Chris Boardman. That is a vast topic, so where do you begin?
Former UCI Hour Record-holder? Three-time Tour de France stage winner? Multiple UCI World Champion? 1992 individual pursuit Olympic Champion?
Or, moving onto his post-competitive career, co-founder of Boardman Bikes? TV commentator?
These days, when you talk to the British star, you’re probably more likely to find yourself in a conversation about negotiating prams along footpaths, keeping kids on bikes safe, reducing obesity and stalling climate change. Policy Advisor for British Cycling since 2012 and appointed Greater Manchester’s Commissioner for walking and cycling five years later Boardman is as invested in advocacy now as he was in chasing medals in the 1990s.
In his racing days, Boardman was often referred to as The Professor, thanks to his meticulous attention to detail in preparation and training. More than 20 years on, and that same thoroughness and single-minded determination comes through when he talks about his advocacy role in Greater Manchester.
In the last two years, he has overseen the creation of what he describes as an “entire Masterplan”. It’s a Masterplan that lesser beings would have trouble envisaging, let alone taking responsibility for: a 1800 mile (2897km) connected walking and cycling network that will take 10 years and 1.5 billion pounds to deliver.
“It’s been a very complex job,” admits the master planner. “It’s been part technical, part political, part cultural but it’s been an amazing experience, a crash course in culture change on a large scale.”
A vision for Greater Manchester
Greater Manchester has a population of more than 2.8 million and covers 1276 km2. Its Mayor Andy Burnham had a real desire to give the car-dependent region a chance to travel differently, and saw Boardman as the man capable of doing so. British Cycling wholeheartedly backed their Policy Advisor taking on a second role, for which Boardman remains immensely grateful: “British Cycling effectively sponsored me to get this job while taking absolutely no credit. That is what you call selfless leadership.”
The goal for Boardman was clear: ensure every resident in the city region – old, young or disabled – had a genuinely attractive alternative to driving if they wished.
“It wasn’t about cycling or walking,” explains Boardman. “It was about a lot less driving and improving health. It just happens that these two activities - cycling and walking - are the quickest, cheapest, least disruptive way to achieve that outcome.”
Which is where the Masterplan comes in. Boardman ensured that all boroughs were involved in the plan, that the public had their say and that as many needs as possible were catered for. This approach turned ‘a side road crossing here’ and ‘a bit of bike lane there’, into a cohesive, comprehensive vision.
“Most importantly, it was achieved without ever holding a pen,” marvels Boardman. “The 10 boroughs held the pen - figuratively and literally - at every stage. I just controlled the questions; they drew what they believed they needed. When they’d finished the first draft, we put it online for the public to comment on. We received 4000 replies in just a few days and our biggest complaint was ‘where’s ours?’
“Getting that kind of consensus for a whole region, getting millions of people to agree that common goal was deeply satisfying.”
Bringing the vision to life
The Bee Network promises to change life for the millions of residents, with its proposed:
- 1800 miles of walking and cycling routes connecting communities across Greater Manchester
- Protected Space along 435 miles of main road corridors and town centre streets
- A clear wayfinding signage system based on the proven Knooppunten system used in the Netherlands and Belgium
- 17 ‘filtered neighbourhoods’ — where the movement of people is prioritised over through traffic
Boardman recognises that the biggest challenges are yet to come: “After two years of mobilisation, 2021 is the year of delivery, the period of maximum disruption and change. It will take political vision and courage to stick to it because the evidence says that in a few months everyone will prefer the new landscape, just many won’t know it yet.”
H e agrees that in many ways, the coronavirus has helped his cause: “The pandemic and lockdown effectively turned off global traffic and gave everyone a chance to try using the streets differently. It was essentially a planet-wide consolation and suddenly it wasn’t ‘us and them’ anymore. Everyone was a cyclist. The pandemic helped us bridge the gap and I’m determined we will not lose that.
“As more and more schemes come to fruition, we will gather stories… of residents, shopkeepers, school children, everyone who has been given an alternative to travelling by car, and what they felt about it. Then people will be able to see ‘what’s in it for me’ and hear it from people they trust.”
Boardman’s aim is to set an example on such a huge scale, it cannot be ignored by the rest of the country. He continues, “From there, I hope it will scale up until the whole country is doing the same. Perhaps then, the UK can be an example of how a car centric culture can be changed.
“That is something I want to be involved in.”
It would certainly appear that the former cycling star is as motivated these days about getting the public on bikes as he was about cycling faster than his peers as a pro.
But he has lost none of his competitive spirit… we asked him to imagine someone in a game of Scrabble putting down the word “cycling”: would he conjure up pictures of the Tour de France or images of city-centre bike lanes?
“I would just conjure up ways to win the game.”
Main photo (©Transport for Greater Manchester / TfGM): Chris Boardman