On Tuesday evening (11th September) we attended the bi-monthly Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) stakeholders' meeting to find out about progress with the BCR programme and other developments in Birmingham connected with cycling. There's quite a list - so use the in-text links below to jump to the sections that you are interested in. Before I launch into the details, there is just one thing I want to highlight. I have to admit that I had been worried that the building of good quality on-road infrastructure would come to an end as the money for the BCR programme ran out. Although some money from central government had been secured for the Pershore Road / Priory Road junction, I wasn't aware of anything else that was in the pipeline. We had hoped that the Sprint Rapid Transit works would enable some cycling infrastructure to be put in, but there didn't seem to be enough money for that either. So I was very happy to find out that we were going to discuss the extension of the cycle infrastructure on the A34 past Heathfield Road.
The Commonwealth Games are going to dominate decisions about transport in Birmingham for the next few years - and it was mentioned in the meeting that the people involved with that are excited about the new A34 and A38 cycle routes. Obviously, Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr will be a main venue for the games, and a good quality safe cycle route from there to the city centre will be very welcome, but the University of Birmingham will also host a few of the events, and so the cycle route down to there will be important too. If building cycle infrastructure makes Birmingham look good in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, then perhaps the next few years won't be disappointing.
For the A38 route, the current estimate for completion is February 2019. The main junction of Belgrave Middleway / Bristol Road is almost complete, with a wide protected cycle track going straight across. Several of the other junctions on the route have had work started, but the Bristol Road / Priory Road junction hasn't been started yet. Most of the cycle track between the University of Birmingham, along the central reservation to the Priory Road junction has been started, but none of it has the final blue surface laid down yet. The blue surface will be laid later on, as it seems that they have to mix up the batches in quite large volumes and so need to do large stretches all at once.
The A34 route is further along than the A38, although the only section that has had a blue surface laid is the end opposite Aston University. Long sections of the cycle track have been finished apart from the final surface, but there have been delays including "uncharted statutory undertakers services". The estimated completion is now early 2019. The work at Newtown Row junction has been finished though, if you want to have a look at an example of a cycle track being taken across a major road junction. Birmingham has been more ambitious with several road junctions than most other cities in the UK. The DfT has released a report this month looking at the costs of different types of cycle infrastructure. The section on remodelling of major junctions includes a scheme at Hambrook junction in Bristol, which while it is impressive, has mainly shared-use sections, and a roundabout in Oxford has been widely criticised by cycle campaigners. I assume that Birmingham's junctions were too late to be included in the report, but there are hardly any other major road junctions in the UK which have been remodelled to take a segregated high-quality cycle track across.
We also discussed the options for continuing the A34 route past Heathfield Road, up to the large roundabout where the A4040 outer ring road crosses the A34. In the local centre, the BCR team have identified that there is enough space on the east side to install a high-quality segregated cycle track, but on the west side, the pavement outside the shops is too narrow for even a shared use path. But from the Heathfield Road junction up to Canterbury Road, there are two sections where the pavement is quite restricted by private houses facing onto the A34. The BCR team are keen that they build as much high-quality segregated cycle track as possible, and that they keep the route running along the A34. I think that it is likely that there will have to be some compromises, with the route crossing to the east side of the A34 at Heathfield Road, and then having a couple of sections of shared-use pavement before a longer, more continuous, stretch of cycle track north from Canterbury Road.
The BCR team are also working on taking the cycle track up along the A34 to Alexander Stadium and possibly up along the A453 in the direction of Sutton Coldfield. We hope that we will see some of those plans in the next meeting in November.
The 20 mph area from Hagley Road down to Stirchley has had all the signage installed, with some minor snagging works going on now. The Traffic Regulation Order has gone through statutory consultation and it should be formalised at the end of September. This might be on the 24th September, and we were told that there has been a week of activity planned around that to publicise the new speed limit. There will be a review later this year of the impacts of the initial 20 mph areas, to inform the development of future plans for further 20 mph areas.
The current hold-up with the roll-out of the cycle hire scheme has been connected with technical issues around Pay as You Go with the integration of Nextbike UK's systems with the West Midlands' Swiftcard system. This took longer than expected, but it is hoped that it should be ready in the next week or two. Once those issues have been resolved, the contract with Nextbike UK should be signed, and at that point the first docks will be installed in a few days. The first docks will be installed around the University of Birmingham, as dock locations had already been identified and planned out last year when UoB made a bid for a different scheme. Following that, docks should be installed in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry city centres in October and November. Getting the payment system for the cycle hire linked up with the Swiftcard payment system will be very important for the integration of public transport and the cycle hire scheme, so the delays now are worth it.
During the Commonwealth Games, temporary docking stations are being looked at to meet increased demand at various venues. Although most visitors are expected to use public transport and specially buses, there should also be strong demand for the cycle hire schemes, especially where there are clear and safe cycle routes available.
We discussed the issue of safety on green routes and canals with the BCR team, following the recent attacks in Cannon Hill Park. Although the police are able to focus resources where incidents have taken place, policing green spaces is a significant challenge, and many parks still have signs saying that they are closed after dusk, due to fears over safety. It is clear that the canal tow paths and green routes do not provide cycle routes that are usable 24 hours a day - unlike cycle tracks along main roads. They provide a very good leisure network and are also used for practical journeys during the day, but there needs to be network of routes that can be used at anytime of day or night. We were reassured that the planning process for the Birmingham network that is a required part of the Local Cycling and Walking Investment Plan is taking into account social safety and the need for routes that can be used 24 hours a day. I am concerned that there may be many councillors who believe that the canal towpaths and green routes are sufficient provision for cycle users, and we will continue to strongly argue that we must have routes that are socially safe and usable even in the middle of the night.
