Birmingham City University and Planning for Future Cycling Levels.

Computer generated visualisation of the new city centre BCU campus.

Back in June we reported that planning applications for student accommodation in Birmingham were saying that Birmingham City Council (BCC) planning officers were permitting them to provide fewer cycle parking spaces than BCC planning guidelines called for. Push Bikes contacted BCC to ask (again) why this was happening, and to point out that if BCC are planning for an increase in the modal share of cycling in Birmingham, then more, rather than less, cycle parking would be needed. So, here we are in September now, and another planning application, this time for part of Birmingham City University's new campus at Millennium Point, has yet again cited BCC planning officers as accepting lower levels of cycle parking than called for in BCC guidelines. (The consultation closes on the 10th September. You can find the application and submit responses through the BCC planning portal, using the application code 2015/06112/PA, and the documents for this planning application can be found here.)

Section 5.5.4 of the planning statement for the BCU development states that BCC guidelines would require 214 cycle parking spaces to be provided, but they would only provide 70 new cycle parking spaces. BCC planning officers had already given permission for BCU to use BREEAM standards rather than BCC standards, which reduced the required number of spaces from 214 to 140, but as BREEAM standards allow "for the numbers to be reduced where sites have good transport links [and the] accessibility scoring allows for a 50% reduction in spaces." So, because there are good transport links around the BCU campus, they want to provide only half of the cycle parking spaces that the lower BREEAM standards call for, resulting in provision of only a third of the cycle parking spaces that BCC guidelines call for. Section 3.4.2 of the Transport Statement is clear on the thinking behind this: "... it is unlikely that there would be a demand for [the] level of cycle parking [required in BCC standards] so it has been agreed with the BCC planning and highways officers that cycle parking for Plot 2A will be provided in line with BREEAM standards." Let us be clear on this issue - developers will not try this kind of trick if planning officers make it clear that it won't work. This trickery is being attempted because BCC planning officers have repeatedly permitted developers to get away with providing cycle parking levels much lower than in BCC guidelines. 

Yet BCC continues to claim that they want to see an increase in cycling levels, and that the Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) will deliver a 10% modal share for cycling in 2033. This summer, the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority is consulting on the future of transport in the West Midlands region, with plans for a strategic regional cycle network which section 4.30 claims will consist of "high quality core cycle routes", delivering a modal share of 10% for cycling by 2035. (Note that this is 2 years later than BCR will deliver a 10% modal share in Birmingham, which is perhaps because this plan is being released 2 years after the BCR plan. Cycling heaven is always 20 years away in Birmingham.) If cycling levels increase from the under 2% level that we have now to 10% in 20 years time, where will all these extra cycle users park their cycles? Across Europe, student populations consistently have a higher cycling rate than the rest of the population, as cycling offers a cheap and convenient form of transport for cash-strapped students, so why do developers and BCC planning officers believe that Birmingham students will be exempt from the increased cycling rates?

The argument that these developments rely on is that they are close to the city centre and student accommodation, so that students will want to walk everywhere or take the excellent public transport that exists. However, from Millennium Point to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery at Victoria square is a 20 minute walk, and reaching the BCU campus in the Jewellery Quarter is a 35 minute walk. And to the City South BCU campus in Edgbaston, it is a 50 minute walk, and the campus in Bourneville even further still. I live a 15 minute walk from my work, which is on the edge of choosing to cycle or walk somewhere. If I have to walk more than 15 minutes, or if I am carrying more than a couple of books, I will cycle because it is faster and I can carry much more. I cycle to go to my local supermarket, despite it being a 5 minute walk, because I can carry much more shopping home much more comfortably. The arguments being put forward that Birmingham city centre is so small that no one would want to cycle are being made by people who clearly do not understand how cycles are used for local trips of up to 5 or 6 miles. As more people cycle, the modal share of cycling for trips of less than 5 miles will increase rapidly and Birmingham will be full of students making daily trips by cycle.

