You can fit almost anything on a bike...

What’s the best way to travel round Manchester?

I’m learning to drive (and have just passed my test!), but don’t be misled. I don’t want a car. Not at the moment at least.

I live in the centre of Manchester. I work in the centre of Manchester. I have a bike. I don’t have a family. I like trains.
So mostly, I cycle everywhere. When I want to travel further afield, I cycle to the train station, and get on a train. Sometimes that train even takes me to the airport.

But I would like to be able to drive and take myself places that are inconvenient to get to by public transport, and are so unappealing I’ve yet to convince a friend with a car that they’d like to go there.

When travelling through Manchester, bikes are a relatively fast mode of transport (it’s all about average speed, not top speed), and bikes can often easily take the most direct routes (eg through the city centre, rather than by ring road).

Manchester Piccadilly: Trains can be good for travelling between cities
Manchester Piccadilly: Trains can be good for travelling between cities

Of course, you can own a car for long trips, and use a bike for everyday commuting, but it’s not that simple. Once you own a car, you have a sunk cost that you’re looking to recoup as much value from as possible. Only a certain amount of the maintenance and fuel costs scale with milage, the initial cost, insurance and tax, are all largely fixed – so from the moment you buy it you’re incentivised to use it as much as possible.

Regardless of ecological arguments, owning a car may not be the most economic approach if you only need one occasionally – hiring cars is convenient, it incentivises non-use (you’re billed by the day/hour), and you have the flexibility to use more convenient forms of transport where you see fit (eg take the train, fly, commandeer a pony – whatever is best).

That is what I’m learning to drive for; so I can hire cars, and take myself to see the wide and wonderful world.

The thing about having a car, is that if you drive yourself places, you’re unable to drink if you’re driving yourself home, yet it feels wrong to pay someone to drive you there and back when your car is sitting in your drive.

For every private car, you need a private car park
For every private car, you need a private car park

Fortunately, knowing how much I’m saving by not having a car in central Manchester, and I can make pragmatic decisions about liberal use of taxis when it suits me. Last year, I got to know the cheap and cheerful taxi dispatchers so well, the average call length ordering a taxi to my address was 10 seconds (yes – average – there were some below 8 seconds!); they even knew me well enough to send me a Christmas card!

Some years ago, I remember a taxi journey where I was blown away by the driver’s customer service. I mean properly astounded – the driver took time to learn my name, made an effort to use my name, came across super professional, but also friendly and super accommodating – it really was the best taxi ride I’ve ever had..

So I heard that Uber was coming to town, I was eager to try it.

What is Uber? Uber is a taxi service, where everything is done through technology, with an emphasis on customer service.

So you order the taxi via a web-page or mobile app and tell it exactly where to go on a map, you’re given a live view of the route the taxi is taking to find you, and an estimate of how long it will be, and then when you arrive, you don’t touch cash – your credit card that they already have on file is billed, and you’re free to go. No cash, no tips, no drama.

The thing that re-enforces the good customer service to the drivers is quite clever. When you finish a journey, you’re asked to rate the driver out of 5 stars. If a driver can’t maintain an average rating of a certain amount, they’re thrown off Uber, boom. Not a nice driver? You won’t get nice customers.

Clearly, this means that drivers are incentivised to be super awesome, and provide kickass customers service, and it also means Uber will always have really good drivers.

Add this all with the fact that you get pretty emailed receipts, and Uber exists in of cities round the world, it makes a pretty compelling deal.

If you do fancy trying Uber, try enter the code ManchesterLaunch and see if they’re still in the Beta phase. :)

(As I’ve blogged about before, engaging creatively cyclists would be a clever way for a taxi firm to grow, could Uber be able to do that in Manchester?)

Obviously, if you’re travelling round Manchester, you’re going to use a variety of methods of transport available, and so bike, taxi, train, metro, car can all be worthwhile, but for me, bike+taxi is a winning combination whilst I live in the city!

You can fit almost anything on a bike...
You can fit almost anything on a bike…

Can you travel?

Some time ago I got asked on twitter by SerenaNJ:

@tdobson That’s so cool! Are you ever in England? I wish I got to travel as much as you do!

I feel this is an interesting question that, at least, is worth addressing.

Part way through her degree, my older sister took a year out and spent 9 months on her own, travelling South East Asia, Australasia and North America. At the time I was quite young, and in fact, got my first email address so we could stay in touch with her.

