Analysis of the Survey of Local Election Candidates

For the council elections Push Bikes carried out a survey of the views of candidates on sustainable personal transport. The results of that survey were in many ways encouraging, but they also revealed a lack of knowledge about the better ways in which things are done elsewhere.

The two main parties seem to want to effect change without changing anything, and one seeks to do it without spending any significant money; this is clearly impossible. The problems resulting from congestion that we have in Birmingham are created by our outdated infrastructure. The Dutch have already shown that a change from "motor city" infrastructure to sustainable infrastructure makes for a far more pleasant place to live. If we don't change how we do things, we will never see that benefit in this country. Push Bikes survey questions were founded on what we have learned by studying what the Dutch have done.

Out of the national parties, only UKIP gave no response.

Birmingham Connected

Cycle facilities at Kiel station, Germany
Cycle facilities at Kiel station, Germany. Extensive uncovered cycle parking is also provided in the immediate area. Local bus services run from here, and coaches run from opposite the main station entrance. Ferries operate from the adjacent harbour.

Candidates were familiar with the white paper and in general recognised the need for change. However, the Green Party's objection to HS2 is surprising. The Birmingham rail network is very congested. If we want more local trains we have to remove the long distance trains from the local rail network, as local trains need to stop at every station whilst long distance trains need to be free to travel at speed between much more distant stations. Additionally, if more people travelled the bulk of their long distance journeys by train rather than by car (encouraged by the shorter journey times), then a proportion of the local journeys at either end can be made by bike, relieving local road congestion. This is what happens on the continent, which is why you find at stations huge cycle parks and bike hire and repair services. It would be good to see parties calling for a faster roll-out of high speed rail across the country to allow us to catch up with continental practice, and campaigning for improved cycle carriage and better facilities at stations.


25% of car journeys in Birmingham are under one mile, a fact we know from the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan, the green paper on which Birmingham Connected was based. Most journeys of under a mile could easily be undertaken on a bike (and indeed most journeys within Birmingham can be cycled in a reasonably short length of time). On the continent people are already doing this, and we know from that the benefits that accrue. So why do so few people cycle here?

  I have to confess that although I possess a bike I'm not a great cyclist mainly because of my fears in relation to other road traffic - Stephen McCabe MP responding to Vote Bike  

This has in fact been revealed in survey after survey, yet in this country we have always tried to encourage cycling by printing leaflets telling people they will be perfectly safe if only they assert themselves on the carriageway. It might be cheap, but it doesn't work. Neither does a bit more money spent on training. Training certainly helps those people who have made the decision to cycle, but most of the population wont make that decision because of their own "fears in relation to other road traffic". It should be blindingly obvious that the only way people will cycle is if the traffic is removed from the spaces where people want to cycle. That is exactly what continental countries have done, and that is why they have high levels of cycling. The number of journeys they see undertaken by bike is directly proportional to what degree motorised traffic is kept away from cyclists, and that in turn is proportional to how much money they have spent on infrastructure. Although money has to be spent up front, it generates a return on investment of around 300%.

The Germans spend around €10 per head per year on cycling infrastructure, but they already have quite a bit of it. The Dutch spend €25 per head per year on cycling infrastructure, but they already have substantial amounts of it. Trondheim is spending €75 per head per year because they want to catch up with the Dutch. To achieve what the Dutch have achieved over the past 40 years, we need to spend more than they do, not less. Richard Burden, the Shadow Transport minister, offered "to re-allocate £89 million from within the roads budget to an active travel fund". This sounds like a big number until you do the simple calculation and discover it equates to £1-37 per head (per year?). That is clearly far too little.

Bikes move more people per hour than cars
Cycling infrastructure encourages people to cycle, and that frees up space for journeys that have to be made by car.

The Conservatives say they will only support funding if the money is spent on schemes that do not take away space from motorists, on the grounds that doing so creates congestion. Clearly they are unaware that proper cycling infrastructure reduces congestion, because it allows many more journeys to be made in the same space. However, proper cycling infrastructure means quick, direct, and safe infrastructure. If cycling is rendered slow and laborious by directing people on circuitous routes along narrow paths, and/or those paths feel lonely and threatening, most people simply wont do it. They also wont do it if the cycle network is too sparse, yet there is insufficient spare land available in Birmingham to create a dense off-road cycle network. The Dutch take the view that there is too little space in cities for spatially inefficient cars, and have done the the exact opposite to what the Conservatives propose. By this means they have reduced congestion and made their environment far more pleasant than here. We should do what is known to work, not the opposite.

Birmingham is currently spending £10 per head per year on cycling infrastructure, so whilst much better than what was on offer from the national Labour Party, the Dutch will be accelerating away from us. Thankfully the local candidates had higher ambition, though Krystyna Mikula-Deegan of the National Health Action Party thought "in the current financial climate, it might be difficult to obtain £10 per person". We spend far more than that on new road schemes that clog up with cars in a few years. Richard Burden has recognised where the funding comes from, he just hasn't reflected the sum needed. It may be popularist to put money into road building to alleviate congestion, but a proper analysis shows it is the wrong thing to do.

