Forward? More like "Stuck in Traffic"

Where We Are After Two Years of BCR

Despite support for cycling by all the major parties and especially the Greens, Birmingham is not where it should be by now. Why?

The following is my own submission to the Birmingham City Council Transport Scrutiny Committee, meeting this Friday (23-10-2015) to discuss the Birmingham Cycling Revolution. Whilst this is a personal statement, it does reflect the views of other Push Bikes committee members.

Summary

  1. The Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced during the previous government that he wanted to see a cycling revolution in Britain.
  2. The Liberal Democratic party, who formed part of the coalition government, were considered by The Guardian to have the most pro-cycling election manifesto of the major parties.
  3. The ruling Labour Party in Birmingham has published policy documents that indicate that they see cycling as important in addressing the health and congestion problems faced by the city.
  4. The city council applied for and was given central government funding for capital projects to encourage cycling.
  5. The city council initiated its own cycling revolution project.
  6. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Robert Goodwill, recently called for a redoubling of the effort to make Britain a cycling country like Denmark, which he has recently visited.
  7. Despite the cross-party support for cycling, Birmingham's Cycle Revolution project has stalled.
  8. This failure to complete the planned work in the allotted time is mainly the result of resistance to change by councillors, officers, and other parties.
  9. These difficulties are not unique to Birmingham, but are surmountable.
  10. In Birmingham there seems to be insufficient robust, public leadership driving the project forward, so the negative attitudes that block progress are allowed to prevail. This is dispiriting for those that would like to see change but do not have the authority to effect it, and results in low ambition.

Introduction

The government would like local authorities to build cycling infrastructure. It's not going about this in the best way, but it has provided some money in the form of Cycling Cities Ambition Grants (CCAG) and the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF). The relevant minister, Robert Goodwill, has recently been to Denmark and declared that he was shocked at how many people cycle in Denmark compared with the UK, announcing that we must redouble our efforts. It's not very impressive that the minister was so uninformed about what is happening just across the North Sea, but at least he's beginning to see the light. In general Birmingham City Council is not, alas.

In his independent review of Birmingham City Council, Bob Kerslake has said that the council must:

  • provide leadership and set out a positive vision for the city.
  • improve a culture of sweeping problems under the carpet or blaming them on others rather than tackling them head on.

Sadly I doubt Bob Kerslake had cycling infrastructure in mind when he wrote his report, but the faults pointed to by these two points accurately summarise why the Birmingham Cycling Revolution (BCR) is progressing so slowly. The money from the first round of CCAG should by now have been committed, but two years after the council was given the money, it still hasn't spent a substantial chunk of it. In the past we were always told there was no money for cycling. Well now there is, and Birmingham is still finding it difficult to move away from designing for private car use in favour of the most sustainable form of transport, cycling.

