Platform. The everyday portal for sharing knowledge and intelligence on sustainability across Greater Manchester.

Me, Poppy and the Panda

Me and my car, the car and the city

Upper Brook Street, Manchester, is notorious in the ranks of the Society Of All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts. It is the earliest example of an S5 Tidal Traffic Flow system any SABRE member can recall.

On a perilous morning in 1966 illuminated green arrows and red crosses slung from gantries, first signed the way into town for commuters from the south suburbs. Three lanes heading in, two lanes out in the morning rush hour, opposite flow in the evening. Which meant that the middle lane of the busy A34, between Brunswick Street and Grosvenor Street, changed direction around four in the afternoon and changed back again around six in the morning. A sort of Hedonists Happy Hour, Russian Roulette U-turn scenario that, not surprisingly, caused accidents. The scheme was abandoned in 1989.

Upper Brook Street, photograph courtesy of Flickr user kh1234567890

Prime Minister Harold Wilson officially opened the Mancunian Way in May 1967. It all came together in three stages, and was granted Motorway status (if that’s what you do) sometime in the 1970’s. The elevated sections should properly be seen as scenic routes, giving panoramas of the city, almost as a tour of the city walls. As a commuting motorway the A57(M) should barely be legal. It is so preposterously dangerous, I find it oddly reassuring. Rather like Beachy Head. Knowing that so dangerous a place invites unstable people, you’d think someone would fence it off. The fact it remains open is an audit of our personal liabilities. Joining and leaving the Mancunian Way is grace under fire. It happens in slow motion at high revs and ends in tiny prayers.

Auto relations

Every city’s relationship with cars is bumpy. Manchester’s is in Relate. For how long is anybody’s guess. The Keep Out signs haven’t gone up yet, but I don’t doubt graphic artists have been briefed. Obviously we all love the tram, but I'm not ready to put aside my faithful car for a newer, younger partner just yet. Car-related restrictions and regulations that come out of Manchester Town Hall persuade me that some of the city’s top decision makers have been out of control Clarksonian petrol abusers in their time. Having overcome the addiction they’ve turned zealot.

I’m into the fifth year of my relationship with a very cool Fiat Panda. I’ve loved every mile of it, every minute even (apart from a long wait parked behind a burning vehicle on a scorching M5). My point of view is from behind the wheel of a small car I bought second hand at Christmas 2008, and that I can just about afford to feed, keep shod, legal and relatively trouble free. Most of the time I share my car with my dog. She covers it in hair, and that’s the way we like it. We like it most just before 6am on a cloudless morning in May or June, heading south on the M6, before bearing left on to the M5 (hooray!) to Exeter for refuelling, and on to the A30 over Bodmin Moor, thence to Wadebridge and on to the Camel, opposite Padstow. We stay in a caravan, and I travel with my dog, my telly and my coffee machine. Thank you car. Our sins are venial.

I should say that my partner usually does the journey to Bodmin by rail. I bring her luggage. She’s a self-confessed bad passenger, who likes to work on the train and is very clever at trawling for cheap tickets. This means that I can listen to the Today programme and Scott Walker CD’s as loud as I like, and not have an unwilling passenger getting jumpy about switching lanes and advancing break lights. This is an integrated transport solution that suits all parties.

Have I given the impression that I’m feckless with my carbon boots? Allow me to conjure a not very distant future in which my carbon mess will be hardly worth trading.

Have I given the impression that I’m feckless with my carbon boots? Allow me to conjure a not very distant future in which my carbon mess will be hardly worth trading. The eventual successor to my beloved Panda is on a line to zero emissions. It’s body parts will be 100% vegan and entirely recyclable. It will have been 3D printed in locally sourced materials under fair trade agreements. The globalised automotive industry will have made a sharp handbrake turn onto the local trading estate.

Once the motorcar is ecologically unimpeachable, nothing will curb its global appeal.

Once the motorcar is ecologically unimpeachable, nothing will curb its global appeal. There will be many more motorcars in future than there are today, and many more people will benefit from them. Why, when we demonise the car, do we overlook the millions of people who will never drive one, and the likely benefits that cars might yet bring? The driverless Google car doesn’t have much appeal, but it does have a point. Driverless shuttle vehicles most definitely have a place in towns and cities not long off. My life is an extension of my phone, so too will be my car. They will talk to each other. Energy source is the key sustainable issue. But, just as we happily ping emails, Google, text, chat, download, upload, locate and transact on our armoury of devices, without giving too much thought to power implications, so we might roll along on emissions free wheels without regard to the source of the power-source, so to speak.

Bigger, more efficient batteries or hydrogen cells not withstanding, future vehicles will be on continuous inductive charge, by one means or another; plates in the road that invisibly and wirelessly trickle-charge moving vehicles. Neither you nor I need get too geeky about this. There are 200,000 Toyota Prius in the world, and growing numbers of alternative hybrid and electric cars. Scandinavian countries are the test bed. Norway and Finland virtually pay you to drive electric, and they park the problem of falling revenues from road and fuel taxes, this to make a greener economy their priority.

This still does not place the car in the city. I’m sure the matrix of foot, bike, tram and bus still squeezes out cars in the plans of zealots and moderates alike. I’ve ridden Bromptons for years, I love them and promote them. Sadly, locked-up knees don’t allow me to ride them anymore. My car lugs me, my computer, pictures, books and paraphernalia from one side of town to the other relatively efficiently, despite obstacles, physical and economic.