Crossing Times

A number of candidates gave very anglocentric answers to our question about making crossings respond rapidly to pedestrian and cyclist demand. They are worried about the impact it will have on "traffic", but failed to recognise that pedestrians and cyclists are traffic. They are also clearly unaware that toucan crossings create problems with traffic flow, because they are a poorly engineered compromise solution.

In The Netherlands the nearest equivalent to the toucan crossing also has one set of light boxes for motor vehicles, but cyclists and pedestrians are segregated and each is given their own button box and aspects. Thus the crossing controller knows if it is a cyclist, a pedestrian, or both who wish to cross, and can set the aspects and timing appropriately. In the video below the pedestrian crossing is to the immediate left of the cycle crossing, and follows the line of the slabbed path.

Notice how a Dutch crossing is both quick and responsive. As a result nobody is delayed any more than is absolutely necessary, no matter what form of transport they are using. No large queue of motorised traffic forms on the link road being crossed. The crossing takes advantage of the fact that cycles move quickly to cut the green cycle phase to a minimum. Obviously pedestrians take longer to cross, so they are given their own crossing with an appropriately long green, but the crossing will still respond quickly to the button press. If the road is wide enough that it would require an excessively long green pedestrian phase, the crossing will be made multi-stage, but each stage will still respond quickly to the button press.

British toucan crossings often insert a delay after the button is pressed, on the basis that it gives time for people to congregate and then all cross at once, and in the false belief it will reduce delays for "traffic" (ie motorised traffic, pedestrians and cyclists being regarded as somehow less important). Whilst this sometimes happens, very often it does not and the person who pressed the button has to wait pointlessly. It can take eight minutes to cross a British road fitted with a multi-stage toucan crossing. Some people will give up and cross in the first gap, and as a result motorists are brought to a halt for an empty crossing. People quickly learn that the crossings are unresponsive, and so a proportion choose to ignore the technology altogether, or press the button in case it turns out to be useful and immediately cross. Crossing without the technology defeats the safety advantages of having a controlled crossing, and risks lengthy costs and delays whilst the emergency services deal with the consequences.

Note how long the British crossing spends on the green pedestrian and cycle phase, causing motorists to become impatient and motor traffic to back up whilst no-one is on the crossing. This length of time is necessary because the toucan crossing is a compromise solution. It must be set to allow for a crossing full of slow pedestrians (who have all dutifully congregated during the initial pause), but it may only be operating for one cyclist who crosses the road in under three seconds.

These two videos show how it is the British infrastructure that is slow and obstructive for everyone, not the responsive Dutch infrastructure. Of course if you make a relatively slow form of travel like cycling or walking even slower, it should be no surprise that people prefer to drive their cars and make use of the superior top speed and acceleration (as did one driver in the video) to compensate. That is why Push Bikes is calling for crossings to be as responsive as Dutch crossings.

20mph Speed Limits and Filtered Permeability

Road closed with a planter, creating filtered permeability
Experimental filtered permeability created with a planter (Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign).

In general candidates accept the need to reduce speed limits in order to make our roads less hostile. 20mph speed limits are, however, not a complete solution, but rather part of a package of changes to quieten streets. Another part of the same package is filtered permeability, because closing a road to through motor traffic whilst keeping it open to non-motorised traffic means less motor traffic will use it, yet many candidates showed a lack of knowledge of the reasons for closing roads to motorised through traffic. This removal of motor traffic from roads where it is not wanted to roads designed to take it is how other countries have freed up huge amounts of space for cycling for minimal cost. Cyclists are still riding on the carriageway, but the small number of motor vehicles sharing the same carriageway are not regarded as threatening, and that improvement in subjective safety is what encourages people to cycle.

Unfortunately some of the respondents to the survey talk of other ways to reduce rat-running. In the UK that generally means measures such as pinch-points and speed cushions. Such techniques do nothing to reduce traffic, but create all sorts of problems, including being life-threatening to cyclists. Filtered permeability has none of these problems.

Labour says road closures should demonstrate value for money, and that there should be an identifiable road safety issue. There is no means of measuring value for money of a single road closure. The value for money comes about because creating filtered permeability encourages people to cycle and walk, which reduces congestion and improves health, both of which save money. Safety comes in three forms, and if, like Labour, you only consider objective safety, people wont cycle. Forty years ago the Dutch also resisted road closures, but they've moved on and now our road network is three times more dangerous to vulnerable road users compared with the Netherlands. We will only start fixing our road safety problems when we recognise we have a problem, and to do that, we need to look abroad.

It's worth adding that cul-de-sacs are enormously popular, and houses in cul-de-sacs command a premium. Ask anyone who lives in one "Would you like it opened up to through traffic?" and they will say "No". Yet getting people who live in through-roads to see the benefit of living in a cul-de-sac can be challenging. One simple way of doing it is with the aid of planters. They can arrive on a flat-bed construction lorry, and if people don't like the result they can be taken away in minutes.

Small Projects

It's good to see that candidates said they will support small projects, because Push Bikes is cataloguing the small things that can be done to remove road blocks to cycling. A sizeable chunk of this is being determined by mapping cycle-friendly routes and noting down anything that currently makes those routes awkward to cycle. These routes are of course mostly on-carriageway, which is why we need to see the measures described above. The question is, will those who are elected fulfil their promises, or will they put their efforts into finding excuses for leaving things as they are? Change doesn't come about by doing nothing.