When will Manchester become ‘people first’ and go car free?

A tram! In Manchester! Image: Getty.

Cities across Europe are taking on one of the biggest carbon emitters and air polluters: the motor car. Car-free days, car-free streets, and restrictions on diesel cars are staples in an increasing number of cities championing “people first” policies. Oslo is leading the charge and practically car free already, while Paris’ mayor has announced ambitions to make Paris a  ‘15 minute city’, in which everything you need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

Here in the UK, cities are at it too, from Edinburgh’s monthly car-free day, to London’s plans to close half its streets to cars, to Brighton, Bristol and York announcing car free ambitions this week. The biggest news, however, comes out of Birmingham – hitherto known as Britain’s ‘motor city’ – whose plans to get people onto bikes and buses goes out to consultation this month. 

The city’s plans were inspired by the Belgium city of Ghent, whose zone-centred traffic plan was introduced overnight in 2017 and has been a roaring success. With fewer cars on the roads and cycling booming, air quality has significantly improved, and the number of restaurant and bar startups have increased by nearly a fifth.

In Manchester, young city centre councillors are taking action and pressing for car-free measures. But has it left it too late to pioneer the UK’s people first revolution? Let’s take a closer look at Birmingham’s plans and how Manchester stacks up.


In all, 152 roads in Greater Manchester are in breach of legal air pollution limits. 1 in 23 deaths in GM is linked to air pollution, according to a new study released this week. Image: TfGM.

Why should we go car free?

Why has the tide turned against cars? Simple: cars are the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in the UK. In fact, transport is the only sector not to have cut emissions since the 1990s. That isn’t surprising considering car sales continue to rise.

Car adverts still promise us open roads, freedom, and status. They would do better to show us wasting our lives away in traffic jams while poisoning the environment and children’s lungs. Electric cars aren’t the solution because they produce particulate air pollution too, and don’t make any difference to chronic congestion.

This is the reality of cars: apart from being responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s total C02 emissions, around the world they kill 3,500 people a day (more than any other mode of transport) and result in 11,000 new cases of child asthma a day. Cars are part and parcel of the obesity crisis and linked to cardiovascular disease. And they’re an equality issue, with the poorest in society not owning a car and cut off from job opportunities inaccessible by public transport.

While countries such as the Netherlands have spent decades phasing out the need for cars, the rest of the west is finally catching up. Those cities taking swift, bold action will be tomorrow’s leaders.

Birmingham’s ambitious plans

In this respect, Birmingham is pulling its ahead of Manchester. The city declared a Climate Emergency a month before its rival, and is now planning to adopt Ghent’s zone-based city centre traffic model. 

In this model, the city centre is divided into zones and cars can drive in and out but not across zones, while buses and bikes can. In Ghent the result was a drop in car journeys from 55 per cent to 27 per cent, and a boom in cycling. This clever model doesn’t ban cars but makes public and active transport the natural choice for short journeys, while roads become less congested for those that have no choice but to drive.

Manchester could take a leaf out of this book, as currently 1 in 3 journeys under 1km (⅗ mile) in Greater Manchester are made by car. There’s no reason most people could not easily walk or cycle this distance. 

Moreover, most people don’t drive into the city centre. According to property data analyst UrbInfo, 60 per cent of Manchester’s transport infrastructure is dedicated to motorists, even though they only account for 13 per cent of journeys. Birmingham’s plans to reduce cars include reclaiming car parks for new housing. With cars taken out of the equation, we’ll have more space to live, breathe easy, and enjoy our lives.

The proposed £9.1m revamp of Great Ancoats Street removes cycle lanes and maintains motor vehicle capacity through the city centre. Image: Manchester City Council.

What does Manchester have planned?

Councillors recently agreed to investigate prohibiting through-traffic inside the inner ring road, a proposal introduced by city centre councillors Marcus John and Jon-Connor Lyons. This is excellent news and no surprise it’s come from two of Manchester’s youngest councillors.

The proposals also include exploring feasibility of an ultra low emissions zone, as implemented in London. The recent council meeting also saw councillors supporting no idling zones outside schools and the announcement that 21st June will be a car free day. This is all very promising, as are plans to pedestrianise Albert Square. 

However, Manchester needs to act fast on Johns and Lyons’ no through-traffic proposal to catch up with Birmingham, which has already drawn up plans to prohibit through traffic and put them out to consultation.

Moreover, and amidst all this positive news, is an alarming number of multi-million pound road expansion projects currently underway across the city centre, that have faced strong public opposition and feel wholly out of step with the times. Work on Great Ancoats Street, which removes cycle lanes, has commenced. The Princess Road roundabout works expand vehicle capacity and will make it slower for pedestrians to cross. Hyde Road is another road widening scheme that doesn’t include cycle lanes, and will sever the second busiest cycle route in the city for 12 months.

The council also plans to use the former Central Retail Park as a temporary 24/7 440-space car park next to the city centre’s only primary school in an area where the level of air pollution is already classed as “lethal and illegal”. Compared to Manchester’s young councillors’ ambitions, these projects are characteristic of a Council that prioritises the private car as though it were the 1990s.

Manchester can lead the way

Manchester is in a brilliant position to pioneer a car-free city, though. Along with young, forward-thinking councillors consider the recent announcement that Northern Rail have lost their franchise, and the likely re-franchising of buses. This would bring local rail and buses under public control and the aegis of mayor Andy Burnham, the GM Combined Authority (GMCA), and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), who have their finger on the pulse when it comes to the future of transport in cities.

In 2017, Burnham appointed Chris Boardman as the UK’s first cycling commissioner. Together they unveiled a proposal for Greater Manchester to become the first city region in the UK to have a fully joined up walking and cycling ‘Bee Network’ covering 1,800 miles, which could be a “national blueprint” for the UK. This would make cycling a serious mode of transport, following in the footsteps of cities like Amsterdam where 72,000 commute by bike, double the number of cars in the city. 

Last year, Burnham also announced plans for a ‘London-style’ integrated transport system for the region, which also expands the network so public transport becomes a default way to travel. TfGM is anticipating Manchester’s population boom, putting itself at the heart of new housing developments so new homes are built around public and active transport and not the car. For this reason, Simon Warburon, Strategic Director of TfGM, hailed the ‘Northern Gateway’ development plans as an “urban renaissance” at a recent event. Warburton also said Manchester can expect to see money for transport coming its way. 

What’s holding Manchester back?

GMCA and TfGM have the vision for an integrated public and active transport region. However, they need buy-in from all 10 Greater Manchester councils to make it reality.

While councillors like Johns and Lyons are moving the city forward, Manchester Council’s road widening schemes and slow up-take of street closures is not the stuff of world leading cities. Nor is this insight from Manchester Council Leader’s Blog last year: “Parked cars are zero emissions: they’re only a problem when they move.” Richard Leese has been leader of the council for nearly 25 years – about as long as Johns and Lyons have been alive.

Now is the time for bold leadership. Manchester’s young councillors are leading the way.

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


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.