Most of the green routes have been finished now, with sections in Castle Bromwich Hall & Gardens and Lyndon Playing Fields / Yardley Cemetery scheduled to finish this month. Solihull MBC will be completing their parts of those schemes over the winter, ready for spring 2019. A bridge for the Bourn Brook at the end of Woodgate Valley Country Park has been ordered and is currently being made. That should be installed by the end of this year.
A couple of canal access schemes have been completed at Lincoln Road, Yardley and Pershore Road, Kings Norton. Schemes at Brookvale Road, Witton and one at Perry Barr should start soon. Two access schemes present more challenges: next to the new Sense building in Selly Oak; at Northbrook Street, Ladywood. Progress is good with the scheme in Selly Oak, although some options for additional funds are being looked at. At Northbrook Street, there have been issues with the stability of the land at the site. The canal is at the bottom of a deep cutting at this point, with the remains of the bridge that took the railway from Harborne across the canal to join the main railway line into the city centre. Stabilising the ground here could be a considerable challenge.
The second phase of cycle parking within the middle ring road will be installed by the end of the year, with an extra 450 cycle parking spaces across the Jewellery Quarter, Ladywood, Lee Bank, Southside and Eastside. Over summer there was another consultation on cycle parking at another 41 locations across the city, with installation perhaps early next year. There have been ongoing discussions over the past couple of years about the installation of secure covered cycle parking at University Station, but the complexities of land ownership and maintenance agreements were too much. We were told that University Station is expected to undergo significant redevelopment in preparation for the Commonwealth Games and cycle parking facilities will hopefully be included as part of that.
The issue of barriers on green routes is something that has been an issue for a long time. We have drawn up a list of locations with barriers and have asked the BCC Parks Service about those barriers. At the last BCR stakeholders meeting in July, we asked if we could be shown what assessment of the impact of barriers on people with disabilities had been made. At this meeting we received a response to our queries.
BCC Parks Service receive many complaints from park users about illegal access to parks by off-road motorbikes, scramblers and quad bikes. There are several locations where local users report significant problems, and there are claims that these issues are connected with attacks and robberies, as well as being anti-social behaviour. There is considerable pressure put on the Parks Service by local users who do not feel safe and want the problem of illegal motor vehicle use dealt with. Sustrans guidance on cycle routes does say that the use of access controls could be appropriate in areas where there is misuse by motor vehicles. The Parks Service say that while they do liaise with police about hot spot areas, they are increasingly focused on making the boundaries of the parks and green spaces secure, including through the use of effective access controls on entrances. Pressures on police budgets make it difficult for the them to provide the same support in hot spot areas as they could in the past.
In response to our query about disability impact assessments, the Parks Service argue that putting in barriers that are necessary to protect the health and safety of all users is not discriminatory as it is a "proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim." Although barriers will exclude some people, if those barriers are also excluding illegitimate users who may endanger other users, then their use is acceptable. The 2010 Equality Act and 1995 Disability Discrimination Act require organisations to show that they have considered whether the proposals are a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim. Their response to us states that "K barriers, chicanes and stymie gates will only be used where there is a known problem or where other health and safety issues have been identified (in accordance with Sustrans and WM Cycle Design guidance)."
We appreciate this response from the Parks Service, but we have identified several locations where barriers on green routes can be easily by-passed by illegitimate users, and so which do not seem to be fit for purpose. We asked how we could engage with the Parks Service to have those barriers evaluated, and we were given the name of an officer who will be able to put us in contact with the relevant parks manager depending on the location of the barrier. Hopefully we will be able to make progress in having some of these barriers evaluated and removed.
One of the 'other health and safety' issues that seems to result in the use of barriers is where a green cycle route comes down an incline and meets a public road. In these situations, we often see green route design proposals that include a barrier to slow down cycle users. This use of barriers to slow down cycle users can also be found part way along some routes as well. Where speeds are an issue of a cycle track in the Netherlands, speed humps that only affect users going above a certain speed are used. We saw some examples of these when we went on a study tour in the north of the Netherlands, and they are comfortable to use at reasonable speeds. Also, barriers are not used at the junctions on public highways to stop motor vehicles, and so we do not see a legitimate reason for using barriers to stop cycle users exiting straight off a cycle track onto a public highway. I think that we have a strong case for objecting to barriers that are intended to slow down cycle users rather than prevent illegitimate access by motor vehicles.
We were also told that a 'Green Travel Taskforce' is in the process of being set-up, as per the recommendations made in the Birmingham Connected White Paper back in 2014. This will be made up of policy, strategy and delivery teams from within Birmingham City Council and Transport for West Midlands (up to 50% of the members), as well as other stakeholders. Cllr Olly Armstrong has been proposed to chair the group. The group will meet 3 to 4 times a year, and will have a strategic oversight on how BCC engage with stakeholders through regular groups such as the Local Access Forum and the BCR Stakeholders Advisory Group and targeted engagement for specific projects. One of the issues that they will be looking at is how to engage with local communities about green travel projects, as at the moment much of the engagement takes place with organisations such as Push Bikes who have experience with particular areas of sustainable transport but may not have immediate local knowledge or direct connections with local residents. Effectively engaging with local communities can be a considerable challenge, but buy-in from residents is very important for transport projects such as the liveable neighbourhoods schemes being developed across London.
The first meeting of the Green Travel Taskforce will be on Monday 22nd October at 3pm, with an open project night for the public to attend at the Impact Hub from 6.30pm. An annual Green Travel Summit (previously held in 2015 and 2016) is being planned for Monday 3rd December, from 9am to 1pm at the University of Birmingham.