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'Change a region to change a nation': Boardman's mission during lockdown and beyond

Jack Elton-Walters
20 May 2020

From Olympic gold to filtered permeability, Boardman is busier than ever trying to change transport – especially during lockdown

'I think "temporary and emergency" is brilliant,' Chris Boardman says when asked about measures being taken across the country as the coronavirus lockdown is incrementally eased. 'I think it’s the most important thing because it takes away the fear. It says that if people don’t like it, you can take it away. It takes away the last excuse to not act.'

As Greater Manchester's cycling and walking commissioner, Boardman is not just an advocate of changing the way people get around but is actively involved in making that happen and controls a £160 million budget to that end.

The temporary nature of some of the infrastructure being rolled out across British towns and cities – wider pavements, cycle lanes, parking spaces reallocated to benefit everyone – has left some people sceptical about authorities' plans for the longer term.

But for Boardman, 'temporary' is the right approach. 'It says that if I get it wrong, as I’m trying to address an emergency, then I’ll pick up the cones and move them somewhere else,' he explains.

'You do it quickly, you do it cheaply. Effectively it’s a reverse consultation. You have a unique environment to create a try-before-you-buy. I’m going to address the virus specifically and the needs around distancing. I’m going to create this space while it’s quiet and then afterwards I can ask you how you feel about it and do you want to keep it?

'I’m a believer in the product, the only thing I want to do is get people to try the product because I’m convinced they’ll buy it once they’ve tried it, so I have no problem with temporary measures. I really like it because it takes away the fear.'

In Greater Manchester, £5 million in emergency funding has been allocated to addressing social distancing and safer travel during the coronavirus lockdown and beyond, split between the 10 boroughs.

Unlike London, where TfL controls 5% of the capital's roads, all of Greater Manchester's are under the remit of the boroughs.

'We had an emergency call with the leaders of each borough and said, "Right, you’ve got half a million quid, which should be enough for planters and paint. We’ve just got to think of a number to go quickly. You need to make provision for people to stay apart when they’re not driving," and they’re busy at work doing that now,' he says.

Making everyone safe

Boardman has previously said that mandating the wearing of helmets wouldn't be in the top 10 things the Government could do to make cyclists safer.

When asked to name the top three, he says, 'I can give you one, which is space. That’s it. It’s space. Ask anybody why they would or wouldn’t ride a bike and the big blocker is space. Safe space from where I live to where I want to go.'

Another way to improve the appeal of cycling is to address how lenient the justice system can appear to be when it comes to crimes committed while using a motor vehicle.

'We completely need to revamp our road traffic laws and it needs to be treated as real and very serious crime. The penalties are ridiculous for using a car to kill someone.

'As Superintendent Andy Cox [Met Police roads crime officer] is finding out, every time they do somebody for extreme speeding they find a raft of other offences. The person who would do that has a [certain] mindset, so it’s actually efficient in terms of catching criminals as well.

'First and foremost, make safe space and the second thing is address in your legal system so you value in your legislation people who are walking and cycling, you show that they’re the most important.

'That’s what every other country bar the UK, Malta and Hong Kong do by having some form of presumed liability. A legislated responsibility to look after those more vulnerable than yourself.'

At the risk of sounding like a politician...

Boardman was assigned his current role by Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, with whom he works closely as they try to transform the area for the better. A former Labour Cabinet minister, Burnham was an MP for 16 years before leaving Westminster for the Manchester role.

With the potential for serious change to the status quo given the uncertain times we currently find ourselves in, rumours swirl about Burnham's potential return to the House of Commons at the next General Election. However, Boardman won't be drawn on such speculation or where he might fit into such a move.

'At the risk of sounding like a politician, I think there are too many "what ifs". What if that government gets in? What if he’s asked back? There’s too much to pull together.

'I'm completely passionate about changing the way we travel. The whole reason for me working for Andy is that he felt the same way and our intention was to change a region in order to change a nation. To create an example on such a scale that it was unignorable. So that’s the mission.

'I really don’t care who leads it, who implements it, but I do care that it gets done, and what my place in that is as it evolves, I don’t know.

'Things are moving very quickly,' he says, before adding, 'I did sound like a politician then!'

Retired but never completely free of the pro scene

Boardman won Olympic gold, wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France and continues to hold the 'Absolute' Hour Record. As such, and despite his current role and clear passion for cycling as transport, our conversation still veered back to pro cycling at times.

He stopped being part of ITV's Tour de France coverage team a couple of years ago, something he was surprised to find he missed last year.

'Yeah I did [miss being at the Tour], and I’m quite surprised by it. I mean to start with I was kind of excited about getting July back for the first time in my adult life. One of my kids, Oscar, his birthday’s in July and I’ve never been home for it and he’s in his twenties now.

'I was excited about that and whilst I enjoyed it, I was certainly melancholy that a big chunk of my life had changed; this thing carried on and I was no longer part of it, so that was quite sad, because it’s an incredible spectacle.

'It’s certainly not glamorous, truck stop food, loads of driving, loads of nights in hotels, hanging round for hours in effectively truck parks waiting to do a little tiny thing and then move to the next place.

'So there’s a lot about it that wasn’t glamorous but you were part of a story and nobody knew what it was going to be and that’s why people watch it, that’s what makes it special.'

The 2020 Tour de France is currently scheduled to start on Saturday 29th August after being pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it is actually able to take place is anyone's guess, but Boardman thinks he knows which way things will go.

'Well I’m utterly guessing, same as everybody else, but my personal feeling is that I’d be extremely surprised. Really surprised. I understand that they have to say "right, well we’re going for these dates" and they have to project ahead to be able to plan but there are so many factors that are beyond their control that can impact [the race].

'I’d be very, very surprised.'

Riding round in a circle

Boardman may be happy to talk about racing but his interest in doing any has long since expired. However, just how far does he think he could go if he attempted an Hour Record tomorrow?

'God knows!' he laughs. 'I don’t know. I haven’t really ridden a bike for two months. I’ve been volunteering in a bike shop one day a week and I’ve been riding there and that’s been it, that’s the only riding. Otherwise I’ve been running, I’m actually pretty fit now but I've mostly been running.

'No idea. No. I think maybe I couldn’t care less either, which is quite liberating to know. It was a chapter of my life where I was exploring what I could do, how far I could push myself, what I was capable of and then the moment in 2000 when I did the "Athlete’s Record", I got off the bike and never looked back.

'It was a great chapter and I was more than happy to turn the page to the next one. I don’t know and I really don’t care. I don’t mean that in a bitter, horrible way... great, there’s new stuff to think about.'