Safe crossings are a political choice

Image of crossroads with segregated cycle lanes allowing cycles and pedestrians to cross at the same time (Brian Deegan)

On Monday 16th October, there will be a slow roll and candlelight vigil in remembrance of cycle users killed on Birmingham's roads, most recently Suzanna Bull at the junction of Pershore Road and Priory Road. (Event page with details here) Push Bikes is helping to let people know about event.

I feel as if we have been here before. She had a bike, she was hit by a turning lorry, and even the photos of the flattened bike next to the halted lorry look familiar. These deaths are commonplace on the UK's roads, and we have become inured to them. Sometimes they intrude into the national media bubble, but not often, and usually only briefly. At work, despite knowing that I cycle, no-one this week has talked to me about this incident. Deaths on our roads are commonplace, and that makes them invisible.

The details of this particular crash are not clear, and all we can say with certainty was that it happened when the truck was turning left - I am going to avoid speculating further than that. Looking at national trends, however, we can agree that too many cycle deaths involve junctions and large motor vehicles who are turning. This junction, and the adjacent one of Bristol Road and Pershore Road, have been the focus of campaigning for more than 10 years now to install safe pedestrian crossings. The Bristol Road junction will finally receive those as part of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution, and money has been found to carry out an assessment of the Pershore Road junction, to recommend what further actions need to be taken. The money for any work on Pershore Road hasn't been found yet, though, and it is likely that it will be several years before any scheme could be designed, funded and built.

Major junctions without adequate crossing facilities are commonplace across Birmingham and the wider West Midlands. The needs of people walking and cycling are put after the needs of people in motor vehicles, and as a cycle campaigner, I am often reminded by councillors and officers that Birmingham City Council (BCC) has a duty to maintain the flow of motor traffic. That has long appeared to trump other considerations, even after Birmingham Connected was put forward to change those priorities in favour of road users when they are most vulnerable. Despite the hard work and effort that has gone into schemes like the A38 and the A34, there is still a lot of inertia in Birmingham City Council that resists change. Good work is happening despite the prevailing highways' priorities, not because of them.

Political leadership is vitally important in turning this around. For decades now, under administrations of all political parties, the direction set by councillors was pro-car. Walking and cycling were marginalised and neglected. The last 5 years have seen a significant change of direction by some leading councillors, but the political lead has not been consistent and often other schemes and priorities have taken attention away from the push to make our roads safe for everyone.

To start off with, here are some policies that our councillors could insist on:

1. BCC should (re)state that pedestrian and cycle users' safety is a higher priority than maintaining the flow of traffic and that ensuring the safety of vulnerable road users will be the top priority regardless of the impact on traffic flow.

2. BCC should state that people walking and cycling should not be forced to detour further than people who are driving. Crossings that are five minutes walk down the road from a junction will not be used, and highway schemes must not expect pedestrians to do anything other than take the shortest route. 

3. As part of Birmingham's Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, BCC should identify every junction in Birmingham that does not have safe toucan crossings. Those crossings should be prioritised according to the proximity of major trip generators - such as the cricket ground, supermarkets and Cannon Hill Park. Plans for those junctions should be drawn up and money sought to build those crossings.

4. BCC should insist that all their contractors move to the use of direct vision lorries, to reduce the blind-spots that lorries have and reduce the number of collisions.

Council officers produce plans and make recommendations, but ultimately the decisions are taken by our councillors, and it is they who need to set a clear political direction and stick to it. Insisting on safe crossings is a political choice and one that Birmingham desperately needs.