I am not going to wander onto the verges of parking restrictions and charges because I begin to hyper-ventilate, save for this one excursion, and with a deep breath: it should not be legal for any authority to remove from the street (a Loading Bay on Great Bridgewater Street, as it happens) a car belonging to a retired couple from Hayfield who had “got themselves ready” to come in to Manchester to watch the Chinese New Year Parade. A lifetime’s presumption that parking on Sundays was okay persuaded them that their car had been stolen, not impounded. They cried when the penalty and circumstances were revealed to them. “Never again”.


Some of the most exciting cities I’ve been lucky enough to visit are gridlocked most days. Cairo boils and Delhi bubbles way beyond daylight. You might think New York a city of tall buildings and straight streets, it is. And it is also jammed carriageways and rammed pavements. New York empty of traffic is Armageddon. A private dream I will share with you, if you promise not to shop me to the goons; I long to see traffic back on Market Street. Restricted to 4mph, of course. And on Cross Street, and Corporation Street, and two way on Princess Street again, at last. Shared spaces all. People, pushchairs, bikes and cars, moving in a safe, considerate hierarchy.

The car has always helped me understand the world. My dad’s firm’s Ford Pop or Anglia, thirteen hours to Cornwall, impatience fed by salmon sandwiches, through Bridgwater, Taunton and Cullompton. Up and over the Snake, or Cat and Fiddle. Through the Trough of Bowland, shock of Morecambe Bay. North, north through the Highlands to the west coast. How can King’s Lynn take this long?  I love the thrum of Motorways, early morning into a Humber sunrise heading east on the M62. I love coming into London on the Westway in the middle of the night. First time crossing Barton Viaduct in uncle Bill’s Hillman Minx, “This is the closest you boys will ever get to heaven.” Thanks uncle Bill.

A dream, a nightmare and an admission. I voted Yes in the Congestion Charge referendum. What came over me? I now know that I was being smug. I thought my flexible life could jig around the charge times with ease, and that we could all rush out and get ourselves low-emissions cars. And that there is something modern about road charging that needs to be taken on, like a new App. And that an Oyster Card somehow makes you a member of London, and that such clubbable behaviour, adopted for Manchester, serves the greater good. Utter bollocks. How did I forget I’m Mancunian? Anti Corn Law, Free Trade by nature. Charge anyone, least of all myself to be in my own city by any chosen means? Impossible. Congestion? Get over it.

A business proposition: two trains per day between London and Manchester, departing 6am and 6pm, Monday to Friday, in both directions. Each guaranteed to take not less than three hours, all seats to have table service, a full and varied menu, and free wi-fi. My hunch is that this service would do brisk business, even before HS2. Of all the good fortune in my life, I account this amongst the highest; I worked for Granada Television in the 1980’s. Often train trips to London twice a week, first class (my Trade Union insisted). Usually the Pullman. Bliss.

Now that Evan Davis has approved it, we can openly discuss The Gap.

Now that Evan Davis has approved it, we can openly discuss The Gap. London is on some Russo-Chinese fuelled trajectory out of here, abandoning the planet to a wasted, dispirited rump of poor people from the north that missed the last train. Unsurprisingly, leaders in Manchester, political and otherwise, are behind HS2. I might be more inclined to their position, were construction to begin here, in the North, as happened with low speed railway following 1830. As it is, I suspect that HS2 is an extension of Crossrail and the Jubilee Line, and that by far the largest beneficiary, both in terms of construction and utility, will be the Greater London economy. Should HS2 Happen? Not on the timetable proposed. Deal with this end of the line, and see how we roll.

The Chicago Convention of 1944 exempts the taxation of commercial aviation fuel worldwide. This is only just beginning to be questioned by tiny, coughing, sparrow-like voices. Plenty of sustainability issues to be deep-mined there. Who will be the last to resist the lure of cheap flights, and anyhow, don’t Greek and Turkish fishing villages need the trade?

Standing on the Vicksberg bridge over the Mississippi a few years back, I saw the gap between my small-island mentality, and the pounding, foaming reality of 460 million tons of American freight annually, passing beneath me as rolling and perpetual as the old river himself. And by a train line in Alberta, waiting fully fourteen minutes for a single freight train, double stacked, to pass me by. Malcolm McLean’s container revolution, from 1955 on, is perhaps the greatest revolution in transport of the twentieth century. Greater, that is, than the automobile or aircraft.

The piece of writing that stopped me most abruptly this week is by Rose George in her book Ninety Percent of Everything. Today “shipping is so cheap” she writes, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters”. 
Airports are out of the question for me these days, which is a shame, because I used to quite like them. I won’t use sat nav and I’m not good with maps, so repeatedly swinging up and down vaguely familiar, barely distinguishable bits of B roads has to be part of the pleasure of my car. Nikolaus Pevsner borrowed drivers to hike him round churches, market halls, country houses and civic buildings. Ian Nairn got angry and sad in a Morris Minor convertible. With the right funds, and time to do it, I know that I will spend days getting lost around the nineteen twentieths of Britain I’ve never seen; by car, with my dog, salmon sandwiches and a box of books. Occasionally, I might take a slow train.


Photograph of Upper Brook Street, Tidal Flow 1972 courtesy of Flickr User kh1234567890