The Sustainable Transport Strategy document that BCU have submitted with their proposal tells a different story to the planning application transport plans. This lays out the results of research into what factors would encourage more students and staff at BCU to cycle for everyday journeys. 25% of BCU staff at their School of Jewellery cycle to work, despite only 38% of staff owning cycles, while 7% of staff at Millennium Point and the Conservatoire cycle to work, although cycle ownership levels are 50% and 59% respectively (pages 20 and 21). 27% of BCU staff said that better cycle infrastructure would encourage them to cycle more, while 16% identified secure cycle parking as important. Walking to work is highest for staff living less than 1 mile from their workplace, while the document states that cycling rates dropped as the distance that staff lived approached 10 miles. In comparison to the staff ownership of cycles, only 14% of students attending the School of Jewellery had cycles, and 4% of students at Millennium Point. Students also identified cycle routes as important to encourage them to cycle more, and storage facilities for equipment at the university after arriving on a cycle, as well as locations to park cycles. The Sustainable Transport Strategy then lays out plans to increase the levels of cycling to BCU, and states that "Surveys indicate that a relatively large number of staff and students cycle to City Centre Campus and numbers here are likely to increase significantly as staff and students are relocated from Perry Barr and eventually the old Conservatoire." (page 27). The Sustainable Transport Strategy then commits to increasing the levels of staff and students who cycle to the various BCU sites.

Here we have a planning application that proposes to build only one third of the cycle parking spaces stipulated by BCC's planning guidelines, but also praises the improvements in cycle infrastructure that BCR will bring, notes that cycle routes and storage are important for increasing cycling numbers and proposes that BCU should aim to increase cycling levels. This is a planning application with a schizophrenic approach to transport, both claiming that cycling levels won't and will increase. It would be comical if the effect was not to suppress demand for cycling by giving inadequate cycle parking provision for those people who want to cycle now and in the future. The built environment that we are delivering now will be with us in at least 20 if not 50 or 100 years time, and if we are serious about increasing the modal share of cycling, then it is that future we must plan for.

Response to the planning application 2015/06112/PA:

1. It is good to see that Birmingham City University is committing to increasing the numbers of staff and students who cycle to their various campuses around Birmingham. The scheme to provide a pool of hire bikes for students and staff who want to try out cycling is very admirable, and will give people uncertain if they want to invest in a cycle and use it to get around, a low-commitment option. It is also good that Dr Bike and training sessions will be offered to staff and students, but it is important that these continue even after the LSTF funds run out in 2016. The provision of lockers and showers for staff and students is also welcome.

2. Because of the commitments mentioned above, it is deeply disappointing that this planning application believes that an increase in cycle use is unlikely at the site and is proposing a level of cycle parking provision that is only one third of that required by BCC planning guidelines. BCU surveys of staff and students find that a lack of cycle parking is one of the factors that discourages people from cycling, so it is important that higher levels of cycle parking are provided from the very start. These buildings will be in use for at least the next 20 years, and should be designed with the BCR target of a 10% modal share in cycling in Birmingham in mind, therefore they must provide at least the minimum level of cycle parking that is required by BCC guidelines, not BREEAM guidelines.

3. It is good to see that secure cycle parking is being provided for staff and students who will be parking their cycles for extended periods of time. However, it is also important to provide cycle parking for short term stay, for example for visitors to BCU and students who are only going to one class. Short term cycle parking needs to be in visible locations next to entrances, but the plans submitted do not show any cycle parking next to the entrance of the building. Therefore, the extra cycle parking that is required by BCC cycle parking guidelines should be provided as a mix of further secure cycle parking plus sufficient short-term cycle parking facilities next to all entrances to the building.

4. It would be good if the BCU website provided details of how to cycle between the various BCU campuses ( rather than only providing information for driving or taking public transport. There should be a cycle map of recommend routes provided in addition to the map showing only public transport links. In addition, information should be provided on the BCU website about the pool of hire bikes so that staff and students know how to access them if they are travelling between BCU's different campuses.