The Chris Boardman interview

Chris Boardman on Greater Manchester’s bold vision

In the first article for our Young Professionals Programme, award-winning journalist Andrea Sandor asks Manchester’s Transport Commissioner, Chris Boardman, how he intends to deliver the city’s ambitious Bee Network

Chris Boardman is Greater Manchester’s first Transport Commissioner (image: Transport for Greater Manchester)

Four years ago, when Chris Boardman became Greater Manchester’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner, cyclists in Manchester cheered. Few could imagine a better candidate for the role.

Boardman is a former Olympic gold medallist, a triple World Hour Record holder, and a three-time custodian of the Tour de France’s fabled yellow jersey. After retiring early for medical reasons, he helped set up and lead the research and development (R&D) wing of Great Britain’s Olympic cycling team that helped nurture the squad that stands as one of the most successful British sporting teams of all time. Not content to stop there, Boardman co-founded Boardman bikes, which became the fastest-growing British cycle brand in decades. Deftly switching lanes, Boardman has been involved with cycling advocacy for the past 20 years, including as a Policy Advisor to British Cycling.

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.

It’s become clear over the years that Greater Manchester’s boroughs prioritise active travel to different extents, making it difficult at times to reach a consensus. For example, after the pandemic, plans for a pop-up network were proposed by the mayor’s office – the Greater Manchester Combined Authority that coordinates activities across boroughs – but these were thwarted because not all ten councils agreed to sign up. This resulted in pop-up lanes ending abruptly at the Manchester borough border.

“An internal row has been rumbling for weeks,” political reporter Jennifer Williams wrote for the Manchester Evening News at the time. “Manchester has decided to spend its own cash on pedestrian schemes in the city centre instead … meaning that while it has promised to ‘work with’ neighbouring areas, it remains unclear how the lanes [from Tameside and Stockport] will connect into the city.”

For those such as myself who have been eagerly awaiting Boardman’s active travel network, this spat felt particularly demoralising as it suggests that the political will needed across all ten boroughs simply isn’t there. In view of this, what chance does this have of ever actually happening?

In May 2021, Boardman was appointed Greater Manchester’s first Transport Commissioner. Despite his busy schedule, Boardman found time to catch up with me over Zoom to explain why this new role is different and what Greater Manchester can expect from its transport network in the months and years ahead.

“The last piece of the puzzle is really in place”

“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.

What’s really exciting for Boardman is that active travel now has teeth. “At the moment, government policy is batting this out of the park.” This summer the government announced that council funding for large transport schemes is contingent on providing active travel infrastructure. “There are requirements for larger transport settlements, whether you want money for buses or roads or anything else you must provide for active travel” he explains. 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.

“I don’t think that’s ever happened before,” Boardman continues, “There’s been the threat that funding will be clawed back but now they’re actually doing it, and it doesn’t matter what party you are, they’re doing it to everyone, and I think that’s great.” This has started to happen to councils nationwide who prematurely removed cycle schemes introduced during the pandemic after vocal opposition from some drivers. “The last piece of the puzzle is really in place, because it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, it’s going to happen.”

Few roads in Greater Manchester currently feature segregated cycle lanes (image: Transport for Greater Manchester)

Boardman stresses that the government policy doesn’t dictate how it’s done, but it is responsible for setting the requisite standards. “They’re saying, it’s happening locally so you choose how it’s done and where it needs to be done, but here are your standards, here’s the cash, you’ve got to do this.” 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 government’s stance has certainly provided much-needed momentum, a momentum that Boardman seems confident will translate into the active travel network being fully realised. His next step is to integrate it with an expanded transport vision, but he is keen to first explain how his new position as Transport Commissioner has evolved out of his former role.

“Andy’s realised that transport is everything”

When Andy Burnham first ran for the Greater Manchester mayoralty in 2017, he wanted active travel to be part of his manifesto. He won comfortably with 63% of the vote and appointed Boardman the region’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner.

“Andy’s philosophy aligned with mine,” 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. It is evident from the warmth with which he refers to Burnham – always just “Andy” – that the camaraderie between the two isn’t staged for cycling promo videos, it’s genuine.

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.”

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (L) with Boardman (Image: Transport for Greater Manchester)

“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. In particular, he says, “if we’re going to have any hope of getting near our carbon targets – which is a hell of a lot more challenging than people realise – we’ve got to give people a viable alternative to driving. As a result, a few months ago Andy said to me, ‘Listen, would you head that mission up?’”

The answer was yes. 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 foundation of our original mission is active travel,” Boardman continues, “That’s how you get to the bus stop or a train station, but it’s all much more complex when you get into big transport.” He says it will be another few months before they have a picture of what this expanded Bee Network looks like. While “active travel is underway” – infrastructure enabling shorter journeys to schools, shops, work – the bigger network is about a ten-year mission.

“There is an opportunity here for Greater Manchester to genuinely do things differently”

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. “There’s bits of examples all over the world,” he muses but says, “No one has completely nailed it, which is a little bit exciting. There’s an opportunity here for Greater Manchester to genuinely – you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘This is Manchester, we do things differently’ – well to do things differently and take all the best bits and stick them together.”

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.”

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.” So how have they done that, I ask?

“When Andy campaigns and says ‘I want 500 miles of network by 2040, then it gets voted in unanimously in every borough, you then have a mandate.” He continues, “That’s effective politics and ultimately Andy’s got to stand up for it when it gets difficult. When someone objects, he’s going to have to speak to them and try to bring them around.”

“I don’t own the outcome, I own the advice”

Bringing people around in a car-centric culture isn’t easy. This is where Boardman has made use of his past experience in cycling. “I learned in a wind tunnel how to deal with councils,” he states. Boardman helped set up and lead the R&D wing of the Great Britain Olympic cycling team. The small R&D team carried out experiments in wind tunnels and came up with innovations for how to improve cycling performance. “The idea was we’ll keep this secret because the information is valuable and we’ll take it back to the team and tell them what they need to do.”

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.

Users on Royce Road’s CYCLOPS junction, part of the city’s Bee Network (Image: Transport for Greater Manchester)

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.” Specifically, “You have to understand where the person you’re speaking to is coming from”.

“The Powers that be have to want that person to do something”

In Greater Manchester, the Transport Commissioner’s role is an evolution of Boardman’s previous role as walking and cycling czar. From the outset, Boardman and Burnham agreed that Boardman would be the mayor’s voice, thereby affording him greater influence than he would otherwise have. I finish our interview by asking about the role of transport commissioners more broadly.

“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, “So it works to whatever degree in Greater Manchester because Andy and I set the rules from the start, and I’m here to do a job. I’m not here to shake hands and stand for photographs, and if other people appoint a commissioner to coordinate and get a job done then it works. But just appointing a commissioner will not make it work.”

At the start of the interview, I was sceptical about how likely it is the active travel network will ever be realised, let alone the expanded integrated Bee Network. But by the end of our time together, Boardman has done his job. The new government guidelines seem like a game-changer, and having Boardman in charge of the expanded network means that active travel will be foundational to it. So far, the Olympic gold medallist has achieved everything he’s put his mind to, so I take him at his word when he says, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was possible.”

Fare City would like to thank Andrea Sandor and Chris Boardman for contributing to this piece. All images courtesy of Transport for Greater Manchester. You can find more of Andrea’s work here

Fare City’s Young Professionals Programme is a mentorship scheme designed to provide young and early career built environment professionals with a platform to share their work. More information on the programme can be found here

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