Birmingham’s cycle revolution

Annual Congress X – Health, Happiness & Wellbeing

Michael Parkinson – Partner, Peter Brett Associates

Michael Parkinson (Peter Brett Associates LLP) and George Daugherty (Design Manager, Birmingham Cycle Revolution; and Peter Brett Associates LLP) kicked off their workshop on The Role of Cycling in City Centres by asking participants to share their experiences of cycling. From comparisons between motorist awareness of cycling in rural Scotland and urban Amsterdam, and along the route from Reading into London; praise of the off-road cycleway provision in continental Europe; a noted growth in cycling in London since the 2007 bombings; and discussion about the different cycle cultures of Seville and Vancouver, a central theme running through all experiences was that of cycle safety.

In line with the powerful figures stated by Rachel Toms (Programme Leader, Cabe at Design Council) earlier in the day, in her ‘Active By Design’ talk – that cyclists are still 50 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured per billion kilometres travelled than car drivers – the relative danger of cycling, or at least the perception thereof, is clearly a major factor in peoples’ decision to cycle.

One participant noted that if we want to encourage people to cycle – we need to make it safer. He spoke of groups of mothers and young people who had written to him to say that they would love to cycle to school but currently do not as there are no safe routes, hence his on-going campaigning for off-road ‘cycling for all’. Another participant stated that although her job focuses on the implementation of urban walking and cycling projects, she is too nervous to actually cycle in her home city of Glasgow. Unlike in her native Jamaica, where it is unsafe to cycle as bike theft is commonplace, she feels the UK’s roads and motorists make cycling too dangerous. So, if cycling is (perceived to be) so unsafe, then why encourage more cycling? Because the urban benefits of increased cycling range from the spatial to the environmental, and from the social to the economic.

With limited space in city centres, cycling can transform the urban experience. Encouraging more cycling in and to city centres could enable a reduction in the amount of space given over to car parking and wide vehicular routes, and in turn, an increase in that for urban citizens. In addition, more people cycling would result in less congested transport networks.

A move away from motorised transport towards more cycling would also be significant in both environmental and public health terms. Even though air pollution has been improving since the 1970s, pollution levels are still above those deemed to be ‘safe’ by the World Health Organisation. In addition to the health implications of poor air quality, inactive travel is also contributing to a range of lifestyle-related diseases that are threatening wellbeing in the UK, including childhood obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. With just over 25% of people meeting the government’s recommended amount of physical activity each week (150 minutes), encouraging people towards active travel (i.e. incorporating activity into their daily habits), could have a huge impact on public health.

Moreover, with air pollution currently costing the UK £10.6bn per annum; physical inactivity costing £9.8bn; and road collision costing £8.7bn, encouraging cycling could also have economic advantages.

The workshop touched on what we can learn from European cities – from coordinated governance, long-term policy making, ring-fenced cycle funding, and on-going investment, to infrastructural interventions such as separated cycle lanes, cyclist traffic lights and new zebra crossings. The UK is clearly lagging behind many continental European countries in terms of its cycling rates and cycling provisions, but it was recognised that it will not necessarily take large amounts of investment and heavy infrastructure to change this – just the securing of some space for cyclists on our roads, and a little bit of time to catch up.

The session moved on to an examination of what is going on in Birmingham, with its so-called ‘Cycling Revolution’. Birmingham has been awarded £24m of funding via a Cycle City Ambition Grant. Between 2013-2016, funds will focus on providing 100km of new and improved cycle routes (including radial routes on main roads into the city centre, parallel routes on quieter streets, resurfacing of canal routes and towpaths and the creation of green routes and 20 mph zones), and later rounds of funding will enable the consolidation and extension of these routes across and around the city. In parallel, cycle parking around the city will be increased; a bike scheme implemented and cycle training sessions for children will be available.

In the closing discussion, thoughts came back to safety, and the need for a ‘normalisation’ of cycling. In the UK, cycling is seen to be for cycle enthusiasts, rather than for everyone, and so by making streets safe for children to cycle on, and getting children out on their bikes – such as through the cycle training sessions in Birmingham – the UK may finally get its cycle revolution or at very least an evolution.

Words by Young Urbanists




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