If you cycle in and around Birmingham regularly, chances are that Howard and Esther have had some influence on your bicycling life. From Howard’s work with CTC, the cycling safety team at RoSPA and consulting engineering firm Allott & Lomax (now owned by Jacobs Engineering), to Esther’s campaigning and their work with Push Bikes, they have been involved, either directly or indirectly, with the way the cycling landscape has evolved in Birmingham.
Both Esther and Howard have cycled for most of their lives: as children going to school and later on to work, self-powered, wheeled transport has been a way of life for them and their children: “We are a cycling family,” Esther told me. All their children, David, Rachel and Stephen, cycle as their main form of transport. “Rachel has never learnt to drive. David did learn to drive a few years ago because he’s got children. Stephen, who lives in Sao Paolo, passed his Brazilian driving test but hasn’t driven a car since. He thought he ought to learn to drive, so he did…and that was enough.”
When the family met for a meal in London recently they realised halfway through that all three of the siblings had turned up on bikes. Their parents’ enthusiasm for sustainable transport has certainly had an effect on them. But things are very different compared to Esther and Howard’s childhoods spent cycling. As Esther recalled, “In the 1950s were huge numbers of people cycling to and from work; that was the norm and I cycled to school. A very large number of us cycled to school every day, we had to take our cycle proficiency test first…it was about a mile and a half and on a main road and everybody did it.”
Howard had a similar experience. “It was much the same for me, I cycled to school pretty well eighty per cent of the time, a five mile journey along a main road most of the way.”
Nowadays there are few parents who would be happy to wave their child off to cycle five miles to school down a main road; there are even some schools that specifically ban pupils from cycling to school, refusing to provide secure bicycle parking, as it’s seen as a dangerous way to get about, especially for children. But Esther and Howard don’t agree with this assessment.
“It can be dangerous, if you’re stupid.” Esther said. “You have to cycle sensibly.” There are other benefits to biking it, of course. Esther tells me that both her and her daughter have found that cycling often feels much safer for them as women. “It is so much better cycling than hanging around at a bus stop.”
The recent resurgence in cycling has been heartening for the couple who have fought for better infrastructure to make cycling accessible and safer for everyone. Howard has worked in the cycling world for most of his professional career, starting off at RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) working in the cycle safety department, which was responsible for the Cycle Proficiency tests, among other initiatives. When the Society had some funding issues in 1989, Howard resumed computing for two years, but wasn’t happy. He decided to go back to university to take a Masters in Traffic Engineering, training as a Traffic Engineer with an interest in sustainable transport and designing for walking and cycling.
After his studies Howard found a local job at the consulting engineers Allott & Lomax, hearing about the job opening from Esther. Though he’d been in touch with all the firms he thought might be looking for someone, he hadn’t tried Allott & Lomax as they already had a man doing great work in the cycling department – David Davies. As luck would have it, however, Esther was at a meeting with David and found out he was leaving the firm. “So I quickly pedalled home and told Howard, Dave’s leaving, so you ought to try for a job there. And he did and he got the job!”
Howard’s cycling career also included an important study that looked at the dangers of riding a bike compared with the benefits; statistics that are still often included in debates about cycling. They found that the health benefits of cycling far outweighed any dangers from mingling with fast moving traffic. The health benefits outstrip by twenty to one any danger cyclists face from cars and other vehicles; basically you’re twenty times more likely to extend your life, than reduce it, if you take up cycling as a form of transport.
Nevertheless, Esther has dealt with a significant accident. When a car ran a red light in Highgate and hit her, she had to spend seven months off work recovering. It was an accident that Esther couldn’t avoid, despite the bicycle lane and signage in the area. “Where I was hit, there is a cycle lane on the pavement when you’re approaching, so the cyclists are hidden from the cars. They don’t notice cyclists because they’re not on the road with them.” She said. “I was hit by a Ford Fiesta against a transit van and the van driver, when he got out, he knew that he’d been hit by a car but he didn’t realise that I was even there.”
It was her family that helped her get back on her bike once she had recovered. “As soon as I was physically able to cycle again, our oldest cycled the route with me to work at the weekend. There was so much support in the family about getting back on my bike, so I did,” she said.
The incident confirmed her feelings about segregating bikes and cars, however. “The thing is about segregated routes,” she explained, “it’s lovely when you’re on the segregated route, which is along the more safe bit, but then when you come to cross roads, you can’t be segregated any more, so you’re thrown in at the dangerous bit. I hate bikes on pavements, even the ones that are shared. I’d much rather on the whole be on the road.”
The couple do think cycling has improved significantly in Birmingham over the last few years. “When I used to cycle to Aston University,” Esther told me, “I would come home and say ‘I met a cyclist today!’ and it was really exciting if I actually passed a cyclist and now they’re everywhere. It really was that you just didn’t meet other cyclists. I was the only person in the School of Architecture who rode a bike.”
