Scrutinising Active Travel in Birmingham

Magnifying glass with a bicycle wheel in place of the lens

The Birmingham City Council Overview and Scrutiny Task and Finish Group is holding an inquiry into active travel in Birmingham, following criticism of slow progress. Push Bikes has made a submission, as have Better Streets for Birmingham and Living Streets. We welcome this timely inquiry where the Overview and Scrutiny Committee can make a significant contribution.

I am writing from a user perspective as someone who has cycled regularly in and across this City since 1973 and has also been involved in very many cycling, active travel and transport Summits, Forums and Stakeholder meetings with the Council since at least 2002.

How can Birmingham deliver Active Travel schemes quicker and make city roads safer for all users?

We are pleased to see that Birmingham’s Road Safety Strategy is to be reviewed. The current Strategy is out of date, inadequate in the face of current challenges and not ambitious enough. These points have been made very effectively by the Better Streets campaign in the face of recent tragedies which have been well publicised in local and national media and have generated widespread support. It is good to see that Birmingham Council, West Midlands Combined Authority and the West Midlands Police Force have promised combined urgent action to stop the epidemic of dangerous driving.

It is better to plan for Road Danger Reduction rather than “Road Safety”. Removing the threats to life through better street design and effective enforcement of traffic laws. Every City should be aiming for Vision Zero in road deaths as achieved in Stockholm and not just a percentage reduction in deaths and serious injuries. This will not be achieved by corralling pedestrians behind barriers with complex diversions and two or three stage, slow to respond, pedestrian and cycle crossings just to achieve marginally faster journeys for motorists. Some people will take risks and many others will be put off walking or cycling which means that all the health and environmental benefits of active travel won’t be realised.

All of this is well understood at a strategic level in the Birmingham Transport Plan. Reducing road danger and making walking and cycling a pleasant, safe and convenient form of transport is essential if we want to see more active travel for local journeys and reduced car use. It will also promote public transport if walking to the bus stop or train station doesn’t involve crossing dangerous junctions or dodging badly parked cars on cracked pavements.

The Birmingham Transport Plan is ambitious and in line with best urban practice world-wide. It needs to be delivered quickly to effect a change that will benefit safety, health, business and the reputation of the City. There is funding available for the West Midlands cities and good guidance and support from Active Travel England. While there has been a lot of improvement and learning since 2012, our experience of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution, the Road Safety Scheme at the Priory Rd/Pershore Rd junction, the Emergency Active Travel Fund Schemes and more recent Active Travel Fund schemes in the City is of frequent delay in delivery, a lack of attention to detail and some disappointing outcomes, and a lack of quality control and remedial action.

While there has been a lot to celebrate about improvements in cycling across the City, whole areas have been left out, for example the Hagley Rd corridor or much of East Birmingham. We are a long way short of a well signed network which would enable a visitor to hire a West Midlands bike and cycle between the City’s attractions, or major commercial, hospitality, educational destinations. In the City Centre walking has improved but cycling gets more difficult. Too often cycling routes are add-ons, diversions or compromises while much greater priority is given to the needs of the Metro system, motorists, developers etc.

Often final delivery is very slow as demonstrated by the decidedly sub-optimal route on Bradford Street which is apparently due to be revised but with nothing much happening.

What needs to be done?

Key lines of inquiry rightly focus on the process of funding, decision making, design, development and delivery. Other experts will be able to provide up to date information on these processes which should be well understood by now.

The Cycle City Ambition Grant funded the Birmingham Cycling Revolution and led the way in the West Midlands as intended while in Wolverhampton and Coventry progress had stalled. Birmingham led on LCWIPs and a Design Guide. It good to see recent progress in Coventry, Wolverhampton and now Sandwell. Having a Regional Cycling and Walking Commissioner has been beneficial as in London and Manchester.

Our experience suggest that the Active Travel Team have never had enough staff to confidently manage the complex processes involved from consultations, commissioning external consultants at the design stage and overseeing delivery.

Regular Stakeholder Meetings have been held throughout the last decade and we are very grateful for this. We have been kept well informed and been able to have input into plans and schemes. Push Bikes had endeavoured to respond to every consultation with expert user input.

However, too often Birmingham presents schemes in a top-down manner. Decisions have been made and proposals determined and then go out to consultation often in complex presentations which can be difficult for the general public to interpret or respond to. There are reasons for this - money has to be committed quickly e.g. with the Emergency Active Travel Fund, business cases prepared, consultants found etc. Brian Deegan now at Active Travel England developed a bottom-up “Beeline” approach in London and then Manchester where you start in the community and explore what would be needed in terms of filters and junction treatments to enable a trained 12-year-old to cycle to the main local destinations. This is an invigorating exercise although I don’t know if it’s been tried in the highly politicised context of 2022/3.

“Working as a single organisation” and in partnership with WMCA, WMPCC, Police, Health, Private Sector and Voluntary Organisations is a good principle which we would like to see put into practice. This is always difficult but essential. We don’t expect to see rivalry and tension between these public organisations and look for constructive relationships and shared delivery objectives for the public good. Recent official developments in response to the road violence epidemic are welcome and must be sustained with promises implemented and outcomes reported.

Every road and transport scheme should be supporting active travel. Too often as is shown recently in the Dudley Rd proposals a marginal improvement in a section of cycle infrastructure and bus lanes in accompanied by widening traffic lanes to accommodate more motor vehicles. In pursuit of marginal and temporary reductions in congestion. Quite dangerous junction “improvements” have been introduced like at the Longbridge roundabout and a cycle lane recently removed on the A47.

A comprehensive cycle network in a City of Birmingham’s size will take time but we have been waiting for a long while so we welcome the theme of “acceleration” in your Terms of Reference.

Certainly since 2013 with the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan and the publication of Changing Gear by a previous Transport and Connectivity Overview and Scrutiny Committee with cross-party support there has been no lack of ambition at a strategic political leadership level. The Birmingham Cycle Revolution and now the current Transport Plan embody Be Bold Birmingham. The election of a West Midlands Mayor in 2017 reinforced this consensus on the need for investment in public transport and active travel to improve safety, liveability and economic growth and prosperity across the West Midlands.

But the follow through to implementation often seems to be missing with a gap between the Council House and the officers working at Lancaster Circus or Woodcock Street. Ambition is fine but political will is also needed to engage with the public and staff and consultants through to delivery. This has improved under the last two Cabinet Transport Leads with better engagement between lead politicians and professional staff.