Birmingham has a new cycling strategy (1) – not in print yet, but it can be downloaded from the website http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/cycling.
Frankly, it starts from a low base, just 1.5% of residents cycle to work, one of the lowest figures in the country (2). Birmingham has had a cycling strategy since 1985, but progress seems very modest. Some say that such an unpopular mode of transport isn’t worth spending much on; the city has been designed around the car because that’s how people want to travel. A vicious circle of low expectation around cycling.
The cycling strategy states its aim: to get more people to cycle, more often. It Iists the benefits: exercise, convenience, low cost, anti-congestion. Apparently we lack “a cycling culture”, but that seems like a consequence. Birmingham isn’t particularly rainy, or hilly, and there are five universities and lots of young people, so where are all the cyclists?
Focus groups were convened, and reported “concerns about road safety were a major issue for potential cyclists” – “large volumes of fast-moving traffic were intimidating” therefore “ most people would only consider cycling away from busy roads”. I understand that the actual language used was more forthright…we refuse to cycle in Birmingham because it’s too dangerous; unless drastic changes are made we won’t cycle.
These were challenging findings. They were pondered for three years within the Council. The strategy tries to say it is a problem of perception, the image of cycling needs improving. It’s people who need to change, so the strategy offers training, bike checks and cycle helmets. This will convert people into cyclists.
Yet, the figures prove people’s perceptions are quite right – it is risky to cycle among those volumes of fast-moving traffic. In 2009-10, the strategy reports, 216 cyclists were in reported collisions on Birmingham’s roads (how many unreported ones?) and 35 were ‘serious’ for the cyclist. The figures are getting worse rather than better. For such a minority activity, this is a very serious health and safety issue. Overwhelmingly, adult cyclists are generally not at fault, according to the Transport Research Laboratory (3). A recent study of hospital admissions found cyclists to be 20 times more likely to be killed or injured on England’s roads than motorists, so “when people feel it is unsafe to cycle, they may be right’ (4).
Most people react by cycling off the road, on the footway, where they get into conflict with pedestrians, but the strategy doesn’t mention that. Cyclists are often seen as the problem, rather than threatening and dangerous traffic conditions.
The Cyclists Touring Club (CTC) is the main representative body, but instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that cycling conditions need to be made much safer before people will cycle, the CTC has concluded that if cycling is “encouraged” enough, cyclists will take over the roads and there will be “safety in numbers” (5). In fact, towns which have high numbers of cyclists have either resisted the motorisation of the streets or have invested heavily to protect cyclists from traffic. Whole countries like Denmark or the Netherlands have designed environments that give protection to cyclists. Design for pedestrians, you get pedestrians, for cyclists you get cyclists, for masses of fast moving traffic, you get that.
This brings us back to the focus groups in Birmingham. How can people be given the chance to ride ‘away from busy roads’? There are some off-road cycle routes and people use them. There is a walking and cycling map showing quieter back streets. Some could be turned into no through routes for traffic (6). 20mph could be the speed limit on residential roads, as Friends of the Earth and the 20’s Plenty campaign propose (7).
Where does the strategy propose new cycling facilities? On ‘key corridors’ and ‘major routes’ – such as the Warwick Road and Pershore Road. Where all the buses, heavy lorries and commuter traffic are. Is this where highway engineers want to spend money, not cyclists? Are other cities adopting this approach? The strategy doesn’t mention any other cities that we might learn from in adapting to the bike, like Bristol, which won the Government’s Cycling City challenge.
The budget promised in Birmingham’s cycling strategy is £1million over 4 years. For each of 1 million residents, this is 25p a year. “Cycling conditions can be improved, without major expenditure” it says. As the strategy contains no target to increase cycling we won’t ever know if it has been successful.
If you think the Second City is really going to need to do much more to become cycle friendly, we would like to hear from you. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 0121 632 6909
Bike Birmingham – a sustainable city’s cycling strategy, BCC 2011
KS15 Travel to Work: Census 2001, Office for National Statistics
Collisions involving pedal cyclists on Britain’s roads: establishing the causes, Transport Research Laboratory 2009
Seasonal variation in hospital admission for road traffic injuries in England: analysis of hospital statistics, Gill & Goldacre, University of Surrey, in BMJ ‘Injury Prevention’ 2009;15:374–378
Safety in Numbers report, CTC 2009
Safer Cycling Corridors, Birmingham Press 2011: www.thebirminghampress.com