My helmet is in a right state. I get around on parts in need of a good oiling. My handling is a little on the stiff side. But, more often than not, there’s nothing I like more than a good ride.
As a cyclist, with an unfortunate penchant for weak innuendo, I prefer to begin my working day sweatily breathless.
Admittedly, the alternative is to begin my working day breathlessly angry as the city’s public transport system habitually drives me to distraction rather than my desired destination. Therefore, it’s a bit of a necessity that I’m happy to pedal to my paymasters. I have to like bike.
The problem is, Birmingham has never appeared to like bike. That’s why last week’s Birmingham Post story of an improved city cycle strategy should be greeted with a cautious air-punch.
OK. Before I’m accosted by angry, tweed-wearing historians telling me that Birmingham is steeped in cycle history, I know that by 1900 Birmingham had the largest number of bicycle and bicycle accessory firms in the UK. The state of play a century ago, however, means nowt to me when my 2012 commute to work is as comfortable as a conversation between David Cameron and Dappy.
Let me take you on a journey – come on, it’ll be like I’m giving you a backie. My most direct commute to work goes through Moseley and Kings Heath (not too bad), into Acocks Green (where bikes are as welcome as Hurricane Sandy) onto the Grand Union Canal towpath. Brilliant, you may think – a canal towpath!
That’s where you cyclists belong, out of cars’ way, at one with nature and in touch with our city’s industrial history – that’s what you may say. The reality, sadly, is a lot muddier; so much so, I’d suggest the best way to negotiate this potentially useful Birmingham -Solihull path is by Sherman tank. After that, it’s just a simple cycle along a country road which apparently doubles as a testing track for a new land speed record attempt.
Delightfully, if you reverse this route for the journey home, approximately nine miles of the route is completely unlit – as a result, I’m eating a helluva lot of carrots.
I accept that my commute isn’t indicative of that for the hundreds of others getting to work on bike. But my commute is still rubbish, I know it should be better and reckon the majority of cyclists hold similar opinions. That’s that.
That’s why, at first glance of the Birmingham Post’s report on the city’s bike strategy, I wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed. Whether you call them ‘Boris’ or ‘Bore’ bikes, the fact remains city-wide bike hire is not going to improve cycling in Birmingham. If a scheme like that is to work, the infrastructure needs to be in place beforehand – in other words: better, safer cycle routes, improved connections and a collective improved attitude towards cycling.
On further reading of the strategy though, it evidently marks a new civic approach to cycling.
You could sense there was a (gear) change in the air when news emerged of city councillors taking a cycle tour round Birmingham, to raise awareness of the benefits of biking – it may have had the air of a Boris-style stunt, but there was hint of sincerity around this jaunt. In the summer, we’d already seen the appearance of a Tube-map style cycle route around Brum, which colourfully demonstrated the city was better connected than you might think.
There was the ‘Be Active by Bike’ initiative, which extended the already-excellent Be Active scheme. Best of all, we began to see further fruits from the Bike North Birmingham initiative, which has seen money pumped into making Erdington and Sutton Coldfield cycle-friendly.
Now we have ‘Bike Birmingham: A Sustainable City’s Cycling Strategy’. And it’s not bad. It gives some encouraging examples of work already underway to improve cycle routes into the city centre.
It has clear(ish) plans about the facilities needed to encourage cycling, such as centrally based changing areas and secure cycle hubs. It shows some much needed joined-up thinking, especially with the business community and health services: there’s plenty of worthwhile evidence to show the link between wellbeing and exercise can be improved by regular cycling – and employers know a healthy workforce often means less sickness and better morale.
Clearly health and wellbeing can take a bit of a knock when you’re being knocked off a bike – and that’s perhaps one of the strategy’s weaknesses. As a city beholden to motor transport, many Birmingham drivers see cyclists as, at best, an irrelevance. Until this mentality shifts, and we see the associated bike accident figures fall, the cycling strategy is going to be up against it.
For the strategy to really work though, there needs to be a culture change around cycling in the West Midlands. Birmingham, as the transport hub of the region, probably needs to lead the way. But with so many commuters travelling in from the likes of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, plans need to be in place to ensure connectivity reaches way beyond the Outer Circle bus route.
All in all though, and it’s rare a miseryguts like me has an optimistic view on anything, it looks like cycling round Birmingham is set to improve in the next few years. I’m so enthused, you might even see me pulling a wheelie in excitement.
Nnaturally, if you do see the aftermath of this sight, please call for an ambulance as a matter of urgency.
* Keith Gabriel is a Birmingham-based PR account manager