As I am in full time work, I  don’t have the same opportunity as her to spend months travelling, however, having a job, I have different opportunities. There aren’t specific reasons that I want to travel, but just to see places and things.

Students who want to travel are usually in the following situation:

  • Pretty much no money
  • Lots of free time (3 months summer holidays!)

Being in full time work, I have:

  • Larger than a student’s budget
  • Limited free time (holiday time is rationed!)

Anyway, so being aware of my limitations – I can travel, but I don’t really have that much free time with which to travel, I can make decisions about what works best for me.

For example, for me, a train to someplace can be better value than a coach, even if the coach ticket costs 10% of the train, because spending 2 days of my holiday time on a coach isn’t worth it. But if I had lots of time, but little money, I’d leap at the coach ticket. It’s simply about perspective.

So when I want to go somewhere, I take full advantage of everything I can:

  • I can travel offpeak and offseason due to being able to choose my own holiday dates
  • I can afford to spend more on travel, if it’s faster

The process usually works like this:

I’ll usually start be researching the destination, working out where I want to go, what I’d do, what there is to do, where I could stay. This is just about finding out what the place is like. I’ll use Google, I’ll use Google maps, I’ll use Wikivoyage, I’ll use Wikipedia.

I’ll research travel options – train/car/fly/etc. (Usually via the website of the operator, or by reading about other people’s experiences travelling from a to b)

I’ll choose some dates, and what the costs are. (For flights I’ll use and but I’ll also check budget airlines – Wizz/Easyjet/Ryanair/etc) I’ll see whether moving the dates around can save money or work best for me. NB: Some airlines vary their prices by time of day – “people ordering at 3pm can pay more than people ordering at 3am”.

Finally, I’ll probably sleep on it, and think whether it’s a good use of time, money etc. Then I’ll book it, and do it.

This is pretty much how I arrange my trips over the last few years to:

  • Isles of Scilly, Cornwall (Train + two ferries, camping
  • Skye and Rasaay, Scotland (Trains + cycle touring, camping)
  • Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Munich (flights, many trains, friends, family and hotels)
  • Talinn, Estonia (flights, bike hire, hostels)
  • Pristina and Brod, Kosovo (flights, buses, hostels)
  • Various trips to the Lake District (train [occasionally with a bike], camping)

And for me, that’s all there is too it, with a bit of research, and by tailoring your travel to what is best for you, you may find it is easier than you think.

You may also enjoy this analysis on how one could get from Manchester to Glen Coe, Scotland.

5 things to consider about transport types :: What’s most important to you?/How can you get people to go your way?

Transport usually comes on a scale. There are 5 things to consider:

  • Travel time (Simply, how long does it take you to get from A to B?)
  • Price (How does the journey cost you? This includes food/accommodation/anything bought in or specifically for your time in transit.)
  • Comfort (How comfortable is the journey? How much do you enjoy your time spent travelling?)
  • Accuracy (Do you get to your exact destination or do you have to take other modes of transport onwards to get to your final destination?)
  • Reliability (How confident are you that you’ll reach your specified location in the time specified.)

Let’s demonstrate this with a real life example:

  1. I want to get from my flat in Manchester to a campsite in Glen Coe, Scotland.
  2. I am traveling at short notice and have not had more than 24 hours to plan/book journey.

My options are:

National Express/Citylink coach:

Travel Time: Long. 10+ hours

Price: Less. Low tens of pounds

Comfort: Low. Own seat. Multiple changes (reduces chances of uninterrupted sleep). Onboard toilet. Possible annoyances include other passengers.

Accuracy: Good. 1km walk from my flat to Coach Station in Manchester. Coach straight to Glen Coe village. 1.5km walk from village to campsite)

Reliability: Relatively good. Potentially can be affected by heavy traffic but in reality drives so slowly you probably wouldn’t notice it anyway. Potentially susceptible to industrial action.

Daytime National Rail network:

Travel Time: Reasonable. 7+ hours

Price: More. High tens of pounds.

Comfort: Reasonable to Good. Different services offer different levels. At best: own seat, table, A/C power, paid wifi, enhanced phone signal, onboard shop, onboard toilet. At worst, onboard toilet, standing room only if no reserved ticket. Possible annoyances include other passengers.

