Chris Boardman: “You shouldn’t have to be brave to ride a bicycle”

Northern cities lag far behind London for active transport. Chris Boardman, Manchester’s first cycling and walking commissioner, plans to change that. 

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Chris Boardman – who won three Olympic gold medals, broke the hour record three times, and three times wore the yellow jersey in the Tour de France; who heads up a major British bicycle manufacturer; who has been involved in UK cycling policy for 15 years, and who has been appointed to oversee the development of cycling in Manchester – does not cycle to work. Nobody finds this more frustrating than he does.

Boardman’s commute is “five miles to a station, and then a really good train link. I do that because it’s easier than driving. I would like to ride the five miles to the station.” But while the distance itself would present no problems for Boardman, his experiences of car-free commuting have been problematic. “It was really hard for me to find a road that wasn’t a country road at 60mph, with heavy traffic. I found some tracks and paths, [but this] extended the journey to the point where it’s no longer viable.” Nor are roads the only problem. “When I get there [the station], there’s a big, locked cabinet for bikes – and it’s empty. I have to apply and get a fob to use it.” 

More than anything else, Boardman says “this demonstrates why I want to do this job. Because even people who are actively looking for ways to travel differently – the obstacles in your way are ridiculous.” 

It’s not that the road to Spital, Boardman’s local station, is lethal. But for any cyclist, a fast country road is “an unpleasant place to be… I wouldn’t ride along this road by choice. I know, statistically, that there is a cyclist killed every 1,500 times around the planet. It’s safer than walking, but it doesn’t feel it, and that’s the important thing. What it looks and feels like – that’s how we make our decisions. We don’t look at the statistics. We look at the lorries and cars.”

The first step towards Boardman’s goal of increasing Greater Manchester’s bike journeys from two per cent to 25 per cent is, perhaps counterintuitively, to “forget cyclists. This isn’t about cyclists – this is about people in cars. They’re the ones you need to change, if you want to make a difference.” What enables people to leave their cars behind, he says, is “safe space. You shouldn’t have to be brave to ride a bicycle, or to cross a road for that matter.” 

“Once you’ve got safe space, it has to be convenient. So, that safe space has to go all the way from where I live to where I want to go, and it needs to be uninterrupted. If it just drops out, and there’s a bit of busy road before the nice stuff picks up again, I’m not going to use the really nice stuff because of that busy road. So you’ve got to do it all – it’s got to be joined up. When I get where I want to go, I’ve got to have bike parking. And it’s got to be at least as easy as parking a car. And then I need a good transport network. And then, it works.”

Boardman says one of the problems he’s noticed in his work as a cycling policy advisor is that infrastructure is often built for those who already cycle. “If you want a modal shift, you have to make it desirable for the people who don’t do it now,” he says, which means taking the measures that make people feel safe “…and that’s segregated bike lanes. That’s traffic calming. It’s a change in the way we police our streets, to look after the more vulnerable. And that will mean cyclists looking after pedestrians, as well. The whole approach to how we use our streets needs to change.”

New infrastructure, particularly in urban areas with limited space, can be expensive and controversial. But Boardman says there are changes that can be made now that will actually save money. “Accidents are expensive. We should look at the cost of KSIs – killed or seriously injured – and ask how much it would cost to put [more] police on the streets. This happened in London” – Boardman refers to Operation Safeway, which targeted the behaviour of both drivers and cyclists – “and general crime went down. We’ve cut back massively on visible policing on the streets, and we’re paying for that now. Some people won’t obey the law unless there’s consequences.” Some policies could actually generate revenue, he adds: “if we devolved it to local authorities to do some of that enforcement, and then ringfence the funds back into that community, even into a specific street, the community benefits from penalising bad behaviour.”

With air pollution and obesity causing more than 75,000 preventable deaths per year, the benefits of active transport to the population and its economy are almost impossible to overstate. Boardman says that this, too, could be reflected in funding, because “the beneficiaries of change,” which he identifies as health and the environment, “could contribute to making it happen, because cycling and walking are the delivery mechanisms for them to get their outcomes.” 

Attitudes will need to change as much as infrastructure if the UK is to enjoy active transport at similar levels to other countries. In the week before we speak, a divisional Twitter account of the Greater Manchester Police was lambasted for seeming to suggest that the two cyclists killed in the previous week in Manchester were partly to blame for their own deaths, because cyclists “weave in and out of traffic at speed”. Boardman says that while this was the opinion of “an individual, as opposed to the police… it shows the differing views, even among the police force.” There is a failure to recognise “the hierarchy of people we look after,” says Boardman, pointing out that the relationships of power and danger are “not even. If a cyclist makes a mistake, they’re the ones that pay for it. If somebody in a car makes a mistake, or is in a temper, they can kill someone. So it’s not even – and nor should policing be.”

Boardman would not dispute for a moment that dangerous and illegal cycling exists, but he says parts of the media report this comparatively minor problem in a way that is grossly out of proportion to the problem itself. Of the recent case of a teenage cyclist who struck and killed a mother of two he says “we all totally understand that this is a horrendously tragic incident, and we have no problem with harsh penalties,” but adds that “around 110 cyclists a year are killed by cars; that’s not a story. And when we actually hear the PM saying that she’s going to look at dangerous driving laws to incorporate cyclists, it’s just unbelievable, when you can still open a car door, kill a cyclist, and face a maximum of a £1,000 fine.”

Ultimately, then, the change that will allow cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport needs to start at the top. “The government has a responsibility to work on evidence rather than anecdote,” he says, “and I thought it was very tacky for the government to behave the way that it did.”

For this reason, Boardman is optimistic about the changes that devolution will bring to Greater Manchester’s transport. “Andy Burnham has the biggest role to play. He’s in a new position in the UK. There’s someone at the top who genuinely wants to make a difference to the way we use our town and city streets, and is prepared to put up with the noise to get that change. With devolution, you’ve got an opportunity.”

Will Dunn is managing editor of the New Statesman.