The Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) has paid for many new routes in Birmingham's green spaces, but Push Bikes has not always been impressed with the design choices made and with the results at the end. The infamous Le Col des Ackers is the worst example, but other routes have also had their issues, such as Merritts Brook. Common issues have been the choice of 'tar and chip' surfacing for the routes and the width of the routes being below the minimum 3 meters stipulated for shared use paths in national cycle design guidance. Push Bikes is one of the stakeholders who attend the monthly BCR meetings, and in September we were able to talk to some of the team who design and implement the green routes.
Firstly we asked the design team about the use of 'tar and chip'. While the choice has been defended on aesthetic grounds as looking nicer than plain tarmac, and on safety grounds, as both providing more grip in icy winter conditions than smooth tarmac and also giving auditory warning to other path users that cycles are approaching, I had not been convinced that these reasons where the primary reason for the choice. This was confirmed, as we were told that 'tar and chip' paths do not need to be swept, whereas smooth tarmac paths do. What exactly does this mean? It turns out that Birmingham City Council (BCC) contract out the sweeping of green route paths, and any path that is smooth tarmac incurs a substantial revenue cost for mechanical sweeping, whereas green routes with a gravel, or similar, surface have a cheaper maintenance cost of being cleared off by a leaf blower. When considering the cost implications of new routes, 'tar and chip' surfaces are much cheaper to maintain than smooth tarmac routes - so much cheaper, in fact, that Push Bikes were told that none of the new green routes would have been constructed if smooth tarmac surfaces had been chosen.
This highlights two challenges facing BCC in building a network of green routes: firstly, the BCR funding is 'capital' only, so it pays for the building works, but does not provide 'revenue' funding for ongoing maintenance; secondly, austerity budgets in the UK have affected the ability of local councils to provide services and parks budgets are some of the first budgets to be cut. Personally, I can see no alternative to the use of 'tar and chip' surfaces in BCC green routes for the next few years, so I think that we will have to put up with this less than perfect option.
Secondly we asked the design team about the width of the green routes, as many of the newly surfaced routes are about 2 meters wide. While we understand that the physical constraints on canal towpaths means that those are restricted in width, we don't believe that there are always the same width restraints for the green routes. The design team told us that they were working to the width recommendations provided by the BCR lead team, so we will need to pick up this issue with them. Push Bikes believes that it is important that shared use green routes are built to the minimum widths laid out in national cycle design guidance (See Local Transport Note 1/12, Figure 7.6) and that means a minimum width of 3 meters wherever possible. Building the green routes to a 3 meter width rather than 2 meter width will mean that the routes will be more expensive, and so a shorter distance will be able to be built, but we believe that it is better to build to a higher specification that provides more comfort for all users, rather than build a greater distance of lower standard routes. BCC ought to be planning for increased cycle usage across the city and that means that routes that are quiet now will not be in the future.
Thirdly we discussed the use of barriers on routes. The issue of motor cycle barriers (MCBs) seems to be being dealt with by Canal and River Trust now, but we still have the issue of barriers being installed inappropriately on BCC's green routes. The design team told us that many of the users of the green routes are very concerned about misuse of green routes by motorised vehicles, and because of this, there is strong support at public consultation meetings for the use of barriers. The design team are using barriers with more relaxed geometry now, so that they present fewer issues for cycle users, and the a-frame barriers that are installed can be adjusted to try to get the width just right to allow cycles through but to stop motorcycles.
My concern with all of these barriers, though, is that they present bottle-necks on routes, where the users of the routes have to stop and take turns to pass through. Even if the barriers do not prevent access by cycles (although cargo bikes and trikes may still be blocked) they slow down cycle users. Facing regular stop-start experiences along a cycle route is something that reduces the attractiveness of the route, either encouraging a different route, or even getting in the car and driving instead. In order to achieve an increase in cycling modal share, we must make cycling as easy an option as possible, and the over-use of barriers does not encourage that. I believe that there should be no barriers installed on any of these routes, but instead simple bollards which will not block legitimate users on wider cycles or mobility scooters.