to use the lowest carbon, appropriate, travel”

This should have been an easy one, a ‘quick win’ as they say. Yet a revised staff travel policy was not launched until 2022. CEM even revealed continued instances of domestic-UK flights . The most recent update on staff travel in June 2023, demonstrated that emissions linked to staff travel are down on pre-Covid levels due to more home working although rising steadily again. More worryingly still, take up of the Cycle to Work Scheme is decreasing year on year (p.8 in the update above)

“Push GMCA to decarbonise public transport, heat and energy as early as possible”

True, many powers relating to transport fall to GMCA rather than MCC (buses, trams, the in-peril Beryl bikes). But ‘this is a GMCA issue’ can be a convenient and enjoyable shield. Did you detect a touch of schadenfreude in the Town Hall when Burnham felt the heat on CAZ? There’s so much traffic (pun apt) between the two tiers of local governments that the commitment to ‘push’ should be more than a strongly worded letter, FAO Mr Mayor. Bev Craig’s joint statements with Burnham on rail travel and HS2 show they can kick up a stink together when they want to. Other campaign groups focused on travel across GM, such as Walk Ride, have pointed to leadership vacuums – or silences from the Active Travel Commissioner (previously Chris Boardman, now Sarah Storey) – when confronted with evidence of patchy cycle infrastructure. Why? The top brass at transport are rewarded handsomely for their work.

Finally, the Climate Emergency Declaration contains not one but two commitments on aviation.

“Work with the Tyndall Centre to review the actual emissions from aviation. Investigate the best way to include aviation in our overall carbon reduction programme in the long term”

“Accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions from aviation”

Transport in the MCCA Framework and the rest of this blog is taken as ground transport, but it’s important that we don’t let Manchester Airports Group (MAG) off the hook via this categorisation. We’ve covered MAG’s greenwash on multiple occasions, read more here.

What else has (not) happened with transport since the declaration?

A couple of decisions and bungles in the wake of the emergency declaration are worth flagging. In October 2019, just three months after declaration day in July, MCC’s planning committee waved through an application to build a massive car park on the Great Ancoats Street retail park site. Read more about the subsequent campaign by Trees Not Cars here and see below for more on the reluctance to limit car usage. Active travel champions in the council will only get so far if Planning and Highways aren’t also on board.

The summer of 2020 saw a furore over pop-up cycle lanes. Paint is not infrastructure – that charge rings true – but this episode revealed an Executive unclear on how to encourage active travel and marked a missed opportunity. Looking back, there was no ability to capitalise upon the increase in cycle and walking in the wake of pandemic. Old habits and old vehicles returned.

Finally, and most significantly, the poor handling of campaigns and consultations for active travel neighbourhoods in Levenshulme and Burnage has sown mistrust and ill-will between residents and the council, as Streets for People continue to show.

Where are we up to now with active travel?

In February 2023, MCC finally unveiled an Active Travel Strategy. Please make an impressed ‘oooh’ sound as this is of course a glossy document (albeit one with images that do not reflect the diversity of Manchester). But the problem – as ever – will be walking the walk, not talking the talk.

Here are three concerns we have  (many sourced from or shared by residents, campaigners and some councillors)

1)      This strategy is ‘funding ready’ – aka, does not have funding. That’s not to be dismissed outright. Responsive grant-chasing has pitfalls too. But what is the plan A (or B?) for investment. Have the authors of this strategy been transparent with the public who engaged in the consultation about the ££, or lack thereof? The document side-steps this crucial point and little fuss has been made about Hunt and Sunak’s sneaky cuts to Active Travel in the spring budget this year.

2)      Will work join up between wards, let alone between boroughs? You might have seen photos of cycling lanes suddenly stopping as they hit an administrative boundary. The funding-ready approach exacerbates the danger that a piece of good work is undertaken in one bit of the city, but not in the next neighbourhood along. GM’s clean travel ‘cold spots’ were one of the reasons it ranked so lowly in the Clean Cities ranking. Inequality scars Manchester and that takes a particular form with patchy infrastructure. People don’t undertake journeys one ward at a time. If you are considering a trip by bike and know there is one unsafe stretch, that is deterrent enough. Active travel provision needs to be a network, just like the “normal” roads, or the railways. Nor is this just about differing levels of cycle provision. Lack of road crossings in areas such as Hulme are equally important – and potentially easier to fix.

3)      Will the new-found love for bikes, trikes and walks reduce the number of journeys by car? Promoting Active Travel is only one part of the picture. A more palatable one to talk about, sure. But given that 62% of GM journeys between 1 and 2 km are made by car, we need to limit car usage too. The strategy is silent on issues such as parking levies – or how cars on pavements deter active travel. There’s nothing on car clubs and no commitments to limit high carbon infrastructure, such as roads, similar to what we have seen from the Welsh government for instance.

Conclusion – where are we going? 

When the Executive Member for Environment and Transport (Tracey Rawlins) unveiled the Active Travel Strategy in February 2023 she stated that she did not want this to become yet another strategy stuffed in a drawer. The real risk is that the ambition of this strategy gets chipped away at, only a fraction of what it sets out achieved. But what if it went the other way? What if this strategy was the bare minimum and each iteration (‘work in progress’ and that) got bolder. Why don’t we start to encourage all young people under 30 to take public transport, with free travel in their habit-forming years? Transport does not have to be a source of political spin and citizen grumbles. Changing the way we all move around Manchester really could lead to healthier, happier lives.

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