‘Travel Diaries From Around Birmingham’

Joe Peacock- Bike

Despite everything, cycling’s still best

I have been reading the other diaries with interest and one thing really sticks out that I agree with is that cycling in Birmingham can be truly awful, but it’s still a whole lot better than the other options if you’re prepared to stick with it.

I’ve recently moved to Kings Heath from West Heath, which has has made being able to cycle places a lot easier, but have also become a father for the second time, which has made transporting a family around by bike pretty difficult for the moment. Whilst I was having to dash to and from the hospital, having the use of a car was extremely useful (I don’t own one and never have, but have been borrowing one while its owners don’t need it). I could have used a taxi, but would have found relying on public transport for almost any of those journeys impossible. However, since the baby’s been home from hospital, it’s only been the occasional journey to the doctor’s before we’d managed to register more locally to where we are now that required a car, whereas most of the time it has sat outside the house whilst we walk or cycle wherever necessary.

I work near Five Ways and commute every day by bike in less than half an hour. I have experimented a little bit with different routes, but generally go for the quickest and most obvious roads to get there, as I am time poor and can’t afford to spend time taking longer routes around quieter roads or going through the off-road routes through parks. In the morning, I have a dilemma, as I do not feel that I should queue with all the cars being much smaller and able to dodge through quite easily, so, as there are no cycle lanes, I have three options:

  • overtake and face the oncoming traffic whilst cycling either side of the white line in the middle depending where the drivers decide to place their cars (there’s enough room most of the time without having to slow down at all, but I get beeped at by drivers going the other way for no reason other than them resenting me being on the road)

  • undertake and risk people doing stupid things, such as turn left without indicating, open the door and get out without looking, move to the inside to block my way deliberately (very common), have to dodge round the outside because people’s cars are so close to the curb as to be impossible to pass and also there tend to be lots of obstructions there anyway, such as potholes, cars parked half on the pavement and general detritus.

  • ride on the pavement, which is a) illegal and b) makes you ride very slowly and almost negates all the advantages of riding a bike, as the surface is almost always poor and, unless you have no compassion for pedestrians, means you have to be able to stop for those who travel very slowly and are not expecting to share with bicycles.

I always choose the first of those, as it’s by far the safest for everyone, but it’s still far from ideal. In the evening overtaking is less of a problem for me, but I get hassled by cars when riding up the hill along the same stretch of road because it is very narrow and hard for them to overtake me when there are cars coming the other way.

I have cycled in the cities with the best cycling infrastructure in Europe (and maybe the world) and they are based on having proper cycle lanes where there is no chance of cars, lorries and cycles clashing because of good road design, strong laws on who’s responsible for accidents and slower speed limits on smaller roads. Both of these cities made a conscious decision that they wanted to promote cycling and there is nothing in Birmingham’s geography that makes it impossible to do the same here as in Copenhagen.

Getting from A to B by bike should not be as dangerous and difficult as it is here. There are plenty of examples across Europe where it isn’t and having lived in Eastern Europe, I know that public transport can be designed to transport huge numbers of people every day in very large cities when people don’t use cars. To live in such a large city where so many people seem compelled to use the car is a terrible shame, because cycling is a far better way to get around and streets are so much nicer with fewer cars.

I am at a loss to explain the aggression that car drivers feel towards cyclists. I have been physically threatened by a driver trying to push me off the road with his car while approaching traffic lights and telling me I shouldn’t be on the road. I have been nearly knocked off going over roundabouts when car drivers seem to think that they don’t have to stop for cyclists. I constantly find people drive dangerously because of inattention when using mobile phones. A culture change is needed as well as a change in the law to make streets slower and investment in infrastructure to protect cyclists. I understand why people don’t want to get on a bike on the roads as they are, but they are really missing out on a great means of transport by not feeling able to do so. Everywhere is close and easy to reach by bike when you’re in a city.

‘Travel Diaries From Around Birmingham’