OPINION: Does Manchester need cars?

The demolition of Central Retail Park on Great Ancoats Street has opened up more than just an enormous 4.2 hectare site on the edge of the city centre. It's also kicked off a debate about the dominance of motorist-friendly planning in central Manchester which often comes at the expense of everyone else.

Central Retail Park was initially developed in the 1980s at a time when the car was king in Manchester, and when 'big box' retail plazas designed to make access easy for motorists were seen as the future. It started to decline some years ago, and by 2018 was empty. The council bought the site in 2017, in partnership with Abu Dhabi United Group, in anticipation of the site's eventual redevelopment.

In the meantime, the council has submitted a planning application for the land to be used as a temporary 440-space car park for the next five years, while development proposals are drawn up. However, many saw this as a hypocritical move from the council just one day after officially declaring a 'Climate Emergency' and promising to make Manchester a carbon neutral city 'by 2038'.

This is not uncommon practice. In 2014, the council approved planning permission for a 563-space temporary car park at the former BBC headquarters on Oxford Road (now being developed as Circle Square), and many development sites across the city were once surface car parks before being developed. For landowners, it is a great way of making money off the land in the short-term before a more long-term use is identified.

However, things have changed. The city centre is now home to about 200 times the number of residents as at the start of the century, and they are starting to take a great interest in the way the city is changing and developing. Across various neighbourhoods, residents are mobilising into groups and forums and are starting to have a bigger say on what gets approved, rejected and changed in Manchester city centre. The quality of our air, and the dominance of car-friendly infrastructure across the city are two key concerns.

The council's argument in favour of the proposal is that it will generate income for the organisation, allowing it to fund social services, litter picking and more cycle/walking schemes. Other supporters of the scheme state that the total number of car parking spaces have reduced in the city centre due to many sites formerly used for car parking being developed, and that many people who do not live in areas with public transport provision rely on their car to get to work. However, the below graphic from Manchester Friends of the Earth claims there has been very little change in car parking spaces in Manchester since 2003, possibly because while surface car parks have been developed, so too have multi-storey car parks which store cars at a higher density.

Credit: Manchester Friends of the Earth

Those in opposition to the scheme state that the New Islington/Ancoats area, now home to many thousands of people but which just a few years ago was only home to a few hundred, is already a badly-polluted place. There is a new primary school adjacent to the Central Retail Park site, and very little green space in the area to provide respite from the dense urbanity of the area.

There is strong support for the former Central Retail Park site to be turned into a park. Picture: Andy Kelly, Lib Dem candidate for Greater Manchester Mayor

With all of this in mind, UrbInfo decided to take a look at just how much of central Manchester's surface area is dedicated to cars, versus how many people actually use their car to travel into the city centre. This is then compared with the surface area of other transport options - such as tram, train, bus and bikes - to try and examine whether Manchester city centre needs another car park.

We started with setting our boundary - the Ring Road - and plotting all of the city centre's main roads, shown below:

The tool we used allowed us to calculate the surface area of these roads. Next, we added in the car parks. This being a surface area study, we only included surface car parks. Multi-storey car parks were only included if they were 100% car park. If they had retail/restaurant units on the ground floor, like the multi-storey car parks on Piccadilly, Oxford Street and Quay Street to name a few examples, then they were not counted - as this is a dual use. Further, the multiple floors in multi-storey car parks were not counted.

Looking at the map above, there is a pattern whereby more peripheral areas of the city have more surface car parks than the more developed core. In particular, Greengate in Salford and Piccadilly Basin currently play host to the majority of the city's car parking. All of these sites are earmarked for redevelopment in the future.

With all this, we calculated that the total surface area occupied by roads in Manchester city centre was 4,459,277 sqft (414,300 sqm). This is the equivalent of about four Manchester Arndales in terms of area. A further 2,190,994 sqft (203,548 sqm) is used for car parking in Manchester city centre. This gives a combined total of 6,644,271 sqft of surface area dedicated to cars and their storage in Manchester city centre.

We then plotted the city's main bus routes. Of course, in many areas, buses share the roads with cars. Bus routes are shown in red on the map below. We also included the bus interchanges at Shudehill and Piccadilly Gardens. All-in-all, buses occupy 1,710,090 sqft (158,880 sqm) of surface area in Manchester city centre.

