Manchester Metrolink: six lessons for other cities

Metrolink at work. Image: MrOswaldtwistle, taken from Flickr under creative commons.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, two suburban railway lines, to the north and south of Manchester, were joined via new tracks through the streets of the city centre, and converted for light rail operation. In 1992, for the first time in decades, trams returned to the streets of Britain.

The Metrolink network was extended in 1998; and in 2010; and again, in every year since. The latest line, to Manchester Airport, opened earlier this month. More are in the pipeline.

In other words, Manchester has managed to do something that no other British city has done since London built its tube. Some cities have opened individual light rail lines; other have rebranded railway lines as metros as a one-off event. But Manchester alone has succeeded in creating something that's a real network, with all the multi-coloured Beck-style maps that implies, and then continuing to build it year after year after year.

All of which raises a question: what did Manchester get right?

To prevent the place from getting too big-headed about the fact we're being so nice about it, we’ll be explaining this using quotes from the most famous people ever to come out of the city’s arch rival.

1) You say you got a real solution – we'd all love to see the plan

Let’s start with the history. Once upon a time, Manchester effectively had two railway networks. One covered the north of the city, and ran into Victoria station; the other, covering the south, ran into Piccadilly. As a result, passengers arrived outside the main business district and had to walk the last leg: not ideal, if you want to encourage people out of their cars.

The city explored a number of options for plugging this hole, most famously the Picc-Vic tunnel, a sort of Mancunian Crossrail. But by the early eighties, the city’s transport authorities had settled on light rail, of the sort that was becoming increasingly popular on the continent. In 1984, it published its plan for a 100km network, mixing existing railway lines with new, on-street sections, and running to a total of six destinations in the city’s suburbs.

Three decades later, four of those routes (Altrincham, Bury, East Didsbury and Oldham) are a reality. In other words, the city made a plan, and adapted it to circumstance. At no point did it throw it out and start all over again.

2) Now give me money

Getting any cash for public transport at the height of Thatcherism was always going to be a tough sell, of course: at the time, in fact, the government was seriously considering closing a number of railway lines in Manchester to save money. 

So, says Councillor Andrew Fender, who chairs Manchester’s transport committee and was involved in the scheme from the beginning, the city decided to focus its efforts on “the most economically viable” bit of its network. The commuter railway line to Bury, a suburban town eight miles north of the city centre, used a unique power system and distinctly rusty trains: it all needed to be replaced anyway.

Meanwhile, Market Street, in the city centre, was in the process of being pedestrianised: since the road was being torn up anyway, and since it provided a convenient link to the start of the Altrincham line in the south, it was possible to join the two lines together at a minimum of extra cost. A spur to Piccadilly was included, to link the network to the city's main station.

The future of Metrolink, as envisioned when the first lined opened in 1992. Click for a larger version. Image used courtesy of Transport for Greater Manchester.

From the very start, then, the authorities weren't simply presenting a wish list, or a vision of the city they wished to be: they focused on making the best economic case they could. And so, says Fender, "We were able to persuade the government that this was something they could invest public money in.”

3)  And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

This focus on winning the economic argument has continued. Some of the lines on the network today weren't in that original 1984 plan: most obviously, at that time, Salford Quays was a post-industrial wasteland. Within a year or two, though, it was slated to be one of the country's biggest regeneration schemes.

So, says Fender, the other lines in the first draft of the plan were held back, and for Phase Two the city instead prioritised a line through the Quays, and on towards Eccles. Frequent trams to the city centre would spur the area's regeneration; and the consequent economic benefits would justify the cost of the new line.

In other words, it's not enough to have a plan: you need to be flexible enough to adjust it to changing circumstances.

4) Think for yourself

By the late nineties, Metrolink was a success story, Britain had a new government which was rather more enthusiastic about big public transport schemes, and deputy prime minister John Prescott, the man responsible for transport, was encouraging Manchester to think big. Phase 3 was meant to include four different lines, more than doubling the size of the network in one fell swoop. It would cost £489m, yes: but, so the thinking went, the "Big Bang" expansion would bring economies of scale.

It didn't quite work out like that. Construction inflation, increased land prices, and all sorts of other factors meant that costs began to rise. The programme was cancelled; then it was uncancelled, but the government's contribution was capped at a maximum of £520m. In the end, the Big Bang became two, slightly smaller bangs. The government would fund the next two-and-a-bit lines ("Phase 3a"). But to go beyond that, Manchester would need to find its own source of cash. 

The city’s first bright idea was the Greater Manchester Transport Innovation Fund: a £3bn plan that matched central government funding with private borrowing, which would be paid off largely through new congestion charge. This, though, was quite a big deal, so at the end of 2008 the city was required hold a referendum on the vexed question of whether Mancunians fancied getting their wallets out every time they wanted to drive into the city.

This went about as well as you would expect.

But, says Fender, "we'd spent government money developing the economic appraisals for each Metrolink extension, each major bus or rail innovation. We weren't just going to stick all that work in a drawer to gather dust". 

So the 10 borough councils and the city’s transport authorities teamed up to put together a new scheme. The Greater Manchester Transport Fund pools cash from existing transport budgets, council funds, and, well, basically anywhere else it can get it. But those sources of money include fares: so the better the city’s transport network gets, the more money there is going back into the pot. Manchester is increasingly able to act without handouts from central government.

5) Come together

Metrolink is pretty big these days. But it doesn't even touch two of Greater Manchester's 10 boroughs, and it barely touches the borders of a third.

Nonetheless, all 10 supported the new financing mechanism that has paid for the scheme's expansion. It’s an example of that rarest of things, a virtuous circle: so successful were the trams in helping to regenerate the city centre, that even boroughs untouched by them could see it was worth their while to expand the system.

Greater Manchester has come together in other ways, too. In other cities, a change in which party holds the town hall has seen years of work thrown out. But, says Fender, "Since the late 1990s, we've had support from councils in different parts of the city region, right across the political spectrum. Getting phase one built was absolutely crucial to demonstrate that it would work.”

The single transport fund created in 2009 has had a fairly major side effect: it helped convinced Whitehall that Greater Manchester was capable of a measure of self-rule. If working together made it possible to expand Metrolink, then expanding Metrolink has made it easier for the boroughs to work together, too.

Metrolink today. Click for a larger version.

6) The long and winding road

Peter Cushing, who since early 2013 has been the director in charge of Metrolink, has all sorts of exciting plans for the future. New signalling, to improve reliability; a new western line to Trafford Park, and onto Port Salford, which is currently out to consultation; using “tram trains”, to add lines shared with heavy rail services to the network.

The most immediate priority, though, is finishing the second city crossing, which will enable more trams to run through the city centre, and so allow more frequent services on the network’s outer branches. "We're not in a situation where we stand still," Cushing adds. "We're always looking for opportunities that are affordable, fundable and make good economic sense."

None of the lessons of Metrorail are complicated or surprising: work together; make a plan; stick to it where possible, and adapt it where not; prioritise the bits that’ll do most for the local economy; and never, ever give up. In many ways, the surprise isn’t that it’s worked, but that so few cities have managed to do it.

Fender, who's been there since the beginning, is clearly massively proud of the network he's helped to create. "I would consider Manchester to be the UK's first provincial city," he says. "It has an international reputation now, and a very significant part of what we've achieved has been the light railway." Manchester didn’t just create its trams: those trams have helped create modern Manchester.


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.