Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Bicycle transport in Manchester

As a follow up to last week's post about public transport in Greater Manchester, let's talk about my favourite form of transport - bicycling. Bicycles are by far the most environmentally friendly way of travel (other than walking and running) and they keep you fit and healthy. As the phrase goes: One runs on money and makes you fat [car], one runs on fat and saves you money [bicycle]. I ride my bike almost every day, it's my transport to work. I couldn't do without cycling.

Why do I have such a big need for cycling? Well for me, since I don't drive, it is the only way I can get to work on time. Buses don't run early enough for me to get to work for 7am or run late enough for me to get home from work after 11:30pm. And if I was to travel to work via buses, I would have to take 2 buses to get there. Obviously, this can be solved by having a much better bus network. However, cycling is quicker than taking the bus. Even when following the routes of buses I am always quicker than buses due to buses stopping every few minutes for a minute or two to pick up passengers. It's £4 a day for a day rider of the bus and can be more expensive on the trams, and when you're earning around £10 from Job Seeker's Allowance as I was until recently, you can rarely afford to use public transport. Again, that can be solved by changing the public transport system. However it is still less costly both in money and in other resource terms if people travelled by bicycle than by public transport. It can also be quicker, especially for inner city travel.

Why do I believe there is a need for cycling throughout wider society? Well, along with improved public transport, bicycling is a key part in reducing reliance on cars. In the UK, most people own a car. In the world as a whole it's only roughly 14% of people who own a car, so cars are a massive luxury, yet people in Britain today take them for granted as something we have the right to own. Ultimately it is unsustainable for everyone to have a car and use it every single day. I recognise that some people have the need for a car (people who need it for work, some disabled people) and that there is a need to transport more items than you can carry on a bike or a public transport system so I am not opposed to completely getting rid of all cars. People still have transport needs, and I firmly believe bicycling can play an important role in achieving our transport needs. Bicycles, apart from being slower and having less storage to transport things, is as flexible as travelling by car. Unlike public transport you can travel from wherever you want to wherever you want whenever you want. You don't need to find a bus or rail stop, you don't need to wait for a bus or train or tram, and you don't need to pay a fee to travel. The fact that once you've paid for the bike, cycling is pretty much cost free and for lots of people that will mean they are pulled out of transport poverty.

So what's the situation with cycling in Manchester? Well for a long time not a lot happened. There are lots of bicycle lanes throughout the city, but most of them have been poorly looked after and often have cars parked on them. There are a few decent off-bike cycle paths such as the Fallowfield Loop, which while is great, has no lighting so is not used after dark, which in winter will mean people cannot cycle home on it. However, over the last few years some things have really started to happen. Last year the council and Transport for Greater Manchester opened up the Bike Hub, a storage space in the heart of the city centre where people can pay to keep their bike stored while they're at work with shower and changing facilities to wash the sweat away before going to work. However, it costs quite a high monthly fee to use this service and will only suit people who are in well paid jobs, but I suppose as it's making money for the council I don't have an issue with it so much. There are plans to make Oxford Road and some roads in the city centre for bicycle, bus and taxi use only, with segregated bike lanes and "floating bus stops" where the bike lanes travel behind bus stops so bicycles no longer need to overtake buses at their stops. This is a great development and will at least make lots of students feel confident to cycle. There are possible plans for a copy of the London "Boris Bikes" whereby people rent bikes from various points around the city and drop the bike back off at any of these points. Again, like with the Bike Hub I don't think this will do a huge amount to help improve things for people who have little money. There are plans to increase cycle parking at public transport stops, and this has started happening. There is now a new bike shelter at Oxford Road train station and I believe more of these are planned at bus stations, train stations and tram stops.

