Traffic and special clothing – an Italian view of Manchester

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Lorenza cycling in Manchester city centreIn the second of GMCC’s series of interviews offering an outside eye on Manchester’s cycling culture, we hear from adopted Mancunian Lorenza Casini, an Architect and campaigner who mixes with Manchester’s motors on a daily basis.

Ask where in Italy she is from and Lorenza will tell you she has lived in so many towns, from Rome to the coast, she’s now thoroughly ‘Italian’. But Vicenza is now where her mother lives and cycling there is great, thanks to the slower pace of life and fact that the car drivers are cyclists too. “There’s no dedicated infrastructure but there’s respect,” she adds.

Looking at her photos of Vicenza, what strikes you is not only the absence of cars but also the conviviality of the cycling, with people on their bikes chatting in the narrow streets and the market squares; bicycles integrate with the fabric of the town – and there’s not a shred of hi-viz. Has Vicenza put the car in its place? “The Italians still love their cars,” Lorenza wryly assures us.

On moving to Manchester as a student in 1998, the difference in road behaviour came as a shock. “Cycling looked incredibly scary with cyclists wearing special clothing sandwiched in between all that traffic.” With the absence of changing rooms at work to remove any ‘special clothing’ as another barrier to cycling, Lorenza remained bikeless for ten years.

Things changed after a trip to Copenhagen and Berlin, where riding in civvies is the norm, but conquering her fear of traffic was a gradual process, with a one mile ride to the office inspiring a three mile shopping trip and a subsequent office move requiring a longer journey. “I started to realise that it’s all about familiarity and confidence on the road, being assertive but polite.”

But although Lorenza looks confident while sitting tall on her Pashley Princess, cycling can still be a fraught experience determined by how good a day she’s had and whether she’s had any “close calls” with traffic. Something needs to be done.

Lorenza joined GMCC in the belief that we need “infrastructure as well as training if mass cycling is to be encouraged.” Her vision is crystal clear: “bicycles and traffic need to be separated when speeds exceed 20mph.” Another thing that Manchester highways folk need to learn, she tells us, is the importance of road maintenance, for safety’s sake.

lorenza cycling backlitHow does she rate the segregation in Manchester? “Are you joking?” she retorts. “There’s hardly any to rate!” Then, after a pause, “I’d rate my commuting route five out of ten.” With a note of positivity, she adds, “the segregated section near MMU on Grosvenor Street going past UMIST isn’t bad.”

What is more important: minimising dependence on the car or building segregated infrastructure? She tentatively answers the former but doesn’t want to sound idealistic. Instead, segregation is a means of reclaiming the street. “The more cycle lanes, the more cycling and the less motor traffic. There’s probably a mathematical formula in there.” Her blueprint for a better city involves segregation in the Berlin style – the Berliners make more relaxed cyclists than the Copenhagenites, apparently. Either way, Manchester has a long way to go if it’s to become Britian’s best city for bikes, let alone catch up with the continent.

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