Accuracy: Reasonable. 0.5km walk from my flat to Station. ~30km onward journey from Fort William to Campsite in Glen Coe.

Reliability: Relatively good. Susceptible to delays, industrial action, though this has never affected me previously.

National Rail Sleeper Service:

Travel Time: Reasonable. 10 hours

Price: More. £90-180.

Comfort: Own bunkbed. Sleep optional, but recommended. Onboard toilets, onboard buffet car. Annoyances limited. Free wakeup call with tea/coffee/orange juice & biscuit.

Accuracy: Reasonable. 0.5km walk from Chez Tim to Station. ~30km onward journey from Fort William to Campsite in Glen Coe.

Reliability: Relatively good. Susceptible to delays, industrial action, though this has never affected me previously.

Driving yourself:

Travel Time: 8 hours+

Price: Less but not trivial – purely petrol costs. Most costs have already been sunk in the purchase/insurance/road tax/upkeep of the car, but it ain’t cheap bro!

Comfort: Reasonable. Forced to actually look at the road for whole journey, stay awake. Food/drink/toilet stops require stopping. Possible annoyances include other passengers, but you get to choose them. You get to choose the music the car has to listen to. Even if you have onboard wifi, you can’t use it. :(

Accuracy: Perfect. Straight from Chez Tim to the Campsite.

Reliability: Probably excellent but depends on your car! In all seriousness though, roadworks, navigational mishaps and heavy traffic are all potential hazards.

Flying by plane on scheduled flight on a non-budget airline:

Travel Time: 20 minutes flight time, 2 hours faff time.

Price: More. £100+

Comfort: Wholly dependent on how much you enjoy having your balls felt up by strangers at an airport. In all seriousness, probably relatively comfortable on the flight itself. Some small snack inflight. Beware of ear popping. Cannot use mobile phone in flight. Onboard toilet. Possible annoyances include other passengers, silly regulations about liquids, insufficient baggage allowances.

Accuracy: 14km journey to airport from Chez Tim. Manchester to Glasgow. Reasonable. 0.5km walk from Chez Tim to Station. ~150km onward journey from Glasgow to Campsite in Glen Coe.

Reliability: Generally good, but dependent on good weather conditions – fog, high winds or Icelandic volcanoes may prevent take off/landing. Possibility of lost luggage.

Flying by personal helicopter:

Travel Time: ~2 hours

Price: A lot. Purely fuel costs. Most costs have already been sunk in the purchase/insurance/tax/upkeep of the helicopter, but they’re pretty cheap these days. ;)

Comfort: Forced to actually look at the controls for whole journey and stay awake. Food/drink/toilet stops require complete takeoff/landing. Possible annoyances include other passengers, but you get to choose them. No onboard stereo or wifi. :(

Accuracy: Pretty good. 14km journey to Manchester Airport.

Reliability: Dependent on good weather conditions – fog, high winds or Icelandic volcanoes may prevent take off/landing for days.


Travel Time: Unknown. Not quicker than driving yourself (8+ hours) but potentially quite long.

Price: Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Comfort: Not much. Forced to stay in your seat for whole journey. Advisable to stay awake so you get dropped in right place. Food/drink/toilet stops require stopping which may be problematic/require forward planning. Possible annoyances include the driver, but the Vogons can make you listen to their poetry if you’re on their shi… er… car.

Accuracy: Pretty good. Best to start hitchhiking outside an urban centre somewhere near the M60 ~7 miles away. Ideally to the Campsite. Just a few detours onto the verge…

Reliability: No concept of delays. Trying long enough will succeed, but there are no grantees about what timeframe that will be in. Some form of portable overnight accommodation or splitting the journey might be recommended.


Travel Time: 8 hours+

Price: A lot. Probably negotiable, but I’d expect £200-£500.

Comfort: Reasonable. Forced to stay in your seat for whole journey, stay awake. Food/drink/toilet stops require stopping. Possible annoyances include the driver, but you choose them. Guaranteed awkward moment when you ask them to change the radio station.

Accuracy: Perfect. Straight from Chez Tim to the Campsite.

Reliability: Probably excellent but depends on your driver’s car! In all seriousness though, roadworks, navigational mishaps and heavy traffic are all potential hazards.

Travelling by time machine:

Travel Time: Instant and/or infinite

Price: Astronomical

Comfort: Great. The Tardis has a full 5 star hotel onboard, including free wifi. One friendly member of staff will cater for all your needs. Sadly still discriminates against Daleks.