General Observations

  • That which as been built is hidden away. Most of the infrastructure work has been done on the canals, with not so much as a single sign saying the work was done to encourage cycling. There has been no serious marketing campaign across the city. Even amongst people who cycle, there is little knowledge that Birmingham is holding a "cycling revolution".
  • Over the last five years Centro have received LSTF money from the government for sustainable transport, but some of the changes made, such as the creation of parking bays on Stirchley high street, have had nothing to do with cycling or walking. A modification made to the junction of Ribblesdale Road and Warwards Lane was designed to make the junction less dangerous, but it had the effect of closing a rat-run. This, combined with the filtered permeability at the junction, benefited cyclists. However it's indicative of Centro's thinking that neither the filtered permeability nor the rat-run closure were part of the original plan. A bus lane installed on the Pershore Road was achieved by narrowing the south-bound side to one lane, making it difficult for south-bound motorists to overtake cyclists. The prioritisation of public transport over cycling and walking seems deeply engrained in Centro's focus.
  • Sky Ride was cancelled for the second year running, yet somehow the Half Marathon has managed to carry on, complete with substantial road closures. Sky Ride's hasty replacement, Bikefest, gave cyclists the opportunity to ride on Birmingham's existing "cycle routes" fenced in and helmeted, as if family cycling was some sort of extreme sport. Of course the fencing meant that cyclists trying to use those cycle routes to get to the event found their way blocked, and then faced a lengthy walk from the distant cycle parking, circumnavigating the high security fencing until they found the way in.
  • Nay-sayers are always allowed to trump people trying to make progress, no matter how weak their arguments. For example:
    • The Merritts Brook Greenway was sent down a narrow, bumpy, unlit shared path because the managers of a young person's residential home that lies on the better, alternative route were "reluctant to see more disturbance past their centre", even though bikes are an all but silent form of transport and one that is ideally suited to young people. Note that they were only "reluctant", not "totally opposed", but that was good enough for the council to listen to them rather than cycle campaigners who proposed the alternative route, which passed through the car park of the residential home.
    • People demanding car parking outside shops are allowed to block those who want to be allowed to use a much more sustainable form of transport, even though it has been shown the world over (including in Birmingham city centre) that the presence of cars suppresses trade.
    • It took a year to move a bollard from a dangerous position to an unnecessarily inconvenient position on the Rea Valley Route. The district engineer blocked the removal of the bollard because he thought people would squeeze their cars between two of the remaining concrete bollards to drive on the ultra-narrow cycle path rather than using an adjacent, parallel road. The net result was an an unnecessary amount of effort and a lengthy delay in order to create a slight but inadequate improvement to a clear problem with an obvious solution. One respected individual (who I wont name for obvious reasons), referred to said engineer as "an ass".
  • The work which has been done is of poor quality, with cycle routes made narrow, slow, indirect, and bumpy. Not one route has been created that is smooth, wide, and free of obstructions such as barriers, CYCLISTS DISMOUNT signs, and/or toucan crossings that take anything up to several minutes to switch in favour of cyclists (even when there is little motorised traffic).
  • Lack of communication between planners in the city council meant that the plans for one BCR cycle route were completely obliterated by a road-building plan at Ashted Circus that is intended to aid private car usage. The experience around the world has been that if you build for bikes and you get bikes, whereas if you build for cars you get cars. However, bikes take up less space. It's that simple.
  • Whilst millions of pounds are being found to redesign junctions for motorists, such as that described above and on Flaxley Road, cyclists find themselves fobbed off with indirect routes via the pavement and slow multi-stage toucan crossings. When this is raised as an issue, the needs of cyclists are completely ignored, but the council will redesign the junction to benefit inconvenienced motorists.
  • Other opportunities to do something well also have not been taken. When the bridge across Dogpool Lane was replaced, the Rea Valley Route could have been redirected so it went straight across Dog Pool Lane, perhaps even being given priority over it. Badly drawn bike iconInstead what was quite an effective solution was replaced with one that sent cyclists via a slow toucan crossing, a blind bend on a path effectively shared with pedestrians, and a junction with the carriageway that requires cyclists to have eyes in the backs of their heads. The newly built path wasn't even built level (and the drawing painted on the path implied that the pedals on a bike are connected to the front wheel; elsewhere operatives use a stencil to ensure consistency and productivity).
  • The council failed to notice that when Dogpool Lane was closed for months on end to build the new bridge there was not "traffic chaos". Neither was there chaos when Cartland Road was closed for several months. There are even one or two roads in Birmingham that have been closed to through motor traffic for years. Closing a road to motor traffic is a simple way to create cycle-friendly streets, a technique that is widely used on the continent. Yet when Push Bikes suggested closing Griffins Brook Lane where it meets the A38, this was ignored without explanation, maintaining a rat-run past a school. The same was suggested for Pope's Lane, but here the council's response has been to do nothing, leaving in place a purely one-way cycle route. Other councils are using temporary Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) to prove that road closures are an effective way to encourage cycling without causing "traffic chaos". Leicester is now preparing for the construction of two new segregated cycle paths following a 16 week trial closure of one lane of Welford Road, one of the city's many multi-lane one-way roads built in the 1960s.
  • With its one-way streets and now a tram line through the middle, the city centre remains highly impervious to cycle movements. It is commonplace in many towns and cities to allow contraflow cycling, but in Birmingham contraflow schemes are a rare exception and take years to implement. One of the contraflow lanes that has been built randomly hops on and off the pavement before (effectively) ending on the normally very busy pavement outside a Betfred, suggesting the designer was either a cyclist with a serious gambling addiction, or someone with absolutely no idea what they were doing. If only it connected with the nearby rare cycle parking, but in Birmingham the cycling infrastructure is never connected together.
  • Council officers routinely flout the council's own guidelines on cycle parking provision.
  • Essential maintenance is only carried out if someone is prepared to badger the council for weeks on end, and even then only grudgingly. Some existing cycle routes are now in an appalling condition, with originally poor quality surfaces now completely destroyed. It took months of effort to persuade Cllr Ali to get the lights replaced in Edgbaston Tunnel, just after BCR had paid for the tow path to be resurfaced. Cllr Ali seemed most reluctant to spend money on this, even though the city council has a large pot of unspent CCAG funding. The necessary work was eventually very well done, but getting there should not have been such hard work.
  • NCN5 was routinely closed to cyclists for months or even years with no alternative provided for cyclists. When an alternative was eventually and grudgingly provided, it was closed within weeks. When re-opened, the cycle lane was blocked with cones so that motorists could be given two clear lanes to go in the same direction. Councillor Bore (councillor for this area and leader of the city council) thought cyclists should get off and walk, which rather defeats the point of having a bike and tells us it's not just members of the general public who are unaware that Birmingham is supposed to be having a cycling revolution.
  • Much of the planned work has been massively delayed. The stupendously slow rate of progress means that we are losing routes through poor maintenance as fast as new routes are being built.

