Funding an Environment for Cycling and Walking

Frederick Road in Selly Oak

Birmingham City Council has recently submitted a bid for £1.5m (with £1.5m match funding) of European Structural Investment Fund (ESIF) monies for a package of sustainable transport measures linked to the Selly Oak Green Travel District. Elements of the bid which support cycling include:

  • The 'Walk to' package:
    • Creation of a new shared pedestrian/cycle route on a key movement corridor from University Station where current provision is very poor.
  • The 'Cycle to' package:
    • Creation of a district wide bike hire and loan scheme to allow staff and student to 'try before you buy' and hire bikes for short-term periods.
    • Creation of cycle hubs with increased covered cycle parking provision, repair units and bike pumps.
  • The 'Fewer cars to' package will provide incentives for staff and students to reduce the number of vehicles driven onto the campus via:
    • Implementation of a district wide car share program to reduce the number of motor vehicles travelling to the campus
    • Implementation of a dedicated car club parking space allowing people to travel to campus via walking, cycling and public transport and use the car club car only for necessary journeys.

The bid, if successful, will complement the initiatives already planned in the Selly Oak area as part of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) programme.

For a long time now Push Bikes has been lobbying the council to concentrate less on creating infrastructure purely for cycling and more on making our city more liveable. Streets that are less clogged with cars are more attractive for cycling and walking, and we know that even today a majority Brummies would be willing to hop on a bike to make a journey if motor vehicles didn't make that journey feel too dangerous. Making neighbourhoods less hostile has the advantage that it is attractive to people who don't consider themselves cyclists, so council officers will face less opposition than they did trying to implement cycle lanes along main corridors. Additionally, unlike infrastructure purely for cycling, improving the environment in which we live qualifies for European funding, magnifying the available money. Push Bikes will continue to lobby for "mini-Holland" (filtered permeability) schemes that will improve the environment of our neighbourhoods. These are very cost-effective, but the more money that is available for changing our environment the more areas of the city that can be made cycle-friendly.

The city council is also involved in the SETA project being led by University of Sheffield. This is funded through the EU Horizon 2020 programme, and is looking at the analysis of data from cycling GPS units on the Big Birmingham Bikes (BBB) to help inform mobility planning. Push Bikes saw some of the results of this at the last BCR stakeholder meeting. We found it greatly encouraging to learn that people are using the BBB bikes to change their lives for the better, and this can be used to justify the creation of a cycle-friendly city. The city council is currently running a survey as part of this project.

Needless to say these are not the only projects in which the city council is making or has made use of EU funding. For most of the twentieth century Queen Victoria was perched above a multi-lane road junction just outside the Council House. Then in the last decade of that century Victoria Square was rebuilt with the aid of EU funding, after which you could no longer drive past the Council House front door. What was once a road is now safely usable by cyclists and pedestrians.

It should be obvious that brexit will put the funding of such projects at risk. Projects may have to be reduced in scope or cancelled altogether. Brexit campaigners say not paying a subscription to the EU will free up money that will be distributed within Britain, but let's just take a closer look at that claim. They are openly saying there will be a pot of £350m a week. However, this is simply untrue, because thanks to our rebate we don't pay anything like that*. In addition, our membership allows us to trade freely in all EU countries. Access to the single market by non-EU countries costs money; Norway pays a substantial percentage of what would be its EU membership fee to do just this, but has no say in the rules it has signed up to. Brexit supporters have proposed we could simply stop trading with the EU, but since it represents 45% of our exports, that would destroy our economy. Even without such a rash move, damage to our economy upon brexit is highly likely (even some brexit campaigners recognise this). The government will be tied up for years rebuilding the structures necessary for trade, leaving it even less time to deal with matters such as modernising our infrastructure, something that is badly needed in Birmingham. During this time there will be great uncertainty for businesses. Businesses hate uncertainty; it makes them hold back on investment, or switch investment to countries where the future is less uncertain. Lack of investment results in the economy shrinking (recession). It would only take a tiny reduction in the size of our economy to wipe out the benefit from not paying a subscription to the EU, because our subscription represents just 2% of UK government spending (which is about £15,000m per week).

Some have tried to argue that we would save on the cost of regulations, but brexit campaigner Richard North has described that as (and I'm quoting verbatim here) "bollocks", because we need regulations to the extent that they represent a net benefit to the economy. Anyone for a G-rated washing machine? You wont find one, because that (EU) regulation has dissuaded us from making and buying appliances that will set our electricity meters spinning like the altimeter on a rocket heading for the edge of space.

But let us suppose we do find ourselves with a large sum of money available following an exit from the EU. How much of that money do you think the government would spend on Birmingham? In this time of austerity the government is squeezing local authorities in poorer areas such as Birmingham to the point where many local services have been dropped, and even essential services are being cut back. Yet money is being found for London. Hence London gets Crossrail and segregated cycling infrastructure, whilst Birmingham gets a very short tram line extension, a canal revolution, and cycle symbols painted on the road. The record of our consistently London-centric government suggests it would not fund the shortfall that would result from an EU exit and an end to EU funding for Birmingham. So it is no surprise that the leader of the Birmingham City Council has called for Britain to remain in the European Union.

So when you go out to vote on the 23rd June, be careful what you wish for.

*I have previously written about how as part of his brexit campaign Boris twisted the truth about EU truck design regulation, claiming it prevented him from making London cycle-friendly.