A 20-year vision to transform transport in and around the centre of Preston has put a new bridge over the River Ribble at the heart of a pitch to radically reshape how people navigate the city.
The authors of a year-long study have concluded that Preston cannot accommodate ever-growing levels of car use without damaging its economy.
The Preston City Transport Plan (PCTP) lays out more than two dozen proposals to “rebalance the transport mix” - with a focus on making walking and cycling more attractive options to get about.
It also recommends that the city’s railway station is fully refurbished - with some mothballed local stations reopened to serve it.
A new partnership should be formed between the public sector and Preston’s commercial bus operators to improve services and provide priority routes, the report adds.
Amongst the options put forward in the document are an extension of the Fishergate shared space scheme to other roads in the city and the pedestrianisation of the entire length of Friargate.
“There’s only one direction for cities to go - and that’s to move away from car dependency,” says Tom Roberts, principal transport planner at consultants Mott MacDonald who were commissioned by the Preston and South Ribble City Deal to carry out the study.
“If Preston is going to grow to become that next tier of city, then it needs to think about this quite seriously. If it remains car-dependent, it’s going to hit the productivity of the area.”
Currently, around 20,000 people commute to work in Preston city centre every day, with 45,000 arriving across the wider city area and South Ribble. More than two thirds of them come by car.
While the report generally promotes a reduction in the reliance on motor vehicles, one of its key proposals has cars at its core - a new “Western crossing” over the Ribble.
The cross-river connection would join up with the new Preston Western Distributor Road to the north west of the city - due to open in 2023 - and the planned conversion of the A582 between Penwortham and Cuerden into a dual carriageway, for which funding has yet to be fully secured.
According to the PCTP, the structure would be the final piece in the puzzle to create a coherent ring road around the city - enabling the new and widened routes either side of the river to join up with the M55 to the north and the M6 to the east.
It is not the first time that the prospect of a new bridge has been floated in a blue-sky blueprint - having previously been mooted in 2013 and 2016. While Tom Roberts acknowledges that the uncosted project would be one for the long-term, he warns against the danger of dismissing it as too ambitious.
“Look at the Mersey Gateway bridge [which opened in 2017] - that was just an idea at one point. Until you start putting these things on paper and really pressing for them, they will never happen.
“Whoever wins the general election, productivity and transport are going to be high on the agenda - so it’s really timely for Preston to be shouting about the bigger infrastructure projects that it so desperately needs.
“There are also massive benefits to the Fylde, West Lancashire and over to Blackburn - there’s potential for it to unlock a large part of the sub-region.”
Irrespective of the likelihood of it ever being built, the result of a new bridge would be to free up The Strand and allow for a complete rethink of the role of Ringway - a section of the A59 which the report decries as a “grey scar” on the city, acting as a barrier to the natural expansion of the city centre’s northern border.
“A new Ribble crossing would take vehicles out of the core city centre which shouldn’t be there,” explains Mr. Roberts.
“Ringway was typical 1960s planning - knocking down huge swathes of the city centre to make way for it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“There are things that can be done in the short term - anybody who sits in traffic and observes the lights will be able to tell you that they’re not particularly efficient. We can squeeze about 10-20 percent more out of it, but it’s not a long-term solution.”
Lancashire County Council commissioned a survey earlier this year to ensure that traffic-monitoring technology already deployed at almost a dozen junctions on the A59/A6 is functioning as it should - and prompting the signals to react accordingly.
The PCTP recommends that this system is upgraded so that all of the junctions are connected to a central computer, enabling them to work with - rather than against - each other. But the longer-term vision for the city’s main thoroughfare is for fewer cars to be using it in the first place, allowing it to be more easily crossed by pedestrians and more safely travelled by cyclists.
The report also acknowledges that its recommended reduction in car use is likely to come over the longer term and so car parking provision will need to be maintained. But it suggests that a balance needs to be struck between providing sufficient spaces and encouraging “sustainable” methods of transport.
The document proposes that the ground-level car parking which is prevalent in some parts of the city should be “consolidated” into multi-storeys.
Meanwhile, the PCTP concludes that the local road network can offer no answer to the eternal conundrum of how Preston can better cope with any blockage or delay on the M6 - stating that the diversion route along the A6 “doesn’t really work”.
Instead, it suggests that the stretch of the M6 through Central Lancashire should become a “smart motorway”. Such a conversion - which would see the hard shoulder removed to create an extra lane and the installation of new traffic-controlling technology - has been found to reduce accidents and increase resilience elsewhere on the network, the report claims.
None of the recommendations made in the plan have been formally adopted by any of the relevant agencies. However, county council cabinet members agreed that the document should be used to inform ongoing transport planning in the region.
That includes preparation of an outline business case for the government’s Transforming Cities Fund. Preston has been shortlisted as one of a dozen areas in line for a share of £1.2bn to implement sustainable transport projects which are also designed to improve connectivity - the city could receive anything between £110m and £190m.
“It will make Preston a better place to be - my ambition, if I can do this [job] for another term, would be to see a lot of motor vehicles excluded from the city,” County Cllr Keith Iddon, member for transport told a cabinet meeting.
According to Tom Roberts, Preston already has “quite a lot going for it” when it comes to transport links.
“All big cities will head in the same direction of trying to reduce car dependency - but Preston needs a bespoke solution,” he adds.
Preston station should be brought into the twenty-first century with a refurbishment which makes it a “destination in itself”.
The Preston City Transport Plan (PCTP) suggests that the 170-year-old facility could become the centre of a new business district - and also attract leisure, retail and residential developments in a complete redesign of the south west corner of the city.
