The Chris Boardman interview by FareCity introduces cycling leadership. Something lacking in the ACT. Chris is not the first to say such things. Brent Toderian has said similar things. In a cycling sponsorship void, however, building a safe cycling infrastructure gets nowhere. That is why the ACT needs an Active Transport Commissioner.
“Bringing people around in a car-centric culture isn’t easy.”The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
In May 2021, Boardman was appointed Greater Manchester’s first Transport Commissioner.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Not only is this someone who ‘gets’ why active travel is so important for cities, but he’s also a fighter and strategist. Boardman is someone who gets stuff done. Despite all this, I’m surprised and a little disheartened that after four years there isn’t more on the ground in Greater Manchester to show for Boardman’s tenure. What has been delivered appears piecemeal and varies dramatically across the region’s ten boroughs.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
“I understand your frustrations,” Boardman tells me, “I’d have been doing this ten times faster.” But the former Olympian is upbeat. “This is the year when you will see stuff is happening.” This is confirmed in a video about the network by Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham, who states: “People have heard the talk, but will say, ‘Well, where’s the reality?’ Well, it’s coming.” 55 miles of segregated, safe, cycling and walking provision is to be delivered by the end of 2021.
I probe Boardman further on the long-term delivery of active travel provision. “It’s here to stay because it has to,” he says, “it’s not hyperbole to say the whole world is going to have to do this very soon because transport is a third of your carbon emissions, and we’ve got to tackle it.” Surface transport, he explains, has to be zero carbon because it’s one of the areas of the grid that can be decarbonised, compared to others that can’t.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Moreover, the government has started to claw back funds from councils that are not complying and not doing it to standard – standards which Boardman himself introduced in Manchester four years ago.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
This has started to happen to councils nationwide who prematurely removed cycle schemes introduced during the pandemic after vocal opposition from some drivers.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Boardman stresses that the government policy doesn’t dictate how it’s done, but it is responsible for setting the requisite standards.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
As a consequence, Boardman says, “I’ve told a couple of councils, including Liverpool [which removed pop-up cycle lanes], ‘Don’t bother bidding for any more [funding] and the implication inside the system is that people are realising ‘Oh, this is serious, this could be really embarrassing.’”
“The system” is a phrase Boardman uses several times throughout our conversation to refer to local government. In response to the new policy, he says “There are also people within the system who are saying ‘At last, we get to do this really bold stuff!’”
Boardman’s previous role as Walking and Cycling Commissioner was as much about politics as drawing up active travel maps and discussing the technicalities of road junctions.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Importance of transport
Boardman explains, but he had a few conditions that had to be met for him to consider the role. “I asked him right from the get-go, ‘Listen, I’ve got to have some semblance of control of the cash to have influence, frankly, and I must be speaking for you. Without hesitation he said ‘Yep’, and I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to do it now.’” He laughs.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Within six months of his appointment, Boardman had worked with the ten councils to create a £1.5 billion plan for a 1,000 km network. “We had political consensus, we had standards that would make sure it’s usable and not a waste of money,” he explains. “I guess Andy liked that, so then I spent another few years putting in the processes to oversee the programme to get that going.”The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
“In the meantime,” Boardman continues, “Andy’s realised that transport is everything.” Not only is it what links communities together, but it’s also an essential way to tackle a host of social and environmental problems that Boardman refers to throughout our interview, including congestion, pollution, health and car-related fatalities.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
The mission is to develop an affordable, integrated and accessible transport network across the entire region called the ‘Bee Network’. Boardman explains, “The vision is that you come out of your front door and within a few hundred metres there’s a bike hire station, you tap onto it with your card or your app and you ride to the tram stop, you dock your bike back in (or securely park it if it’s your own bike), you get on the tram and tap again.” The idea is for the fare to be capped and subsidised for young people and pensioners. “The whole thing is one system, and you mix and match depending on where you want to go.”The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Which cities is Boardman taking inspiration from, I ask. “London’s done great work with the buses,” he says, and also cites Barcelona’s buses and ‘superblocks’ which are effectively huge low-traffic neighbourhoods.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
However, Boardman is quick to admit that it’s not easily done: “Ideally nobody wants to be the first because it’s scary and it involves risk,” which is why he says, “I’m a big fan of taking things that are known to work elsewhere in the world and putting them together to make a new product if you like.” As an example, he refers to side road crossings, which are common in the rest of the world but not in the UK. “We’re very keen to have those.”The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
But if it were that easy to convince people of the need for an integrated transport system including an active travel network, there would be no need for politics. “It’s not easy,” Boardman admits and refers again to the system, “you get different people in the system who do not believe this is possible and a lot of them will not say that out loud, it’s in actions, but we’ve slowly worked our way through that. In government terms, we’ve actually worked our way through quickly.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
Owning the advice
However, after presenting their findings, evidence, and recommendations to the team, 80% ignored them. Boardman realised that the 20% who agreed were those who had been in the wind tunnel. He needed to bring the rest of the team into the wind tunnel and have them learn for themselves and own the outcome. In this case, everyone came around to agreeing with the R&D team’s recommendations.
In Greater Manchester, Boardman’s version of the wind tunnel was sessions with councils where councillors drew up maps themselves of what infrastructure their area would need to facilitate walking and cycling. “Start with questions rather than statements,” Boardman advises. For example, “You said you would ride a bike on your street but not beyond it because there’s a busy road or a railway. What would need to be there for you to carry on on your bike … a bridge? Then draw a bridge.” By the end of the session, councillors had drawn themselves a map.
“The key thing that I learned in the wind tunnel is that I don’t own the outcome, I own the advice,” Boardman says. “And in Greater Manchester, I own the advice, and I give the best advice I can. I look at the individual I’m speaking to and ask ‘What do they need?’” He continues, “If I said ‘Everyone has to stop driving tomorrow,’ then no one’s going to do that because they can’t. So I have to think about how we can achieve what we want to in a way that you can sell on and you believe it can be done. That’s the politics of it.”The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.
“I think it’s a completely useless role unless the powers that be want that person to do something. And I’ve seen several active travel champions and ambassadors and it’s just gesture politics. And I don’t do gesture politics.” He continues.The Chris Boardman interview – FareCity, 7 September 2021, accessed 12 October 2021.