The Bike West Midlands Network (BWMN) was set up in 2013 to provide some mutual support between cycling campaigns across the whole West Midlands area. We started the Network when the then Green Travel Team at Centro were beginning the work that led to the West Midlands Cycling Charter. They were looking for a mailing list of cycling groups and campaigners to liaise with through the Charter's long gestation. The long established Push Bikes together with the late lamented Birmingham Cyclist website did a good job of maintaining a campaigning presence in Birmingham. Wolves on Wheels similarly was a much more committed and active campaign group than that city then deserved. Small groups of cycling advocates were making the case for better cycling facilities in Coventry, Sandwell, Solihull, Dudley and Walsall. As the Birmingham Cycling Revolution (BCR) was taking off a strong cycling lobby formed and had experience of going to a series of Overview and Scrutiny Committee meetings with Push Bikes, Sustrans, Friends of the Earth (FOE), the late Roy Watson (Greenways of Birmingham) and others. The BWMN built up a mailing list of around 100 people and began to attend Centro consultations as well as the BCR ones. We also organised seminars on the cycling industry, the West Midlands Combined Authority's (WMCA) strategic plans for cycling and the fight for clean air. The mailing list has tailed off considerably since we took on board General Data Protection Regulations but it is still useful and the @BWMNetwork twitter account has 700+ followers. Updates have been published here on the Push Bikes Website.
Since 2016, the new WMCA and Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) have taken on new devolved powers, a major transport responsibility and budget and are led by an elected Mayor of the West Midlands, currently Andy Street (right). There are new elections in May 2020. Furthermore, the WMCA since Movement for Growth has taken on board the strong message first articulated by Birmingham Connected - a region that wants to grow and prosper cannot do so by depending on more motor traffic. Cycling and walking, "active travel", now feature alongside new investment in public transport in coherent transport plans. The West Midlands Cycling Charter now operates in a strong policy and strategic framework with political leadership and an impressive and professional senior management team collected into the unfortunately titled STOG (Senior Transport Officers Group).
The BWMN Steering Group met in March to explore our next work programme. We have expanded to include Cycling Works for Birmingham to engage with the corporate employer sector and expand the constituency of support for improved cycling infrastructure especially for commuters. A member of the Protect Birmingham Cyclist Facebook group who works at the Children's Hospital came along to join us. As a group we are perhaps typical "usual suspects", male, mostly white, able to meet after work in the City Centre, although three of us do have school age children. We have a plan to change this. At least two women from the Community Cycling Clubs (CCCs) movement have started to come along to meetings. Chris Lowe, Chair of Push Bikes, recently did a presentation about campaigning and advocacy to 50 people at a CCC gathering. The CCCs (over 20 in Birmingham and more in the Black Country) are great because they include many new cyclists from diverse and often inner city communities with a different perspective from suburban cycling clubs and long time cycling commuters. Meanwhile a community journalist has also offered to get involved with her communication and media skills and local community contacts.
BWMN has never aspired to do much more than keep people in touch with each other, offer support for local campaigns and ensure that the views of "the" cycling community are fed into policy making and implementation at WMCA level as well as with the Local Authorities, who of course continue to have major powers and responsibilities which affect cycling. The BCR is still by far the most comprehensive cycling achievement in the Region which developed from the Changing Gear Overview and Scrutiny Report in 2012 leading to the successful Cycle City Ambition Bid and a c£63 million pound spend. BWMN always struggles with the mechanics of how and when to meet or the extent to which "meetings" are necessary - any times chosen will exclude some people and we mainly communicate by email with an annual get together and occasional seminars. A degree of formality seems better than an ephemeral Facebook page and we could be proud of the fact that our core group has outlasted probably three generations of professionals at City of Birmingham and Combined Authority levels !!
We are now looking at what our "level of ambition" should be for the next era of campaigning and especially the up coming Mayoral selections and elections. We have moved on so far since 2012 with flagship cycleways in Birmingham, bike share rolling out in Wolverhampton, the whole Community Cycle Clubs, Ride Active and Big Birmingham Bikes movement and upgraded tow paths and greenways. There is positive commitment from many senior local politicians and the from the West Midlands Mayor (and all of the 2017 candidates at our Big Bike Picnic). At the recent West Midlands Cycling and Walking Summit, Shanaze Reade, the World Champion BMX rider, was introduced as our WM Cycling and Walking Ambassador and an interesting Better Streets Community Fund launched.
It is tempting to say "our work here is done" and ride off into the sunset! But of course there is so much more to do. Places like Sandwell, where a lone Cycling UK volunteer makes such a great effort, have barely started to change. Coventry once a leader in cycling facilities (and where the modern cycle was invented) is doing little and recently even abolished bus lanes. Without public pressure and support there is no guarantee of further funding or that progress couldn't be halted and even rolled back. Nationally the number of people willing to cycle or even walk in contemporary road conditions may have peaked and has possible declined. This is not a time to start wobbling.
