Chris and I recently took a trip to Leicester to see for ourselves what is going on there. My attention had been drawn to it by a series of blog posts by the Ranty Highwayman. Leicester has been attracting the attention of cycling campaigners because the city council is getting on with the job of building proper cycling infrastructure. It has done so without any Cycling Ambition Grant funding.
The acid test of cycling infrastructure is "Can you just turn up and go?". Chris and I tried this in the Dutch town of Assen. In Assen we arrived by train and hired a couple of bikes from a shop adjoining the station, with no prior arrangement whatsoever. For the Leicester trip Chris brought along his own Brompton, whilst I (eventually) managed to collect a Brompton Hire bike at Birmingham Moor Street after the both of us struggled with the dock for half an hour (it wouldn't accept my booking number, and my first call to the "emergency number" went unanswered). So Round 1 goes to the Dutch. In Assen we did make use of maps, but not cycling-specific maps with marked routes. On the return journey we intentionally made no reference to the map whatsoever, just to see what would happen. Of course not being able to see the station from the hotel meant that our journey was somewhat random, since roads tend to change direction randomly dependent on historical and geographical factors that will be unknown to a stranger, but at no point did we find our way blocked by some monstrous highway or junction, or one-way street. In Leicester we did make reference to OpenCycleMap, but even so we found ourselves up against obstacles, such as one-way streets with no cycling contraflow, and busy roads with nothing for cyclists. However, it was not difficult finding the cycling infrastructure, and once on it we generally found it easy to follow, even when on the older infrastructure, because signposting is good and cycle path paths are very obvious. Only once did we get lost, a consequence of a sign hidden behind a building. So without much difficulty we managed to navigate our way from the station, around the city centre, south to Glen Pava, and North to Abbey Park with no need to ride on carriageways with fast and heavy traffic. The city centre has been made pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and the most recently built cycling infrastructure (such as that shown right) is bold, segregated, and of good quality. Everywhere we went there were plenty of cyclists, which is what happens when usable cycling infrastructure is built. So Round 2 also to the Dutch, but a well-deserved round of applause to Leicester.
The only significant infrastructure spend Birmingham has made from its CCAG pot has been made on the canal tow paths. These were relaid with spray and chip, a surface that is bumpy and hard work, and the freely moving gravel makes controlling a bike difficult (Push Bikes were told that this was insisted upon by the Canals and Rivers Trust, but CRT haven't sprayed and chipped the river path in Leicester, shown left). The obsession with spray and chip has been extended to both new and existing paths (which are almost invariably narrow and shared use). This is making cycling in Birmingham even less attractive. The promised, salient, on-carriageway routes have not been built, which combined with an almost complete lack of marketing means that even those people who do cycle in Birmingham are not aware of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution (I know, because I stop and talk to cyclists).
There has been little attempt to link up what infrastructure that has been built, to the extent that NCN5 doesn't even connect properly within the city centre. Indeed despite much of NCN5 being a vile on-carriageway experience in the city centre, it still gets closed to cycle traffic on a regular basis. And with the construction of the New Street continental-style (ie wrong way around for a right-hand-drive country) drop-and-go and a taxi park, NCN5 on Hill Street is now more National Cab Network than National Cycle Network.
The cycle parking around the city centre is inadequate, and that at New Street station is especially poor. Worse still, it is shortly to be hidden away on a narrow strip on the wrong side of the dark, drop-and-go tunnel, with no scope for expansion.
Cycle-specific signposting around the city is also very poor, adding to the lack of saliency. If the infrastructure is so minimalist it's all but invisible, it's not going to attract new cyclists in the sort of numbers that are needed to effect a useful modal shift towards the ultimate form of sustainable personal transport.
Meanwhile the city centre has been allowed to deteriorate and become scruffy, the appearance not helped by the ubiquitous roadworks in the city centre, which when complete will represent a danger to cyclists (tram lines and bikes don't mix). Even without the roadworks permeability is very poor. Whilst traffic has been excluded from a few streets in the city centre, the initial progress made decades ago has stalled, and Birmingham city centre is noisy, polluted, and brutal compared with Leicester (though better than Edinburgh).
All in all it's as if Birmingham is embarrassed by cycling. Or maybe it's embarrassed by the decisions it made in the Sixties, and now doesn't want to lose face by addressing those mistakes. Perhaps the necessary change in policy is another of those difficult problems the council would rather brush under the carpet, as Bob Kerslake put it.
Birmingham City Council always likes to find excuses for their failing where others succeed. However, Leicester is a lot closer to home than other examples cited by cycling campaigners in the UK. Leicester city council has destroyed the myth that there is something uniquely difficult about building usable cycling infrastructure in the UK (compared with continental Europe), something that makes it impossible. Like Birmingham, Leicester was rebuilt as a motor city, complete with a hostile ring road tightly encircling the city centre, but that hasn't prevented Leicester from starting to replace this with something sustainable. Leicester has also knocked for six another myth, namely that cycling infrastructure is difficult to build in a city with a large Asian immigrant population "because cycling isn't seen by Asians as aspirational". Leicester has the largest Asian immigrant population in the UK, and people of Asian origin are riding bikes in Leicester along with everyone else. Additionally, a very noticeable proportion of the many people cycling are doing so without dressing up like a coal miner, indicating they feel safe. Feeling the need to wear industrial clothing to make a simple journey certainly renders cycling non-aspirational for those that take pride in their appearance.
The bottom line is that people are taking up cycling in Leicester because the council is making the necessary changes to the infrastructure that allow cycling to be safe, convenient, and enjoyable. It seems to me that as far as sustainable transport is concerned, Leicester is very much leading the Midlands.
For more detail on what has been built in Leicester, read on.