Big Birmingham Bikes and Brompton Dock

It's hard for an outsider to judge the success or otherwise of these schemes, as there has been little communication. Push Bikes has asked many times for "good news" stories about Big Birmingham Bikes, but this has met with no response until last week, and that was only half a page of printed A4. This reflects the general lack of marketing of the BCR project. Whilst the Big Birmingham Bikes project has taken longer than expected, at least the money was committed within the time allotted to the first round of CCAG funding, and all the bikes will be distributed by the end of 2015.

It was also a disappointment that despite Push Bikes pushing for the bikes to be fitted with mudguards, and despite eventually being promised they would be, the bikes are being distributed without them. In wet weather they will be unusable without a change of shoes and clothes, and the transmission will be sprayed with filthy water, which will be both corrosive and abrasive. We have received one report of someone asking if they could be fitted. Reasonable mudguards can be bought very cheaply, but demand either mechanical skills and tools, or the ability to pay for them to be fitted. Given the bikes are aimed at deprived households, this is clearly going to be a problem.

The Brompton Dock bikes work well (or at least will do once some software issues are sorted out), and the cost of hiring one represents excellent value for money. It's a pity that those trying to get the docks installed have met resistance to their being installed. Thus the one in New Street has been left without power for months, and now other parts of the city council want it moved out of the way of the German market.

Tow Path Refurbishment

It is a good thing that the tow paths are being resurfaced, as what could be an attractive resource in the city has been neglected for decades. In terms of tow paths resurfaced good progress has been made, but there are serious problems:

  • The tow paths are shared use, yet they are so narrow it is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, for cyclists to pass other path users, be they walking, running, or cycling. The narrowness is unavoidable, but it does mean that the routes should only ever be at best secondary parts of the cycle network. With the delays in the on-highway works, however, they seem to be forming the backbone of the network.
  • No signage of any kind has been erected. There are no direction signs, and no signs indicating a path usage etiquette. Many joggers insist on using the right-hand side, which creates chaos at busy times. It would cost very little to put up signs, but CRT and BCC are simply ignoring the problem. Please keep left on the pathPush Bikes put up its own signs that linked to a page on etiquette, but without authority to erect permanent signs we had to limit ourselves to self-adhesive tape. Consequently many were quickly torn down. We have sought permission to put up permanent signs, but have received no response from CRT.
  • The banks are not strong enough for machine laying, so the paths are very bumpy.
  • The chosen finish, spray and chip, makes it difficult to control a bike until the path is swept, yet there was huge reluctance to do this, to the extent that it wasn't even written into the contract for the first paths built. The chippings started falling off within a year, and now CRT keep applying patches, which makes the paths even more bumpy, and does nothing for the aesthetics that were regarded as more important than usability.
  • The raised bricks in many locations are intended to be used by horses, but there are no horses used on the canals, and there haven't been for many, many decades. Cyclists find them unpleasant to cycle over so they try to avoid them (praying that no-one is doing the same in the opposite direction, because that would result in a collision at the top of the bridge). They can also catch a wheel and dismount a cyclist. Pedestrians trip on them, and it's impossible to push a baby buggy over them. But CRT listen to those playing the heritage card, not the voice of those actually using the tow paths, and consequently is not only preserving the hoof grips, but re-instating them in new brickwork. Diesel pumps, which are not required by horses and are most definitely not "heritage", are not being removed. Perhaps that's because doing so would render it difficult for boaters to use the canals. There appears to be a double-standard here.
  • Many of the access points that do exist have steps. Getting a standard bike up and down steps is difficult. Getting a laden bike up and down steps is extremely difficult. Getting a cargo bike trike, tandem, wheelchair, or mobility scooter up and down steps is all but impossible. None of these flights of steps has been replaced with ramps as part of BCR. At Bournville Station there is a ramp, and it shows how this can be done. The only flight of steps earmarked for replacement (though the work has not even started) are those at University Station, but they are being replaced with more steps. It is intended to include a wheeling ramp, but these are of limited use, and even then are only usable at all if built correctly, and the record for that is poor. One new access point has been built using BCR money (at the ring road), but despite the space available a flight of steps was built. A wheeling ramp was included, but it is unusable. It's not even complete; at the platforms it just ends and wheels can fall over the side of the platform into free air. The excuses are quite something. One of the excuses at University was the presence of a Roman fort. This was destroyed long ago. There was an attempt to recreate it, but that was destroyed by vandals in the last century. It has since been built over. However, apparently it's enough to stop a ramp being built so the people living today can access the canal from the road. The excuse at Five Ways was that the canal would need to be narrowed and that would delay boaters if they met at the narrowing. Boats are not supposed to travel at more than 4mph, are typically used for leisure, and are completely outnumbered by cyclists. Moreover, there are lots of places on the canal network where two boats cannot pass at the same time. Money allocated for the Birmingham Cycle Revolution should be spent on facilities that cyclists can use without dismounting.

