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Car-free in the twenty minute city

event report

Imagine a city centre where you can get anywhere easily and safely. Where you can hear birdsong and breathe clean air. Where green spaces nestle amongst beautiful heritage and architecture. Where business, education and people flourish.

This city is within our grasp: it’s called Manchester.

We’ve decided to call this the twenty minute city. Inside the inner ring road encircling Manchester City Centre and skirting City Centre Salford, everything you want is about twenty minutes walk away, or even less depending upon your level of mobility.

You can cross the entire area easily, but for most, if you alight at Victoria, Piccadilly or Oxford Road, you are likely to be a short walk from where you need to be. If you have to drive to a parking area somewhere on the edge of the city centre, again, you’re just minutes away from live, work or play.

Our vision is of a city centre where the needs of the many outweigh the desires of an increasingly isolated few who want to drive anywhere, anytime and at the clear expense of everyone else.

We’d like to see central Manchester become car-free, and we’d like it to happen within the next few years.

This alternative vision of a car-free city centre is where businesses thrive because it’s people that spend money, not cars. Imagine the ‘City as a Park’ where the space we’ve liberated from cars can become playful and forever green. Currently at least eight percent of our surface area in the city centre is for parking cars; this needs to change and is a wasted resource. The spaces and places we enjoy across the city centre can become more animated, leaner, greener and cleaner – with people put first in urban design.

As you start to feel the seasons change, we believe the experience of the city centre will be transformed. Spaces will be shared, and enjoyed. In fact we already know what this looks like – anyone been to St Peter’s Square recently? Cars don’t make a space vibrant and beautiful, all too often they are its undoing.

This vision is of a more inclusive city centre, not least because the vast majority of people who already travel into the city centre don’t do so by car, and yet the noise, pollution and danger of cars is pervasive and felt by all. Across our wider city, around a third of households don’t own a car, and we believe in designing the future city centre around them.

We believe that the numbers will stack up. A radical reduction in air pollution and accidents alone will deliver huge health and financial benefits. We also believe we cannot achieve our goals to be zero carbon by 2038 unless we take this path towards a car-free city centre. More green and permeable spaces will also make us more resilient to the climate emergency; trees, parks and green spaces instead of car parks and traffic queues will pay dividends even in the near future; and, of course, we will sound, feel and look like a premier global city, joining the ranks of a huge number of cities that are deciding urban centres are for people, not cars.

There will be details to cover off of course. Car-free does not include essential access for the disabled, or indeed for the emergency services. If you need to make bulky deliveries, pick up an elderly relative from hospital or carry equipment of some kind, we’ll need a permitting system for occasional trips.

The car needs, at most, to be an occasional guest in our city centre – certainly not the guest of honour.

For disabled people we need a vision that ensures complete and pervasive accessibility. How can we better design public transport but also our public realm to be better suited to those with mobility needs?

If you live in the city centre and don’t like the idea of using a car club, then there will need to be a modest accommodation for some resident car parking and outward trips. If you work late, we believe that we need to see better public transport choices or a way to ensure taxis can take you to one of the peripheral parking areas or a train or bus station. These and other details are of vital importance; none of them however are reasons to dismiss our vision of a car-free city centre.

And in fact, most of the arguments we have encountered for allowing private car use to continue across the city centre based on individual use cases such as late-working, those in hospitality, those with mobility needs, are actually arguments for safer, more affordable, and regular public transport, not for more cars.

Beyond our initial car-free vision, we believe there is a case to examine last mile deliveries and freight consolidation on the outskirts of the city, to limit even further vehicle movements. We know that buses, when re-regulated, will be much better organised and less chaotic but, again, can they be a less dominant force right in the heart of the city?

As the city centre expands, for example across Ancoats, we believe it will be necessary to consider expanding our car-free area if needed. We also critically have to bring in measures to stop those dedicated to driving at all costs simply dumping cars in local neighbourhoods surrounding the city (though why anyone would choose this over park and ride eludes us).

Our vision embraces more than just cars. Without cars we believe infrastructure decisions in the city centre will become cheaper and easier to make; segregated bike lanes? Possibly not needed until you get beyond the centre.

With our liberated space we can build new dreams: a High Line? New civic squares? A canal renaissance? Playgrounds for kids? E-assisted cargo bikes and a fleet of rickshaws?

Why not? All this becomes more achievable if we go car-free. #

It is affordable, connected, integrated and more pleasant, this future of ours, and we believe the recipe will work elsewhere across Greater Manchester. We’d like our car-free urban centre to be a trailblazer for others. Let’s not stop until the M60 and see these flowers bloom in Bury, in Bolton, in Wigan and in Stockport.

Our city centre is flat, walkable and has phenomenal potential if we put people first. Our great architecture will be enjoyed more; our cultural life will be well within reach; and we will be delivering a health dividend to the hundreds of thousands who work, live and play there. Car-free can be stress-free and care-free. It can be good for the economy. It can also deliver a more just, and equitable city centre that we will continue to be proud to call our home.

We’re setting out our vision because this debate has to happen, urgently. We are not seeking to demonise drivers and there will be still plenty of examples where people need to continue to use cars, particularly around the outskirts of Greater Manchester where public transport provision still isn’t good enough. Shift work, holiday shuttles, kids who need to get to a play date, on crutches because you’ve sprained an ankle and need a lift, visiting a medical specialist in a neighbouring borough – across the rest of Greater Manchester there will be a host of examples where people feel they still want to use a car, even if we do still maintain most of these are arguments for better public transport services.

We’d like to work with Transport for Greater Manchester, Manchester City Council and the business and resident community to build the evidence base around our vision as we realise that major transitions should be based on facts.

We seek to make our case calmly and positively. So walk, ride or meander – however you make your way, make it count. Change is inevitable and already across the world cities are making this shift in the way people move around their dense urban centres. If we want to be a magnet for talent and famed for our progressive approach and great quality of life, this transition has to start now.

Who made this?

A conversation started online between those involved in urban design, campaigning for space for walking and cycling, people who care about the climate emergency and concerned residents within the city centre and then around twenty of us came together for an evening workshop to craft this vision.

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