Next, we plotted train lines and train stations, shown in purple on the map below. The behemoths at Victoria and Piccadilly take up the most room, but Manchester's iconic railway viaducts slice gracefully through the city centre. In total, the stations and viaducts take up 2,094,657 sqft (194,598 sqm) of space in the city centre.

Trams glide through Manchester city centre, taking up very little space. Their tracks and stations are shown in yellow below. The Metrolink occupies just 784,689 sqft (72,899 sqm) of city centre land, and in many areas the tracks share the land with pedestrians.

Finally, cycle infrastructure in Manchester (and the UK in general) is woefully inadequate. While cyclists share the road with cars and buses, this infrastructure is not built with cyclists in mind and in many cases is actually dangerous for cyclists due to being poorly designed. Therefore, only fully-segregated cycle lanes are included in this study. There are only three properly-segregated lanes in central Manchester: Oxford Road, Blackfriars and Chester Road. These are shown in green on the map below.

Cycle lanes tend be about 1.5 to 2.5 metres in width, meaning they take up just 35,541 sqft (3,302 sqm) of space in Manchester city centre - equivalent to about 280 car parking spaces. And yet, TfGM's latest figures suggest that 6,600 people commute by bike every day in and out of Manchester city centre. If they all drove instead, we would need 15 car parks the size of Central Retail Park to accommodate them all, which would take up nearly 20% of the city centre's surface area.

6,600 people commute by bike every day in and out of Manchester city centre. If they all drove instead, we would need 15 car parks the size of Central Retail Park to accommodate them all, which would take up nearly 20% of the city centre's surface area.

And that is just cyclists. In total, 411,260 journeys are made into and out of Manchester city centre every day. The majority of them are made by train - 155,935. Metrolink is the second-largest commuter contributor, with 103,694 people using the city centre's tram stops during 2017. 92,231 commute by bus, while 52,800 drive. The graph below shows this data:

The interesting bit comes when we plot the above data alongside the surface area data we calculated earlier. This is shown in the graph below. The total amount of space in Manchester city centre taken up by transport infrastructure (train stations, tram stops, roads, cycle lanes and bus stations) is 11,275,246 sqft.

Roads and car parks take up a whopping 59% of total transport infrastructure surface area in Manchester city centre. However, only 13% of total journeys into and out of Manchester city centre are made by car. Contrastingly, 38% of journeys are made by train - but train stations and lines only take up 19% of city centre space. Metrolink contributes 25% of commuters, taking up only 7% of space; bus users make up 22% of commuters, but use only 15% of space. Meanwhile, 2% of journeys are made by bike, even though they benefit from less than 1% of dedicated infrastructure.

Using this data, we can work out how much space each individual commuter uses on their commute. That is, the number of commuters using each mode of transport divided by the amount of infrastructure used for that transport method. This is shown on the next graph:

The inefficiency of cars as a mode of transport in Manchester is striking here. Each car drivers requires 126 sqft to drive in, park their car for the day, and drive out of Manchester city centre. Bus users need just 19 sqft space, train users 13 sqft, Metrolink users 8 sqft and cyclists a mere 5 sqft of space. Most cycle parking is beneath buildings or doesn't up much street space, making it the most efficient mode of travel in terms of surface area.

Imagine if this study had included all the floors of multi-storey car parks, and underneath buildings, and had included all the various back streets in the city centre which are open to cars. That surface area figure for car drivers would be even higher. Central Retail Park is also outside the Ring Road, and was not included in this study.

So, does Manchester need another car park? Even if just temporary, 5 years is a long time - and Manchester city centre is a dense and congested place which is already running out of land to provide much-needed office space, hotels and homes. What is probably needed now more than ever is additional green space in the city centre, to increase quality of life and encourage people to remain living in the city centre instead of heading to the suburbs.

Does Manchester need cars?

87% of people who travel into Manchester city centre every day do not use a car. They are not important to Manchester's daily function. What is vital, however, is the desirability of the city as a place to live, work, play and study. The quality of our public realm; the way we experience the city on foot; how easy it is to cycle around town; and accessibility to high quality green space. Considering everything we've discovered in this article, UrbInfo wonders whether we have sacrificed some of the desirability and attractiveness of our city centre in order to make it easier for people to travel via the least efficient, most damaging mode of transport.

87% of people who travel into Manchester city centre every day do not use a car. They are not important to Manchester's daily function.

A large expanse of green space at Central Retail Park may not make any money, but the intangible benefits of a park here might far outweigh the tangible benefits of another car park.