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‘We have to change the way we travel for good’: Chris Boardman profile

In-depth
27 Jul 2021
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For all his success on the track, Chris Boardman now wants to be known for what he’s doing for our roads

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Alex Wright

Three minutes on an August evening in 2012 was where it all started for Chris Boardman. Sitting across from Emily Maitlis in a BBC studio, the former Olympic champion had been invited on to Newsnight to celebrate Team GB’s outstanding success on two wheels at the London Games that summer, success he had helped orchestrate from his role within the research and development department at British Cycling.

After pertinent questions on the importance of Lottery funding and gender parity in sport, Maitlis turned to the apparent cycling boom taking place on British streets and asked whether helmets should be enforceable by law.

‘I’m not sure about that, actually, and the statistics don’t necessarily support it either,’ Boardman responded. ‘It’s a tool for transport, and helmets are a tool that are used when they are required. I think they can distract and detract, for me, from what is the real argument: why can’t we make an environment that lets this activity take place? It solves so many problems with pollution, with health, with congestion.’

It was a measured response but it ultimately fell on deaf ears. The damage was done the moment he said no to making the wearing of helmets law. Boardman’s response put him directly in the anti-cycling crosshairs, but what he didn’t know was it was also about to shape the next decade of his life, culminating in his appointment last month as Greater Manchester’s first Transport Commissioner.

Getting political

‘My time with Team GB ended in 2012 after London. That same summer I found myself on Newsnight being asked about cyclists, helmets and whether we should have a licence to use a bicycle on the road, and I suddenly realised the amount of ignorance out there,’ Boardman tells Cyclist from his home in the Wirral. ‘Because of my position, I had a chance to talk on a BBC sofa about something I care about, and lo and behold it ended up becoming my life.’

After his Newsnight appearance Boardman slotted into the role of policy advisor at British Cycling, which he juggled alongside commentary work on ITV and BBC. The big change, however, came in 2017, when ex-British Cycling colleague Kirsty McCaskill-Baker called the soon-to-be Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

‘Kirsty knew Burnham would need a cycling commissioner for the city and thought I should be the person to do it, so she rang him up to tell him just that. Very quickly, he had got in touch asking me to do the job,’ Boardman says.

‘I spoke to Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner when he was Mayor of London and his now-senior transport advisor, and asked him what I should do. He said you need to be talking for him and answering directly to him, and you need to have full control of the cash. So I went back to Burnham and said, “It needs to be your mission I’m delivering and I need the cash.” He agreed without hesitation.’

‘That call landed me a job I never even wanted, getting me immersed in transport for four years, which without sounding too melodramatic I now consider a really good use of my life. If you can change how a region thinks about cycling and then a nation, that’s pretty cool and I think we’re in the process of doing that right now.’

Selling the vision

Within a year of becoming Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner, Boardman had unveiled the 1,000-mile ‘Beelines’ cycling infrastructure plan that for £150 million would create 75 miles of segregated cycle lanes and promote cycling as Manchester’s primary mode of transport.

In 2019 planning permission was granted to the first phase, a segregated cycle route from Chorlton to Manchester city centre, with a construction date being set for the spring of 2020 and a budget of £13.5 million.

Meanwhile Boardman found himself next to Fiona Bruce on Question Time, explaining how making cycling a more viable form of transport could not only help tackle climate change and congestion but also save the country some money by reducing its annual NHS bill.

It was all part of Boardman’s vision of a ‘green revolution’. Things were happening but they were happening slowly and not without vocal opposition. For every new cycle lane built there was a group of locals threatening to rip up the road, and for every piece of legislation passed there was an angry rant from Nick Ferrari on the radio or barbed tweet from Elaine Paige calling for cyclists to pay road tax. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and it all changed.

‘There are quite a lot of superlatives that we can use to describe what has happened over the past year, and all would be apt, so let me kick off with one: Covid effectively turned off global traffic,’ states Boardman. ‘That has never happened before. Not even a war made that happen.

‘The circumstances were horrific – people have lost friends and family, including myself, to Covid-19 – but we would be crazy to ignore what’s happened and not try to keep hold of the things that some people have discovered or even rediscovered.’

In the UK, as a result of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, the majority of Brits found themselves confined to their homes and forced to change how they lived their lives. As a result, the use of all modes of transport nation-wide dropped by between 60% and 90% from April to June 2020. With gyms shut, team sports on hold and public transport being reduced in an attempt to stem the virus, people turned to the bicycle for exercise, transport and freedom.

During that same timeframe, while other forms of transport dropped significantly, cycling increased by 60% on pre-Covid levels and in some circumstances rose by 300%. Bicycle sales increased by 150%, bike shops that remained open as an essential service found themselves with months-long waiting lists for repairs, and there was even a brief shortage of inner tubes.

In May 2020, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps then announced a £2 billion cycling and walking package to develop Low Traffic Neighbourhoods across the country. A further £175 million of emergency funding was set aside for high-quality cycling and walking infrastructure across England following overwhelming support to reclaim road space from motor vehicles during the pandemic and give it back to people – cyclists and pedestrians. Suddenly, roads once choked with traffic were quickly being converted into makeshift bicycle corridors to navigate thousands safely through the streets during those unprecedented times.