The problem with these things is they are only a small drop in the ocean. Massive changes need to take place to really make Manchester a cycling city. Bike hubs, the odd few streets with better cycle lanes and a few more bike rails at existing rail stops is not going to have that much of an impact because cycling will still be inaccessible for the vast majority of people. Here's what I believe needs to happen to really make our city a true cycling city:

  • Make our roads, cycle paths, park paths, etc free of potholes so cyclists can have smooth rides without fear of punctures and buckled wheels (happened to me far too many times to remember).
  • Really visible, entirely painted, well maintained, segregated if possible bike lanes throughout the whole cycle. Most cycle lanes are not well painted or maintained and are ignored by motor transport.
  • Decent quality bike rails for parking, angled so that bikes of all heights can use them easily, in well lit visible locations throughout the entire city. Sheltered from the rain is possible. Covered by CCTV so that people can leave their bikes without fearing of it getting stolen. Lots more of these are neededs. Make it mandatory to have a good number of bike rails on high streets, outside shopping centres and retail parks.
  • Allow bicycles on the Metrolink trams. This may require new carriages with bicycle storage so could be a longer term aim. This already happens in many cities throughout the world so I see no reason why this cannot happen in Manchester, and would lead to more people using the Metrolink and buying tickets. Also look into the possibility of having bikes on buses in rural areas as they do in the Lake District. 
  • Properly enforce parking regulations like double yellow lines so that cars are not always parked on bike lanes, making it more dangerous for cyclists. Fining people who park on double yellow lines is one of the only effective ways I see this happening, which will make more money for the council. It will also mean hiring more parking inspectors.
  • Better road systems in general. Sometimes having two general lanes makes it difficult to also have a bike lane, sometimes two lanes makes it better for cyclists. Sometimes one-way roads make it difficult for cyclists, sometimes one-way roads are essential for cyclists.
  • Better car parking. I know this might seem like a backwards step (yeah, it probably is), but cars parking on bike lanes is a really bike problem, and perhaps there is no other solution than to create parking spaces elsewhere for those cars. Not too much though.
  • Provide many free regular bicycle training sessions throughout the whole city. These could start off with cycling around a park, and could build up to cycling on roads to get new cyclists more confidence to ride on the roads. These could also include how to fix your bike.
There are also lots of things that need to happen nationally to make cycling better for all people:
  • Better education in schools on cycling issues. Make it a bigger part of the curriculum.
  • Tax-free bikes full stop. Discriminating against those out of work or those in work places without a tax-free bike system is not the right approach to tackling transport poverty. If planes do not have to pay tax on their fuel, why are bicycles taxed? No more VAT on bikes please! (Well, I think we should scrap VAT altogether but that's another blog post).
  • Better education about the rights and safety of cyclists in general. Every council should have information on what rights cyclists have on the roads. Driving tests should involve more about the rights and safety of cyclists. I'd even like to see TV adverts promoting the safety of cyclists.
  • Improved cycle storage on trains, so that we don't need to book in advance on certain services. Allow bikes on the Eurostar so that people can take their bikes to and from mainland Europe. I got the train recently all the way to Berlin, and if you could get your bike on the Eurostar from London to Paris I could have taken my bike all the way from Manchester to Berlin.
  • Invest in the National Cycle Network, creating tons of new off-road cycle routes. But please do make them suitable for road bikes.
  • Raise minimum wage to at least a living wage, scrap VAT, replace council tax with an addition to income tax, scrap tuition fees, close tax loops, make tax more egalitarian with more and steeper tax bands. Basically create a more equal society. This will mean more people who currently can only afford to pay £12 for a weekly bus pass will be able to afford spending £300+ in one go on a bicycle and buy accessories for the bike. It will also provide more than enough tax to fund all of this.
How can you get involved in improving cycling in Manchester? The last Friday of every month, meeting at Manchester Central Library at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm start is Critical Mass! Please come down and be a part of the biggest cycling movement in perhaps the whole north of England. Attend one of the many bike Fridays where people cycle to city centre from different parts of the city. Support the Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign. Support your local independent bicycle shop. Most importantly - get out on your bike, talk to your friends and work colleagues about cycling and be an ambassador for cycling.

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