Despite all the work and campaigning, the cycle revolution across the country is still a relatively new thing and it has only just started to be taken seriously by politicians. Esther recalled a Lunar Society meeting where Clare Short gave a talk about transport: “I asked a question about bicycles and she ridiculed it…there was no point in considering bikes in a transport debate, and that’s only about fifteen years ago. Nobody would dare say that now. It made me very cross then, but it was the received opinion. Only cranks rode a bike.”
Things have certainly got better, but it’s been slow going. The plans to improve the cycle infrastructure in Birmingham are underway, but only just, and so far the couple aren’t convinced they’ve made much difference. “We haven’t been incredibly impressed by the designs,” Esther said, “there are so many compromises because people objected to car parking spaces getting lost. The road improvement programme hasn’t yet started; it should have been finished by now.” Ultimately it will be the way people use the new infrastructure that determines the success of the scheme; more people on bikes will be the best way to increase funding and safety for all cyclists. And despite their reservations, Esther and Howard are interested to see how effective the new 20 mph speed limit in certain areas will be, as long as, of course, “they’re policed properly,” Esther said; they hope it will make a difference and encourage people to cycle more.
Cycling is still a major part of their life. They don’t have a car at all anymore; they swapped their old Triumph Herald for a donation to charity and the next week their other car was written off when someone smashed into it outside their house. “We thought, well let’s see how we go without a car,” Esther recalled, “could we manage without a car, and that was over ten years ago.” A bike, in combination with a bus pass, is their key to the city.
Unfortunately, Howard was diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease in 2011 and finds it difficult to ride a bicycle. A cycling holiday in the Hebrides, Esther told me, was the final straw when it came to Howard giving up two wheels: “A car drove past Howard quite closely and he wobbled and fell and that affected Howard’s confidence very greatly in traffic.”
But rather than abandoning bicycles completely, Howard decided to see if the increased stability of a tricycle would help him remain mobile, despite his disability. The decision wasn’t without precedent as he had ridden a tricycle previously, even cycling to Egypt in 1963 when he was 19 with two friends, one also atop a trike. The trip was an effort to see a piece of history before it disappeared. “The reason we got into going to Egypt,” Howard recalled, “was that the Aswan Dam was going to be built and destroy many of the temples including Abu Simbel that were built along the Nile valley. I was about to study Archaeology at university and so it was a case of, ‘if you don’t see it this year, you won’t see it again’. And I managed to talk a couple of my friends in the cycling club, and we got the idea of cycling all the way to Egypt and all the way back again – 5,500 miles.”
In the end, the temples and their artefacts were preserved but the trip was a testament to the efficiency of travelling with a tricycle. “The specific thing about the tricycle is it’s very good at load carrying and taking tents and taking bags and stoves,” Howard explained, and it was this benefit that led to two of the cyclists choosing trikes as their mode of transport.
Back in the 60s when they undertook the trip, trikes were less of a rarity than they are now. Howard joined the Redmon Cycling Club in south London at 15 and found he wasn’t the only rider on three wheels: “Quite a few people in the club had tricycles as well as bicycles. They were quite popular but they really have disappeared off the map.”
Travelling any significant distance with a tricycle now, however, is sadly unfeasible. “Certainly I travelled all over the place with the help of trains as well as tricycles, but that’s more or less disappeared,” Howard said trains, while they will take bikes, won’t let you take tricycles on board, making it impossible to transport one without a large car or van, something many people don’t have access to. “It’s great pity,” he said. “People with disabilities may have no other way of getting about, so it’s rather unfair.”
Of course, as the tireless campaigners they are, Esther and Howard are determined to challenge this inequality. Lots of people with limited mobility find riding a tricycle can be their passport to getting out and about under their own steam, rather than having to rely on anyone else, and the Boyd’s are keen to make it easier for people to do so. They hope in future to demonstrate how difficult the cycle infrastructure can be for trikes to navigate. Radar barriers on canal towpaths, for instance, are a challenge for tricycles; even with a key it can be difficult, and their effectiveness at deterring motorbikes is debatable. The couple hope to bring attention to the difficulties faced by people with disabilities when they try to utilise the infrastructure aimed at getting more people using sustainable transport
Along with campaigning for cycling improvements, they also champion environmental issues; Esther is a key member of Sustainable Moseley (SusMo), an organisation that worked towards making Moseley a more environmentally friendly place to live. Through winning a British Gas Green Streets awards, SusMo successfully got solar panels installed on four public buildings in the area, allowing them to not only lower their carbon emissions but also their running costs. The pair are also active Quakers and try not to live a life fuelled by consumerism. When I asked whether their cycling was part of this, Esther nodded: “It’s a sort of way of life isn’t it?”
The sentiment sums up their commitment to bikes, trikes and living in a way that is environmentally friendly as possible and Esther and Howard Boyd’s passion is a real inspiration. Here’s hoping the pedals keep turning for as long as possible.