I wrote this vision of a better future long before the pandemic and its lockdown. And it seemed like something far away and more to be wished for than actually possible. But now, in April 2020 – with the cleaner air, empty skies, quiet roads that many of us really like, and bike deliveries happening like in the story that follows – maybe we’d like some of what’s envisaged below someday soon? Or at least to talk seriously about it and what we might do, to help us through the dystopia of now.
On an evening in May 2019 a gathering of us sat talking down at Baltic Creative about the future of our city, this Liverpool. About good ideas, failed initiatives, big data, people and time.
And as is my usual these days, what with studying its history and meanings here at the University of Liverpool, I talked about utopia and little utopias everywhere and how we need to think about it and them. Stop being mis-led down initiatives and opportunity blind avenues. Plus all that wasting of energies on single issue complaining and complaining for its own sake that we’re so used to. And, in short, have a big wide all around the city think about what we do want, rather than what we don’t?
It works, I’d say, to know what you’re aiming at. Even if it would take time to organise. I’ve seen it work before and been involved in the subsequent organisation of dreams. So I have history here, as one of a growing number of us.
Anyway, last night’s conversation meandered around for a bit, always a pleasure, until we eventually settled on talking about transport and what it could be like in a perfect place, this perfect place, this Liverpool.
And when I woke up this morning I was still thinking about transport, still having more ideas, it having been a good conversation. So I thought I’d write it all down, to see what you think?
The place and its health
What I mean by ‘Liverpool’ is the wider place. The region that the city called Liverpool is at the centre of. The place where people from Bootle, Kirkby, Birkenhead and all those other places are linked to those of us in the city by the river, the roads and the love of the place we all share. The river, the roads and the rails being like the circulation of this wider place, its lifeblood if you like. Making no more sense to think of it in single boroughs than it would be to think about the blood in your arms, and not think about how your heart is doing?
Maybe you find it a strained analogy this ‘lifeblood and health of the city region’ thing? Well stick with with me because I’m sticking to it.
A couple of memories
A few years ago Sarah and I organised the ‘A Sense of Place Liverpool’ awards. A spoof ceremony in The Everyman, which was free to attend and everyone who came could vote in all the awards categories. It was a good laugh and at the end of the evening we decided to vote on the ‘Top Thing’ of the year, out of all the awards winners. And guess what won? ‘The Beaches of Liverpool.’ Yes, Formby, West Kirby, Harrison Drive, New Brighton and the Shining Shore at Thurstaston, all of them. A huge part of the joy of living here is that we can all get to them. Because they’re there.
But could we, perhaps, make the getting to them a bit easier. For the sake of our health and wellbeing? For the health of the place? Well, read on.
It’s some time in the 1980s and the Conservative government of the day is winding up all of the Labour controlled County Councils, funny that? Anyway, in Merseyside the buses are still a council responsibility so, before it’s wound up, they run them for so cheap they’re very nearly free for a week or so, can’t remember exactly.
And the result? For that week all the buses are full to bursting. People go to parts of here we’ve never been before and all the shops have a bumper time. It was absolutely brilliant.
A public service celebrating itself and its place one last time before it was privatised. Makes you think doesn’t it, what if it could be like that all the time? Read on then.
We’ve got a serious circulation problem with cars here. Our whole system is clogged with them, acting like they own the place. And to my certain knowledge we’ve been designing this wider Liverpool for them since just after the Second World War, and it hasn’t worked.
There was the obvious nonsense of the ‘Streets in the Sky’ Shankland Planning of the 1960s that we haven’t quite recovered from. But also, looking at the city’s published vision of its post-war future from 1948 it’s clear we’re still living in a place that’s been more about its cars than its people for longer than most of us have been alive.
So maybe we need a new vision?
Trucks are also causing severe blockages in the city region’s arteries. Because the country as a whole has battered its rail network the trucks have kept getting bigger and more frequent. And as well as having motorways and river bridges specially built for them, are now having to negotiate their ways around inner-city and town-centre roads that had never dreamed of such monstrous things being so necessary for nearly every delivery and pickup?
