Should Manchester pedestrianise Deansgate?

Extinction Rebellion on Deansgate. Image: Getty.

For four days at the end of August, Extinction Rebellion (XR) took over Manchester Deansgate, closing off a section of the road to traffic. Protesters pitched tents, set up marquees and hay bales, and held talks and workshops about combating the climate crisis. Far from a stereotypical protest, the atmosphere was that of a community street festival. Children printed T-shirts, free food was served, and the samba band regularly paraded up and down the street to much fanfare.  

The stretch was designated an alcohol- and drug-free zone, attracting young families to take part in the festivities. Several shopkeepers I spoke with liked having XR as neighbours, with one saying, “I actually enjoyed coming to work,” while another said, “I don’t think everyone realises how many people are depressed. This was a change of scenery for the community. It was uplifting.”

However, the street closure was contentious, with concerns it would hurt businesses and cause major travel disruptions. The beauty of the four-day closure, however, is it provided a low-risk opportunity to trial closing the street to traffic. This is a move cities around the world are making to tackle the pollution and climate crisis.

So now that the dust has settled, let’s look more objectively at what impact the street closure had on three key metrics: air pollution, business and transport.

The red line represents ‘very high’ pollution levels. The amber and green stretch is where the road was closed to traffic. Image: Walkide.

The impact on air quality

Deansgate is one of the city’s most polluted roads, with “lethal and illegal” levels of air pollution. This is one of the reasons why XR chose to occupy the site to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

Members of WalkRide, a campaign group lobbying for improved walking and cycling infrastructure in Greater Manchester, carried out air quality readings on a handheld device borrowed from the University of Manchester.

The results, visualised above, are striking.

On the fourth day of the closure, when the readings were taken, air pollution levels in the occupied stretch were significantly lower than those further down on Deansgate, where the road was still open to traffic.

Black carbon measurements during and after the occupation. The red bar shows levels when the street was closed to traffic; the blue bars show a significant increase after the street reopened to cars. Image: University of Manchester.

The device WalkRide used captured the levels of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), a form of air pollution that results from brake dust and tyre wear. Microscopic plastic particles penetrate the bloodstream, lungs, and heart and are linked to a variety of health problems.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a safe annual mean limit of 10. Where Deansgate was still open to traffic, PM2.5 levels were 86. Along the stretch closed off to traffic, they fell to 19. 

The University of Manchester also measured levels of black carbon – the material emitted from petrol and diesel engines – during and after the occupation. They showed levels were significantly lower when the street was closed to cars. 

From the perspective of air quality, pedestrianising Deansgate is a no-brainer. The quickest and easiest way to dramatically improve air quality is by closing the street to traffic, and hopefully those levels would be brought down further if permanently pedestrianised. 

The impact on businesses

After all the hoopla about the potential impact on businesses, I wanted to take a more systematic approach to the issue. Once the protesters had gone, I went into each business along the stretch that had been closed off and carried out a quick survey with two questions;

What impact had the street closure had on business compared to what they would normally have expected? And to what extent would they support the pedestrianisation of Deansgate?

A few quick caveats: this survey is neither rigorous nor scientific. That said, this approach is more thorough than popping into a few shops at random or just reporting the most extreme positions.

All in, 37 businesses took part in my survey. The remainder either didn’t have a manager on hand or directed me to their head office.

Two thirds reported business was the same or better than expected. These were more likely to be casual food and drink establishments. The third who reported lower than expected takings were more likely catering to a high-end market, such as fashion retailers and fine dining establishments.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is that over half of those reporting lower takings say they would definitely support pedestrianisation. They attribute the lower sales not to the street closure but to their customer base being put off by reports of protesters.

Faye Levenson is the store manager of Hobbs, a female fashion brand. She reported lower takings during the protest and a 6 per cent drop in footfall-to-sales conversion. Nevertheless, she’d like to see Deansgate pedestrianised and thinks it would improve business. “Look at Market Street,” she says, “It’s packed. Those businesses are doing really well.” 

Faye is confident the street closure and transport concerns aren’t what kept her customers away. “The protesters put people off,” she explains, “although it turned out to be more of a celebration.”

This is a refrain I heard from several businesses who were anticipating trouble from the protesters and street closure. 

“I was dreading it,” the manager of Toni & Guy says, “but it was fine.” There were few cancellations for hair appointments, no more than usual, and the protest was actually enjoyable. “It was a great atmosphere, really friendly,” she says with a smile.

Regarding pedestrianisation, she says, “It would be lovely to have no cars,” and references a Toni & Guy location in Chester that saw business improve following pedestrianisation.

This is what studies have shown time and time again. Although businesses are often concerned removing cars will lead to a fall in sales, research shows otherwise. 

The most famous example is New York’s Times Square, which was initially opposed by local businesses who feared closing the street to cars would hurt business. However, the trial pedestrianisation proved so successful, it was made permanent.

Another study by New York’s Department of Transport of three pedestrian plaza projects found adjacent retail sales went up by 47-50 per cent after three years. They concluded: “It is clear that rolling out safer, more inviting, and sustainable streets is rarely detrimental to local businesses and in the majority of cases can be a boon to them.”

Back here in Manchester, only three of the 37 businesses I surveyed said they definitely wouldn’t support pedestrianisation. The majority were open to closing the road to traffic and thought it could improve sales – evidence from other cities is on their side.

The impact on transport

When the Northern Quarter closed Stevenson Square for five hours in June, local media went to town reporting live updates of the chaotic traffic delays the closure caused. It turned out a major factor was actually a bus that had broken down at the Oldham Street junction – although obviously this didn’t make it into the headlines. 

I anticipated similar news reports off the back of the XR street closure. After all, Deansgate is a major rat-run through the city centre.  

And yet there were no such reports. Once the protest ended, I contacted TfGM to get the official word on traffic disruption over the four days. A spokesperson said:

“We worked with our agency partners such as Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Police, local authorities and city centre communities and businesses to develop and deliver a comprehensive plan. 

“The measures introduced – which included live updates, a dedicated travel advice webpage, road diversions and bus re-routes – ensured the event passed with minimal travel disruption.”

Extinction Rebellion had contacted the Council and police 2.5 weeks before the protest, giving them time to reroute buses and for businesses to plan how they would receive deliveries. As a result, the diversion didn’t bring the city to a standstill.

The Council appear to be on board with pedestrianising Deansgate. Re-routing buses is the only sticking point.   

In a statement to the MEN, Cllr Angeliki Stogia said: “The only thing that is currently preventing us from implementing this long-term aspiration to pedestrianise a section of Deansgate is resolving how buses could be re-routed, with bus transport of course also vital to reducing car journeys to and from, and within, the city centre.”

When it comes to making cities car-free, the bigger picture is radically increasing investment in public transport provision, as well as developing comprehensive walking and cycling infrastructure.

Closing the road for four days provided a low-risk opportunity to test pedestrianising Deansgate. We’ve learned that removing cars is popular with the public, significantly improves air quality, and is unlikely to hurt businesses or cause major transport issues – if done right.

WalkRide are calling for monthly street closures to provide more opportunities to trial and test what a car-free Deansgate would be like. I say bring it on.

Follow Andrea Sandor @wordstoseeby. This article originally appeared on Manchester Confidential.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.