“I recently took my two-year-old daughter on the back of my bike for a short ride,” explains Peter Edwards. “A car came roaring up behind me at speed so I turned to say ‘slow down, I have a child’ to which he responded with a tirade of abuse.”
The keen cyclist, who works in sustainable travel in Birmingham, says the driver pulled up alongside him. “It really shook me up – he could have harmed my daughter being that close. This happens fairly regularly when I am on my own.”
With no segregated cycling lanes and a lot of traffic, Edwards experiences near misses and close passes regularly, despite considering himself a “quick and competent” cyclist. “I don’t allow it to put me off, but if other people experience these frightening situations I can completely understand why they would give up,” he says. “I think this is why we see so few women, older people and children cycling in the city.”
Once famous for the production of bicycles – Hercules Cycle and Motor Company, founded in the city in 1910, was the world’s biggest manufacturer of bikes at the end of 1930s – Birmingham has significantly fallen behind in the ranks of cycling. In the government’s latest statistics, released January 2018, the West Midlands had the lowest proportion of people cycling at least once a week, at just 9%, (in comparison, 57% of people in Cambridge went out on their bike once a week and 27% of people in York).
The government statistics echo an in-depth 2017 report, which found that just 3% of Birmingham residents regularly ride. Over 65s, women, and black and ethnic minority communities were under-represented in this figure, the Sustrans’ Bike Life report found.
Yet people say they would like to cycle - 56% said they’d like to start riding a bike and 73% said Birmingham would be a better place to live and work if more people did.
So what’s stopping the city getting on its bike? The overwhelming reason is safety. Just 22% think cycling in Birmingham is safe and only 16% think it is safe for families.
Mark Smith, 60, who has been cycling for as long as he can remember, says he often leaves the city if he’s on his bike. “It’s definitely not safe,” he says. “Edgbaston has been turned into a 20-mile per hour ‘safe’ speed but no one obeys it. In the city, most of the roads are dreadful.” Instead Smith heads out to the countryside to enjoy a ride. “I don’t think the council are really serious about cycling as a means of transport,” he says.
People want to see more investment, including protected roadside lanes even when that means less space for other road traffic, argues Gavin Passmore, Midlands partnerships manager at Sustrans. “The perception of safety and the lack of dedicated cycle lanes across the city are the main reasons people do not cycle here,” he says.
In fact, moves are being made to try and increase the number of people cycling in the city. In terms of infrastructure, 2.5 miles of a busy commuter route is currently being made into a two-way, fully segregated cycleway, stretching from Selly Oak and the University of Birmingham campus to the city centre.
And in September, the largest bike share scheme outside London will launch, with 2,000 bikes available to rent across Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. The initiative, launched by Nextbike UK Ltd, will cost members £30 a year, and expand to Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull in early 2019.
The council also introduced Birmingham Cycle Revolution in 2013 with the aim of making cycling an everyday way to travel in Birmingham. The council would like to see 5% of all trips in the city to be made by bike by 2023, doubling to 10% by 2033. To get the ball rolling, the council set up Big Birmingham Bikes, giving free bikes to eligible Birmingham residents. To date, residents in the most deprived wards of Birmingham have been given 4,000 bikes.
Marcia Bell, who runs Joyful Bellas and Fellas – a community cycling club that runs from Big Birmingham Bike hubs across the city – has noticed the changes to cycling in the city. She says it wasn’t until quite recently that she felt confident travelling on the busy roads around Birmingham. ”What many people forget is that there is a huge leap from knowing how to ride a bike to feeling confident on one,” she says. “And, without the correct training and encouragement you can be put off quite easily.”
Bell says the increase in group cycling seems to have boosted the confidence of women she cycles with: “You can tell that all of the women who attend feel more active and happier in themselves since joining,” she says. “To encourage more women to cycle on a regular basis – we need to foster an environment whereby they feel it’s more convenient and safe to hop on a bike than get in a car.”
There is still some way to go before Birmingham becomes a haven for cyclists. “Cycling is for everyone, but our city lacks the infrastructure needed to encourage more women to cycle,” says Bell. “Birmingham has made great steps, but still needs to make it simpler and safer for all types of people to cycle, whether they are passengers in a cargo bike, mothers with panniers full of groceries or those riding for leisure.”
Edwards says despite the city spending money on improving canals (which are a useful route for some but not during the winter), the city needs more safe spaces for cycling. “You need to ask ‘would I ride this with my child or my gran?’,” he says. “If the answer is ‘no’, then it isn’t good enough. It needs to be separated from traffic and go where people want to go. That is the only way you will get more people cycling.”
Are you a cyclist in Birmingham? What do you think needs to be done to improve cycling in the city? I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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