Greater Manchester’s cycling plan is radical – but it needs funding

An artist’s impression of a new filtered area of Greater Manchester. Image: TfGM.

The advantages of switching from cars to bikes in cities are well known – for health, urban air quality and the climate. Now, the “Change a region to change a nation” report, which outlines Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling plan, proposes a radical investment in cycling infrastructure.

The plan would see £1.5bn invested in the Bee Network, 1,800 miles of cycling and walking routes over the region. The goal is to create a model which could be replicated across the country. This network is something that even London, with all its cycling advances under the pro-bike (now former) mayor Boris Johnson and his cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, did not manage to accomplish in its time.

The Greater Manchester plan contains many, if not all, the vital elements necessary for a region to make real advances in transport politics. These are political resolve, reformed governance and open communication channels, a network plan and a budgeted work programme. The plan is rooted in a history of cycle campaigning that seeks to make travel by bike accessible for all, and – according to the plan’s authors – it has local backing. Above all, it offers a revolutionary alternative to a car-focused society.

The plan is led by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Chris Boardman, former professional cyclist and now Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner. In the plan’s foreword, Boardman dives right into the heart of the matter: we must address our society’s dependency on cars, built into our cities by decades of urban planning. This is a brave step and very timely indeed, after decades of administrative inactivity on transport matters.

According to Boardman, discussions held in Manchester over the last year mean that the public are “now more aware than ever that the way we travel, using cars for even for the shortest of journeys, is one of the biggest contributors to the problem [of the climate crisis]”.

The economic case

The Greater Manchester network is priced at £1.5 billion over 10 years. In a region of 2.8 million inhabitants, this equals a spend of about £50 per person per year. This is by no means outlandish. In the Netherlands, €30 (£25) per person per year is spent on cycling infrastructure alone.

The finances presented in the plan show a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 4. This means that every £1 invested is projected to return £4. The benefits consist of improvements in health and productivity such as increased physical activity, neighbourhood connectivity, boost to local business, congestion relief, and noise and air quality. The economic case is overwhelming.

A typical UK road scheme is classed as having “very high” value for money when it is calculated to yield a BCR of 4. In overall terms, a reliance on cars costs society dearly, while cycling has consistently shown to bring societal benefits at a typical BCR of 5.

The numbers add up. But here is the catch. All the benefits aside, where is the seed money supposed to come from for such a radical transformation? To invest in cycling and reap the rewards, Greater Manchester is appealing to the national coffers of the UK Treasury.

Rooted in activism

The foundation of the “Change a region to change a nation” report and the Bee Network is a new approach to campaigning for active travel. My PhD research looked at campaigning tactics to capture the shift that took place in the last decade.

In the past, cycling campaigners favoured on-road solutions: cycling mixed with motor traffic. From 2011 onwards, however, led by the London Cycling Campaign under environmental campaigner Ashok Sinha, cycling organisations began to concentrate on the arrangement of urban space as the main obstacle to everyday cycling.

A focus on urban space put cycling in direct and concrete conflict with a car-first society that single-mindedly prioritises motor vehicles’ use of city space. This conflict politicised cycling and put cycling firmly on the political agenda.

Road space must be given over to cycling if we want to construct cycling conditions where short journeys are habitually made by bike, where shopping by bike becomes a possibility, older people have stress-free and calm cycle environments for their free participation in public life, parents can cycle with children and children can cycle by themselves. This approach has a particular focus on journeys of care such as visiting friends and relatives, shopping and child minding, and many of these claims were made by women activists.

Looking at the names on the report, and wider cycling politics, it feels as if current culture still requires men to press through change. Thankfully, for one thing, the imagery used in the Greater Manchester plan is inclusive and diverse.

But there remains an ingrained car-first approach in national politics. For the Bee Network to fully succeed, regionally and UK-wide, that now needs to be challenged.

The Conversation

Katja Leyendecker, PhD candidate in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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


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.