So maybe we need some new dreams?
Here’s a story then.
It’s one day a while from now in the place we’re all generally calling Liverpool, because adding ‘city region’ all the time came to feel like admin.
I’m standing here at Woodside with maybe a hundred other people, half of us with bikes, waiting for the every half-hour ferry to arrive from Liverpool. I’m holding my Liverpool Card, which I get for living here and visitors can buy too. It gets us onto and into all kinds of places that we’ve started running for ourselves again now. It was called ‘Insourcing’ and most councils did it in the years around 2020 to save money, create better jobs and just because. So now, as well as the libraries, museums and art galleries, we can all walk onto the buses, trams, trains and ferries like we own them. Because we do. They’re part of the lifeblood of living here. How we get around this wider place we now live in.
And trams? Yes. The one that dropped me off here at the Ferry isn’t the perfectly lovely museum piece that’s run along the Birkenhead Docks here for years. No, it’s one of the new ones now running along all of our major arteries. Keeping traffic off the roads by being the traffic. Along with loads of bikes and a lot less cars.
Across the river from here I can see other trams waiting to pick us up at the Pier Head and take us on to wherever. The airport, the football grounds, all the places the trains don’t go. Knowing that if we do get one of the trains, there’ll be little local buses waiting to take us on those last couple of miles to home, or work, the beach or wherever. It’s great. I love this place.
And talking of trains…
For as far as I can see from here, across the river, on either side of the Pier Head and out towards the barrage that generates our energy, the stanchions are going up now. We mostly had to look that word up when it started being used again, but us older ones remembered it from the last time we had a light-gauge railway as they’re known now. For work, for holidays, for Everton FC and because we can, we’re building The Overhead again. Like I always dreamed we would.
And you may say I’m a dreamer and all that. But to quote another lovely 20th century song:
“You’ve got to have a dream,Rodgers & Hammerstein: ‘South Pacific’
If you don’t have a dream,
How’re you going to have a dream come true?”
But dreaming on it’s own won’t get us there will it?
A treatment plan
We’re nearly done now with this ‘health’ analogy, so bear with me. Also, all of this is only one dream so far and we’ll need to add in loads of others yet, including what would your perfect look like?
But for something like my dream to happen, and including some stuff the group of us talked about last night, here’s an outline of a treatment plan:
Inner city, town centre and red route car exclusion zones.
Park and Ride Centres for ‘last few miles’ journeys into town and work. Trams, trains and buses leaving every ten minutes.
Truck Stops next to every Park and Ride centre. For pick ups and also transfer of cargoes to Bike and Rechargeables ‘last few miles’ delivery enterprises.
Change the architecture of the emptier roads for proper and separate bike lanes everywhere.
Bike and Accessible Recharegeables for all abilities and ages available all over the place.
‘Insourcing’ what is now outsourced. The buses, the trains, the ferries and the power to run them.
A mix of municipal, social and community. What actual people in their real places want.Liverpool City Region Transport Plan: Some time soon.
Maybe it is, and I’m not claiming anything like this could happen straight away. It would take time and talk. But the current unhealthy, unsafe, and dangerously unsustainable mess took time too. Since at least shortly after the Second World War, as I’ve said.
But if we could all, all of us together, politicians as well as people, all over this wider Liverpool City Region come up with something along these lines, it would:
Get people moving;
Be good for our health;
Good for our children;
Good for employment;
For our economy generally;
Running it for us;
Instead of it being done to us;
Us lot in all of our communities;
In all of our differences and similarities;
It would change our lives;
And the shape of our place;
All the places we call home;
What do you think? What would your perfect be?
And this is just ‘Transport’ remember. There are loads of other ‘utopias everywhere’ to talk about too. But it’s a start. A start of knowing what we want, rather than what we don’t. And I think that matters.