It recommends that the overhaul is coupled with the work thought to be necessary to allow the station to receive high speed trains en route to Scotland. Although the HS2 line itself is scheduled to stop some 35 miles short of Preston in Greater Manchester, the new rolling stock will continue to pass through the city.
The PCTP echoes previous reports in forecasting that high speed rail could generate over 10,000 full and part-time jobs in the city, adding £325m to the local economy “in the coming decades”. However, it does not specify how the wider landscape in the area would have to change to accommodate the redevelopment.
Letting the local train take the strain
The plan also proposes a series of suburban station developments to make local rail travel into Preston a more realistic option than is currently the case from many outlying areas.
The report’s authors back a proposal currently on the table to bring a new station to Cottam to serve the 5,500 homes being built in the area over the next 20 years. That project is part of Preston’s initial application to the Transforming Cities Fund.
But the PCTP says that the region must go further in reinvigorating the railway in the commuter belt around Preston. It suggests:
***A new station at Coote Lane in Lostock Hall, principally to serve the proposed Pickering’s Farm development.
***The reopening of Midge Hall station in Leyland, which was closed in the early 1960s.
***More frequent services throughout the day from existing stations at Bamber Bridge and Lostock Hall.
***Reinstatement of the “Burscough curve” which would allow direct trains to run into Preston from Southport.
Chris Dale, from Travelwatch North West, said he “couldn’t disagree with a word” of what was proposed in the plan. But he said that the suggested rail improvements must not be left in the sidings for as long as two decades.
“The question is where the money comes from and how long it takes. It will at least be cheaper to reopen disused stations rather than entire lines which have been closed for decades.
“Preston station itself does need doing up - it’s certainly not the nicest place to spend time waiting for a train.
“The new operator taking over the West Coast Mainline might have some plans for that, but the platforms don't necessarily need lengthening for HS2 services - because the rolling stock will probably split into shorter groups by the time they arrive in Preston,” Chris explained.
The PCTP calls for Lancashire County Council to make use of additional powers to influence commercial bus services, under legislation introduced in 2017.
It recommends that the authority seeks to form 'bus partnerships' with operators in Preston. Such arrangements come in various guises and can cover one or multiple routes - but could see the authority setting minimum standards over things like service frequency and ticketing standardisation.
In return, County Hall would have to invest in measures such as bus priority routes - another of the report’s specific recommendations.
Holme Slack couple Martin Madden and Sandra McCallion say something needs to be done to keep buses relevant.
“We can get a taxi into town for the same price as a bus - our daughter gets taxis everywhere and she’d never dream of going on a bus,” Sandra explains.
“You just don’t see many people on the buses nowadays - they always used to be packed and there’d be standing room only at some times,” Martin adds.
The report heralds the Fishergate shared space scheme as a model which other towns and cities are looking to follow - and one which Preston itself should extend further. It recommends the introduction of similar measures on Lancaster Road, Lune Street, Church Street, Manchester Road and Moor Lane.
The PCTP acknowledges the difficulty faced by some visually-impaired people since the Fishergate changes were introduced and says that such schemes should be co-designed with disability charities. Use of shop signs in the street should be minimised, it adds.
Elsewhere, pedestrian priority streets - with no distinction at all between kerbside and carriageway - are proposed for Avenham Street, Cannon Street, Cross Street, Glover’s Court and Guild Hall Street.
Meanwhile, it is suggested that the section of Friargate between the Adelphi roundabout and Ringway is pedestrianised, to join up with the new UCLan masterplan development and better connect the university area to the city centre.
“I’ve got no objection in principle,” says longstanding Friargate retailer Mike Halewood from Halewood Books.
“They come up with these ideas and they don’t always get them right first time, but as long as I have access for deliveries, it might improve the street.”
Preston should develop a city centre cycle network which criss-crosses the area and attracts commuters, according to the transport plan proposals. “Safe infrastructure”, such as segregated cycle lanes, could enhance the appeal of two-wheel travel - and allow Preston to capitalise on the fact that its urban borders are largely within a 20-minute bike ride of the city centre.
“Survey after survey tells us that lack of support for cyclists or perception of danger is the single biggest barrier to getting people on bikes,” explains PCTP author Tom Roberts.
“We should be designing segregated cycle lanes which are safe enough for a 12-year-old to use - not focusing on experienced cyclists all kitted out in their nylon gear. We need to concentrate on people who don’t currently cycle or who are very vulnerable.”
The report adds that its other proposed measures to reduce traffic flows in the city centre - such as the the new Ribble bridge, a revamp of Ringway and new park and ride facilities on the outskirts of the city - should all act as an incentive.
The health benefits of reduced car usage are also emphasised in the report - both individual and collective. The document highlights the personal benefits of more active modes of transport, like walking and cycling, as well as the wider boost to the city's health which would come from fewer cars being on the roads.
The PCTP claims that all of the "air quality management areas" in Preston - where pollution levels fail to meet government standards - could be eliminated within a decade.
That achievement would also hinge on making suburban neighbourhoods more 'walkable' - by, amongst other things, reducing wide side streets to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists.
THE TAXI DRIVER TURNING HIS LIGHT OFF AT RUSH HOUR
For the taxi drivers who make a living out of Preston’s streets, a rethink of transport in the city cannot come soon enough.
“I just don’t drive when it gets to 5pm, I can’t bear it,” says Salim Adam, who has been ferrying passengers for over 20 years.
“A 10-minute job can take 45 minutes to get back to the rank.”
Fellow cabbie Asim Ditta adds that a new Ribble Bridge “would be brilliant for Preston”.
“That would solve all our problems in the city centre - anything that improves the situation on Ringway.”