‘It’s a bit of a cliché but everybody is on a massive learning curve. People are stressed and will react badly to change like a lane being taken away from a road. We need to listen to people, empathise with them, and look for the opportunities,’ Boardman says.

‘For example, previously businesses would have fought tooth and nail to keep parking spaces outside their shops and cafes, but right now they’ll bin that in a second if you let them put a few tables in that space. All that space has been reclaimed for people and I think there will be a reluctance to give it back again.

‘The Northern Quarter of Greater Manchester, for example, has wanted to pedestrianise for a long time. They allowed all the restaurants to come out onto the streets last summer, they have again this year and that will now be a permanent change. These things are fantastic, well supported and we can bolt active travel onto it. It’s very fragile and potentially short lived, but this is ground we cannot give back.’

No going back

With traffic back on the rise as the return of ‘normal’ life appears on the horizon, Boardman is worried the progress of active travel over the past year could be reversed – something that disturbs him deeply when he considers the growing issue of climate change.

‘Now we have to look at the next crisis, the climate crisis, and realise cycling is an answer to it, like it has been with Covid. Our current relationship with cycling is best summed up with something called the mourning curve, which is applicable to any moment of change in a person’s life, be it a job, bereavement or the introduction of bike lanes,’ Boardman says. ‘It starts with denial – this isn’t happening, I won’t accept it. Then there’s blame – blame someone, blame yourself. Then there’s acceptance.

‘The change curve governs everything. As a nation, in regards to active travel and climate change, we have done the denial, we are passing through the blame and we have started to accept that this is a real problem and we are moving into the period where people are beginning to accept change. This accelerated in the last 12 months and now is the moment to act. We have to change the way we travel for good.’

Boardman points to the smoking ban, introduced in the UK in 2007, as being a perfect example of the mourning curve in practice. Looking back, it seems absurd that people smoked on trains, at the cinema and in restaurants, but back then this seminal change went through the same curve of denial, blame and acceptance. The reason Boardman believes this change was accepted was due to two things: appeal and political courage.

‘What people really need is a vision of what life with active travel will be like on the other side, and they need to be sold that. Till now we have been appalling at that. We’ve always attempted to use facts, but facts don’t move many people because anybody moved by facts is already doing it,’ Boardman says.

‘Most will want to know what’s in it for them, so we need to make sure there’s more in it for people and sell it in a language they understand. There are several ways we can do that. We can do it before everybody else, which gives people that sense of pride and ownership of doing something special.

‘You make it about children, because people can empathise with kids. You make it about money – if you don’t drive your car and cycle instead you can afford a week away with the family each year. It’s not cynical, it’s just a fact.

‘Then you cannot avoid the importance of political courage and that courage coming from the right people, because when a decision comes from the very top, it’s much easier for others – who often agree anyway – to follow as they have political cover.

‘Thankfully I think Boris Johnson is deadly serious about cycling. He is utterly passionate about this, I know he is and it’s critical that he is on board. To change the culture of our nation, the Prime Minister has to lead it. That’s the one person who can effect change.

‘The beauty of this moment is that people at the top – a senior transport advisor in Andrew Gilligan and a Prime Minister in Boris Johnson – have been through this with cycling in London. They genuinely believe in it, they want to see it through. That’s why this is a unique moment.

‘So let’s capitalise, appeal to people’s patriotism. We could be the first car-centric nation to show the rest of the world how you can move towards active travel at pace. That would make people feel good wouldn’t it? You could make a nation proud.’

Boardman the racer

Nothing says success like free chips. Photo: Offside

‘At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, I sat on the start line before that individual pursuit final as an unemployed carpenter with a wife, two kids and utterly no money, knowing that the next four and a half minutes were either going to change my life or not.

‘I can remember watching the seconds tick over before the start, I could hear it ticking, and I thought to myself, “F*** it, I’m going to be the best I can be and when I cross the line I’ll see where that gets me.” That was a liberating experience knowing I couldn’t affect the big things, only the things that could change me. Next thing, I’ve won an Olympic gold medal.

‘After I won I came back to Hoylake where I lived, and the whole village came out to celebrate my return. I immediately didn’t like it because this was my home, and I wanted to turn it off and I couldn’t. But in the evening, everyone disappeared home and I went down to The Dolphin chip shop at the end of my road. I walked in and Ming, the owner, was behind the counter. We just nodded to one another and I ordered my chips. He slides them across the counter and says, “No, on me.” That’s when I knew I’d made it – free chips from The Dolphin.’

Boardman the innovator

Anything goes in the search for more speed

‘When I became head of the R&D programme at British Cycling it was absolutely amazing. We were given half a million quid and told you’ve got four years, see if you can make us go faster, and at the end we don’t need to have any commercially viable product. It was an unbelievable period of my life.

‘In the first Olympic cycle from 2004 to 2008, we tested just under 10,000 different materials to find the most aerodynamic material we could. Two years of intensive experimentation, one year of prototyping, half a year of manufacturing, and right at the end I was writing an update for British Cycling next to my wife in bed. I mentioned we’d tested 10,000 materials and she asked if we’d tested them wet, because I’m always wet when riding the bike.

‘The next day we went in and tested the same materials wet and it completely changed the results, which basically invalidated two years of work. That was quite significant.

‘Ignorance is a marvellous thing, because you ask the questions that lead to innovation. Those who don’t know what you cannot do are the ones who push the boundaries.’