At a national level in the four nations the pattern has changed. Cycling organisations like Cycling UK (CUK), Sustrans, the Bicycle Association (a trade organisation), and British Cycling (BC), the sport governing body, are collaborating with Living Streets, the walking charity, the Ramblers in a broader formal Walking and Cycling alliance to negotiate with government departments. Locally and nationally organisations like 20 is Plenty, Mums for Lungs and FoE have been influential. The Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (Mini Hollands) approach, as we saw at the Cycle Nation/ CUK conference in November 2017, can engage a much wider constituency of support from parents, residents and schools for building "filtered permeability", safer streets and cleaner air from ward level up where you can capture local councillors' interest. BWMN has allies like Wheels for Wellbeing and specific groups interested in inclusive mobility which is recognised in the West Midlands Cycling Charter Action Plan implementation. In addition there is now the great work from ROAM about children's play alongside Active Parks and Play Streets that The Active Wellbeing Society (TAWS) supports. We also liaise with the Campaign for Better Public Transport. Temporary initiatives like closing streets and car free days are a key part of moving forward from car dependency and modelling a different future.
Greater Manchester has just seen the Walk Ride Campaign blossom partly on the back of Brian Deegan's work and with Chris Boardman's outstanding leadership as Commissioner. The Beelines approach signals an important paradigm shift which we can all learn from. The Birmingham Cycle City Ambition Bid and the subsequent BCR in its various stages, the West Midlands Cycling Charter and the current Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (LCWIPs) at regional and local authority level have been produced top down by professionals and consultants. There has been some aspiration towards co-production and a lot of consultation with stakeholders, including cycling groups, both before plans are presented to politicians for sign off and during implementation. But the initiative has come from the authorities responding to strategic objectives and DfT bid invitations with short deadlines and specific requirements.
In Greater Manchester Beelines means beginning to work from the community level upwards with local people given the opportunity to look at the road system and the destinations in their neighbourhoods. They then propose where there are blockages to walking and cycling which inhibit safer and more congenial local trips by bike or on foot. They draw the desire lines and identify the problem junctions and crossings and then, and only then, engineers can propose solutions using their expertise and design guides. This is very different to how "parallel routes" were planned and originally implemented in Birmingham with BCR. As Waltham Forest has demonstrated making such changes to road systems require strong political leadership and there will be opposition from shop owners and motorists. We look forward to seeing how Beelines develops. Strategic commuter cycling routes following main transport corridors may be somewhat different. Potential users will be making longer journeys and passing through several neighbourhoods. This is where the strategic support of employers and Business Improvement Districts and destinations like office and factory estates or hospitals and colleges will be important.
BWMN Steering Group have thought about building an Active Travel Alliance like the national one or a wider umbrella network linking a wide range of interests. Walk Cycle Play is a tempting title and hashtag. Perhaps as #WalkCyclePlay or #WalkCyclePlayWM or #WalkCyclePlayVote. Space for Cycling (Space4Cycling) was the national campaign slogan in 2016/7 but is it time to broaden our interests and build wider alliances and partnerships?
We do not want to lose the specificity of cycling altogether or the comradeship and requirements of "cyclists" and people who want to cycle in consultation with highway and planning authorities and engineers. Cycle campaigners have been very loyal and hard working, they turn out to meeting after meeting, build up expertise in responding to complex consultations and establish relationships of mutual respect with the relevant professionals, managers and politicians. However, we are clear that we want to be a "high valence" organisation willing to build links and collaborate with like minded activists who can work for common aims not only in transport but in health, planning, social cohesion, policing and in creating liveable neighbourhoods and prosperous but inclusive high streets, towns and cities.
The structure of political decision making and the remit of local, regional and national authorities define the levels at which advocacy and consultation is possible. Originally the BWMN was set up to interact with Centro. The creation of the WMCA and a Mayor with devolved powers and budget has changed this with a major opportunity to influence the creation and implementation of significant pro-cycling policies and expenditure. The requirement for LCWIPs emerged from successful lobbying at national (England) level. Their creation and implementation requires assiduous advocacy at Regional and Local Authority levels if they are meet the needs of people who want to cycle and walk and indeed improve the lives of a much wider community who will benefit from fewer cars, less severance of their neighbourhoods by major roads and more liveable streets, towns and cities.
Pulling all this together at national levels with CEOs, paid staff, media competence, proper governance and regular meetings with DfT and other departments and leading politicians is in may ways easier than doing so as volunteers at more local levels whether the Region, city or ward. We are currently waiting for new campaign materials and training programmes from the national organisations to update Space for Cycling and reflect the wider alliance. But we are impatient to get on with things in the West Midlands and not miss another electoral round.
At the moment we are considering two steps forward. Firstly, a broad based event bringing together the various interests highlighted in this paper to hammer out the sort of commitments we want to see in the manifestos and hustings statements from next year's Mayoral candidates. Secondly, exploring whether there would be support for putting our "organisation" on a firmer footing with a formal legal structure and a modest financial base perhaps jointly with one of our constituent bodies.
It would be really helpful to have the views and reactions of interested individuals and parties on where we go next and whether the ideas outlined in this paper around cycling, walking, playing and organising are the way forward for BWMN.
Meanwhile do go and #WalkCyclePlay in a low traffic neighbourhood near you if you can find one.
David Cox on behalf of the Bike West Midlands Network Steering Group