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.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.