A flat city like Manchester which is home to Europe’s largest student population should be a biking mecca.
Only a few years ago this goal was still a long way off, with many would-be cyclists put off by a combination of safety or practical issues, as well as Mancunian weather.
However, like other cities across Europe, Manchester realised it needed to improve this situation. It needed to understand the needs of cyclists, experiment with solutions, and learn what worked to get more people in the saddle.
It was precisely these elements which provided the framework for the Manchester Cycling Lab research project that I began back in 2015 with my colleague Gabriele Schliwa. Our aims were quite simple: to work alongside other initiatives in the city to make cycling a mainstream, everyday form of transport via a network of newly-built or enhanced cycling routes.
We set out to learn who already cycled in the city, which roads they used, and how often. We also wanted to compare our work with comparable cities across Europe such as Berlin, which has been particularly successful at increasing cycling levels in a relatively short space of time.
Fast forward to today and it looks like the Lab succeeded in delivering its core goal: namely to implement a living lab model to support sustainable development in the city.
The project linked seven research students at the University with key stakeholders to maximise the collective impact of research capacity. The project team also sought to test out the potential to engage users in cycle infrastructure planning through a range of engagement techniques, including digital media.
Our key partners certainly found the living lab model a useful one. For instance, Manchester City Council told us that the project had “added enormously” to the city’s understanding of how cycling can add to its economic, environmental and social objectives, saying it had been of “immense value” not just to the council but also to Transport for Greater Manchester and the strategic health authority.
Our robust evidence-based analysis improved decision making, while we had provided support for existing projects such as the cycle infrastructure investment along Oxford Road, right beside the University.
Indeed, Oxford Road shows what can be achieved in a very short space of time. The Oxford Road Corridor project has now banned all cars along stretches of the road at certain times, while at the same time improving pedestrian and cycle facilities. The sense of space that cyclists can now enjoy is quite remarkable.
Our research has also provided a valuable evidence base to support and inform those who make critical policy decisions surrounding investments in Manchester’s cycling infrastructure and programmes towards a leading sustainable transport system.
In particular the research on Berlin’s cycling transition as a potential twinning relationship with Manchester has engaged further key stakeholders and provided evidence that can guide future thinking and policy making. Furthermore, opportunities have been identified to expand the research collaboration with schools and with health professionals across the city.
In short, the living lab method of engagement has been effective in identifying the specific strategic knowledge needs of the city concerning cycling, and offers an effective way to link the needs of the city with the resources of the University.
James Evans is professor of geography at the University of Manchester, on whose blog this article originally appeared.