A56 pop-up cycle lanes and beyond (Part 1)

This is part 1 of A56 pop-up cycle lanes and beyond, looking at Trafford Council’s response to walking and cycling during the 2020 pandemic and what it means for the future.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Photo gallery (Google Photos)

There’s no getting around it, 2020 has been a pretty awful year for many and it’s looking like 2021 is going to be far from plain sailing in the short term. One of the silver linings in all this grimness has been the renewed focus on walking and cycling.

We’ve seen many commentators talking of a bike boom, something that’s not really happened since the 1970s as Carlton Reid explains in his fantastically informative book Bike Boom. Though there’s certainly a warning from history we should be aware of.

We’ve also seen statutory guidance and funding from the government to provide temporary and longer-term improvements for walking and cycling as part of the Active Travel Fund (previously the Emergency Active Travel Fund).

At a local Greater Manchester level, Andy Burnham preempted the government’s announcements by making £5m available for emergency schemes that enabled people to walk and cycle during the pandemic.

So let’s get building stuff, shall we?

Well, things didn’t exactly get off to a flying start in Trafford. The council’s announcement of “bold travel plans” looked to be anything but. They also had people wondering whether Whittaker’s Fish & Chips in Urmston did special rates for local councillors, after being singled out for special treatment.

Social distancing at the chippy, Whittaker’s Fish & Chips, Urmston

But then there was an announcement that caught us all by surprise. Trafford Council put out a press release saying that “Council leaders have today given the green light for a potentially seven-mile stretch of the A56 to be sectioned off for cyclists”. After mocking the council for their supposedly “bold” plans, this actually did look pretty bold, especially for Trafford Council.

Next, there was an announcement of a Safe Streets Trafford Commonplace map, where locals could identify issues or improvements for walking and cycling. This was something other local councils were already doing, but it was a big step for Trafford to take this up, given we’re used to to pretty low levels of engagement from the council.

Prepare the cones

A few days after the announcement from Trafford Council, the cones started to go down for the pop-up cycle lane on the A56 around Stretford Mall and the section between Kingsway and Davyhulme Road East.

The first cones start to appear

Initially, it was just cones and not much in the way of signage, which meant there was some confusion around what the purpose of the cones were, including people on bikes. What were they for, road works?

Riding along the pop-up lane from Stretford Mall with the family

We had a try of the pop-up lanes at this stage and found them to be pretty good, making cycling along the A56 feel far safer and more enjoyable than it ever had been. While the lanes weren’t complete, it was clear there were some issues around the lack of protection around bus stops and the handling of junctions. But this is a trial, so can be improved as we go along, can’t they? Maybe, maybe not.

One of the many sizeable gaps for bus stops

It wasn’t long before the pop-up lanes started extending beyond Stretford. The cones started to go down in Gorse Hill, through the awful White City junction and along the Bridgewater Way expressway, before coming to an abrupt end at the Manchester City Council border. They also started heading towards Sale, reaching as far as Dane Road.

Approaching the awful White City junction, you’d never normally choose to cycle through here

Soon, we started to see better signage getting rolled out along the route. With additional cycle lane signs added and cones with “Cycle Route” sleeves on them at the entrances of each section of the pop-up lane. This made it much clearer what the purpose of the cones were and where you should be aiming for.

At last, some decent signage, so people know what the cones are for

By this stage, everything was starting to look pretty good. We now had a safe cycle route along the A56, from Sale, through Stretford and Gorse Hill and almost all the way to the city centre. It was certainly far from perfect, junctions and bus stops were the biggest issues and there were a few places you really had to keep an eye out, around the M60, gyratory and near Tesco/leisure centre. But again, these issues could be fixed, if there’s the commitment to do so.

At this point, the biggest barrier to using the route for commuting to the city centre was that short unprotected section at Cornbook. As you reach the border with Manchester City Council, the cones stop and you’re left to join the main carriageway or carry on along a woefully inadequate shared use path. You then have to somehow get across the road to get to the bidirectional cycleway that passes over the Deansgate Interchange junction.

Reaching the end of the line at the Manchester City Council border

This section was crying out for a small intervention from Manchester City Council to improve cycling facilities along this short section of unprotected, but busy and quite dangerous road.

Many people were asking for this and at one stage Extinction Rebellion Manchester built their own unofficial pop-up lane along here, which was subsequently removed by Manchester City Council.

Beyond Trafford

After some initial optimism that the A56 pop-up lanes could be the start of a Greater Manchester wide network of pop-up cycle routes, it became clear pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to happen.

The biggest stumbling block appeared to be Manchester City Council and and its leader Richard Leese, who clearly has very little interest in improving facilities for cycling, unless there’s another benefit to the council, usually cash to spend on roads for cars.

I suspect many of the other Greater Manchester councils were secretly pleased by Leese’s stance, as it gave them a convenient excuse for not doing anything.

So, all that excitement about a GM-wide pop-up cycle network soon fizzled out. While one or two Greater Manchester councils proceeded with temporary schemes, the rest did very little. As we’ve come to expect, Salford City Council were very much leading the charge and have continued to do so.

Now, onto part 2, where I look at the Timperley extension and the start of the backlash.

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