Accuracy: Perfect.

Reliability: Usually great. The driver is also a well qualified mechanic and only ends up in the wrong place “sometimes”.

Why is this interesting?

  • If you are a National Express/Citylink or National Rail member company executive:

You’ll be trying to get people out of their cars and onto your specific mode of transport. How can you persuade people use your mode of transport instead of a different one? Perhaps if you can get them to buy into some kind of discount scheme where fares are much lower if they pay a small fee. That way when comparing the two, they’ll note they already are part of a discount scheme for that mode of transport and stay a coach/train user.

You’ll be seeing what you can do to improve the experience. You probably can’t speed up the service, improve the number of vehicles that breakdown or drivers call in sick.

Can you provide things to make the journey more enjoyable for the passengers? Can you help reduce inter-passenger irritation? Can you provide refreshments? Can you provide facilities to help people use laptops or smartphones on the move? Can you let people reserve a seat? In the event of disruptions, can you communicate this as effectively and quickly to those affected so they can make alternative plans? Can you help provide information on connections to different modes of transport for them to continue their journey? Can you incentivise business travellers (who might otherwise fly) that you offer a more comfortable option? Can you build a warm fuzzy do-good image around your company? Do you have an effective feedback loop to help you understand and address avoidable traveller frustrations?

  • If you are a non-budget airline executive:

You’ll be trying to get people out of their cars and off the trains and onto your planes – you’ll be aiming for the higher end of the market.

Can you reduce the amount of airport-security testicle-groping? Can you make booking regular trips easier than other transport methods? Can you help people carry the same things that they’d have carried by car/train? Can you incentivise business travellers  to block book with you? Can you offer fast track facilities for frequent flyers? Can you help business travellers stay as productive as possible? Can you sell the benefits – “Enjoy the shores of Loch Leven in under this many hours!”, “beat the traffic jams!”?

One problem your customers have is that getting to and from an airport will involve travelling some distance. Can you help people connect to other forms of transport for the rest of their journey? Can you offer them discounted car rental prices? Can you show local public transport information? Can you help people link up with other transport options?

  • If you’re a campaign manager at a prominent environmental movement:

You’ll note that the volume of people driving is greater than the volume of people flying helicopters and will focus on getting people out of their cars rather than “out of their helicopters”. You’ll be trying to persuade people that going by bus or train is better with your primary argument that it is better for the environment.

One problem is that most car owners have already sunk a great deal of money into owning a car, maintaining a car, taxing a car and so will want to “make use of” or “recoup” this cost by using their car for all travelling – after all – once they have it it is convenient. Can you show people other options than buying in the first place – how does renting a car for several road trips a year way up against the costs of owning one? Considering insurance prices, can young people get a better deal by joining a car club? Can you show car owners how much more they could travel with less money by public transport? Can you sell people the benefits of not driving – “you can get drunk and watch Youtube whilst going to Glasgow by train”?

Can you target your campaigns to specific demographics so that you suggest to student how much they’ll be “saving the planet and saving money” but suggest to business travellers how they’ll “be able to work whilst making a difference to the world”? Can you offer information to help people find the easiest way for them to travel sustainably from A-B? Rather than upsetting or patronising people, can you use positive messages to make people feel good about themselves?

  • If you are a travel hacker

You’ll be trying to get the most out of your transport and you’ll be investigating all your options. You’ll be working out what is most important to you – probably thinking on a “price/comfort vs time ratio” and seeing how you can mix it up to get the best result.

Is extra faff on the journey worth a faster result or would you prefer to keep things simple? Is extra faff on the journey worth it if it keeps your costs down? Can you combine various different transport types to get the most enjoyable/best price trip? Does a first class ticket on one type of transport offer more comforts, but still a lower price, than another transport type with an acceptable journey time? Do you frequently travel with any of the same companies so you can save in the future with loyalty card? If it’s your first time, are there special introductory offers you can get? Can you get extra comforts without having to pay full price for them, using a loyalty program, voucher or otherwise? Is there anything you can bring along with you that will make your journey more enjoyable?

Of course, actually this information is interesting to a great many more people – car manufacturers, helicopter showrooms, but here I’ve just tried to show what options there are to choose from, and why one might choose them…

I hope it’s widened a few eyes! :)