Building a Network

Quiet network

According to the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan (BMAP), around a quarter of trips less than a mile are by car, with this figure rising to around 45% for trips between 1 and 3 miles. If our infrastructure didn't render cycling unacceptably dangerous in the minds of most people, a large number of those journeys could be made by bike, which would have a significant impact on congestion. I've shown in an earlier post how an area can be quietened in order to make it more liveable and more cyclable, which largely means journeys of less than a mile. To increase that range to 3 miles, one needs a coarser scale network of reasonably direct routes that can be signposted. Of course if you build the former the latter will somewhat come out in the wash, but you still need to consider how to link those areas, and where to add signposting to assist people to make these longer journeys. You also need to consider the status quo. Does not having traffic calmed neighbourhoods mean that these longer journeys can only be undertaken by the fast and the brave? The answer is sometimes, but far from always.

Talk to someone used to getting around Birmingham in a car, and they will think in terms of busy main roads and rat-runs. If asked if they would be willing to cycle their journeys, we know from the Sustrans Bike Life report that a surprising number of Brummies are either already equipped to make journeys by bike, or would be interested in doing so, but what puts them off is what they see whilst driving around. Consequently they drive, and so infrastructure is built that is aimed at car usage. This is a vicious circle that needs to be broken, and the answer to my first question hints that there is a way we can increase the number of journeys undertaken by bike to include those that people probably wouldn't consider walking.

One might assume that since I already cycle around Birmingham I must have some love of dodging cars, trucks, and buses. I don't. Neither do I have special extra-thick asbestos underwear so I can just get up and pedal off if knocked down by a car. Instead I have built up a mental map of routes that are relatively free of motor vehicles for most of their length, and I tend to stick to them. It's taken some time, but I've now transferred that mental map to the Push Bikes map. The routes tend to be free of motor vehicles because there is something about them that makes them a poor choice for a through-journey in a motor vehicle but not on a bike. This short shared-use path in Germany hugely improves permeability for non-motor transportVery often the route will involve short sections of footpath, and that does mean ignoring pointless cycling prohibition orders, but provided one gives way to the few pedestrians encountered, the reception is mostly positive, and never negative. When I cycle in Germany I find that in general footpaths are made explicitly shared use (photo right), unless there is good reason not to. This is because it enables ordinary people to cycle rather than drive, since they feel safe. Cycling on such paths is slower than cycling on the carriageway, but the overall journey time will be less than the longer, purely on-carriageway alternative.

Such a map shows that there are acceptably safe ways of getting about the city on a bike that are available right now. It also highlights what needs to be done to improve connectivity. Most of these improvements are small, simple measures, such as signposting, dropped kerbs, and removing pointless prohibition orders. However, the map also highlights where measures are needed to get cyclists past a major barrier to cycling, such as a main road. This might require a short section of segregation, but a short section carefully chosen will be much cheaper and more cost effective than building a segregated route along the entire length of a major road. It will also be less problematic politically. Note that I say past a barrier. That's because performing the exercise of creating this map is an exercise in the unravelling of transport modes, a key part of cycle network design. You cannot achieve that if you think solely in terms of routes along main roads, because that's where the motor vehicles will be. Moreover, since Birmingham's main radial routes are fairly lengthy, for most people new to cycling they are to a large degree irrelevant, as people who are new to cycling will mainly use their bikes for short journeys. And it's those people who are not yet cycling but who have expressed an interest that we need to help the most, because they have to overcome that first and most difficult hurdle, getting on a bike and riding. Once we have a significant cohort of people who are cycling, then we can turn our attention to the heavy engineering needed to dramatically and fundamentally change our infrastructure, as the Dutch have already done.

The city council has of course produced a cycle map. Whilst it is useful and delightfully clear, some of the roads highlighted are unpleasant for cycling, either because they are busy with motor vehicles, or because they lead you somewhere that is. The first of these is often the result of the road being a rat-run. This wont be obvious when you look at the map, but it will be obvious when you come to cycle it. My own routes mostly avoid rat-runs. If I encounter problems, I re-route. Where I encounter a main road, I try to make sure it is at an offset crossroads (for easy lane-taking), and preferably near a pedestrian crossing for the not-so-brave, so you shouldn't find yourself suddenly in heavy traffic with no remotely acceptable means of continuing. Additionally, the city council map of necessity only shows legal routes. My map shows routes which are illegal but which in practice can be ridden if you are especially considerate to legitimate users. These routes could be made legal with relatively little effort, and experience from abroad suggests that this wouldn't result in mass pedestrian deaths and injuries, let alone the end of the universe.

You can find the network of quiet routes on our map. It is overlaid on the Open Cycle Map, so you can see how it links with official cycle routes (such as NCN5). Click on any individual section to find out more, including lists of issues that need to be resolved. If you would like to contribute your own sections (outside the area that has been mapped already), Push Bikes would welcome that. As you can see, it would not take many volunteers to create a cycle network map for the whole of Birmingham.