Green Routes

These have proved to be disappointing. Although the tow paths are constrained by the fence or wall on one side and the canal on the other, in general no similar constraints apply to the green routes. Yet even when there is space available, the BCR team is specifying that they be built narrower than the minimum three metres recommended by national cycle planning guidelines. This might be to save money, but in the long term it is a false economy if one is setting out to succeed at creating a modal switch from private car usage to sustainable transport. Big Birmigham Bikes don't fit on Birmingham Cycle Revolution pathsAdditionally they are being blocked with barriers that render them slow and impractical even on a standard bicycle (including Big Birmingham Bikes, as shown right), and are finished with spray and chip. Worse still, existing paths with an excellent bitmac surface have been destroyed with spray and chip because of a council contract term that means that bitmac paths must be swept, whereas spray and chip paths need not. This is just plain idiotic. Equally idiotic is the path that was built parallel to an existing service road at the Ackers. It is way too steep, and rendered impossible to use courtesy of metal-fence chicanes and the ubiquitous loose gravel on a hard surface that is spray and chip. The design is dangerously incompetent, and given the parallel service road, pointless. Very few genuinely new sections of green route have been built.

On-Highway Routes

These have been blocked by councillors eager to preserve the status quo of a motor city, even though this is contrary to council policy (BMAP and Birmingham Connected). The concept of a motor city is utterly discredited, as it just results in congestion, pollution, and a reduction in the number of journeys that can be made. Thus Birmingham has been left behind by Leicester, a city that is moving away from the motor city concept towards a walking and cycling city, and without CCAG money. That Birmingham City Council is still sitting on a pot of money that was given to it two years ago by the government to build cycling infrastructure whilst continuing to complain it has no money for cycling is nothing short of a disgrace.

Design Guide

Much time was spent on a design guide. The fact that various authorities have been doing this is a reflection of the mess that is British cycling policy, but it would at least provide some standards for Birmingham. The draft version of the Birmingham design guide that Push Bikes members worked through and commented on in their own time was very promising, but the guide is delayed indefinitely. Every month that passes without it being published means yet more sub-standard infrastructure is being built.

Conclusion

A revolution by definition involves major change. The council has shown itself incapable of effecting change, as Bob Kerslake has pointed out. As the lack of progress dribbles on, it's only a matter of time before Birmingham City Council becomes a laughing stock, "the council that failed to build cycling infrastructure even though it was given the money and asked to complete it in two years". Seville built its cycling infrastructure in three years.

The really sad part about this is that there has been a general upsurge in cycling in the UK. This is being brought about by changing ideas about health and wellbeing, despair at endless traffic jams, and impossibly expensive car insurance for novice drivers. It's almost certain that Britain's success at competitive cycling has inspired people to ride a bike, which in turn has led them to explore it as a form of transport. Other cities are building on this, and starting to build serious cycling infrastructure. Some, like Leicester, don't even have CCAG funding. People are trying to cycle in Birmingham, but they find their way blocked by a hostile, congested, and obstructive road network, and in turn by a council that is certainly obstructive and congested, and, in the case a few councillors, hostile towards cycling. Councillors complained of the possibility of "hordes of cyclists" (for which, read "hordes of voters") preventing them from driving their cars. Councillors came out publicly with a lot of ill-informed nonsense to defend their cyclophobic attitudes, such as complaining that cycling discriminated against women (as the Under-Secretary of State for Transport has discovered in Denmark, on the Continent almost everyone rides a bike, because the infrastructure isn't utterly hostile towards them). All very ironic in a city that once led the world with cycling products from famous names such as Brooks, Dawes, and Lucas.

As an individual I have put much time and even my own money into trying to drive the council forward, and so have others (both inside and outside the council), but the council in general has just shown itself to be not up to the job. There are of course a few councillors and officers who would like to see Birmingham live up to its motto of Forward, and move away from the outdated and demonstrably impractical idea of everyone driving everywhere, but too many of those with the power to effect change are totally resistant to change. They don't have any workable ideas of their own for addressing the problems created by the motor city approach to infrastructure design; they are sweeping the problems under the carpet, just as Bob Kerslake has said. If you do nothing, you achieve nothing.


After I had written this someone reminded me of a notorious YouTube clip that I haven't seen since it was published. In essence it turned out to be alarmingly close to what I had just written.