Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Riding the Birmingham Bike Trains

Birmingham’s inner city tunnels (St Chad’s and Queensway) are closed for maintenance between 19th July and 2nd September. Any time the tunnels get blocked such as when a car brakes down on the inner ring road, traffic in and around the centre of Birmingham comes to a complete standstill. Motorized traffic that is, because even though commuting by bike in Birmingham can be challenging, one thing is sure – when Birmingham City Centre grinds to a halt, cycling is a lot quicker.

In anticipation of the closures Centro have funded an initiative to encourage more people to take to 2 wheels and beat the jams. They have organised a series of led rides – dubbed “Bike Trains” starting at 7.45 from various locations around the city. The aim is to find quiet routes that novice cyclists might try as an alternative to the scarier routes into the city such as Walsall Road/Birchfield Road.

On Wednesday 10th July I joined the Perry Barr to Birmingham bike train. (Video of the train at the bottom of this article) The attendance was a little disappointing. There were 2 punters (me included) and two ride leaders who met up at the College Road entrance to Alexander stadium. The first thing we did was sign a waiver and then dismount and cross Walsall Road on foot. It was over a minute that we stood at the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights to change. It took a total of 3 minutes to cross both carriageways. Then we walked to the junction with Perry Avenue. It was 3 minutes 30 seconds into the “ride” before I was actually riding. Then we were on our way turning left into Perry Avenue and right into Glendower Road. My criticism of the train is that you have to take these detours, it’s not a criticism of the ride leaders themselves who were only doing their job.

Before too long we were stopping again to use a pedestrian crossing to cross back on to the Walsall Road by the One Stop shopping centre. We then rode away from the city because the quiet route - which the ride leader said more than once - is the “recommended” route - takes a wide detour of the interchange at the Birmingham City University/One Stop Shopping Centre. There was one more dismounting - to get across the middle ring road at New John Street before we picked our way through Newtown. The train continued with just 3 riders towards it’s final terminus at Victoria Square as I peeled off to head for the office.

I think there is merit in this initiative. The turnout was low but I wonder if more people will cotton on when the tunnels actually close. It was useful to be taken on some quieter roads. However, it took 50% longer to get to work than my normal route. Given my experience in April of cycling in Amsterdam, I cannot help feel that your average Dutch cyclist would have laughed at the whole idea right from the signing of a waiver, to the dismounting and the avoidance of the most direct routes. The truth is, if Birmingham had proper cycling infrastructure you would not need a “bike train” to promote it.

I do think though that the closure of the tunnels is an opportunity. People will be reluctant to abandon their cars for as long as they perceive that using the car is convenient. If the roads are snarled up with traffic perhaps a few people will venture out on their bikes. Let’s hope so.
I enjoyed the ride. It is nice to ride in company and I am going to look for some more routes, that are reasonably direct (with no dismounting) but avoid Walsall Road/Birchfield Road.


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More Anti-Cyclist BBC TV Programming - The Route Masters

BBC2 - The Route Masters
Quotes on cyclists from taxi drivers such as, "They all run red lights, no wait, most run red lights... no, actually they all run red lights"

Preceding a segment showing police busting red light jumpers. Fair enough, it is illegal, and immensely frustrating when people do it, but the majority of cyclists do not jump red lights. But the show was happy to run with the assumption that all cyclists jump red lights.

Or the bus driver when asked a leading question about if cyclists slow him down, "yeah, they do slow me down." Really? If every one of these cyclists was in a car, what would that do to traffic then?

The main transport groups were represented, with a camera crew following car drivers, HGV drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers and so on, but the only interview with a cyclist (other than to ask them why they jump red lights) was one that found herself under the wheels of a bus one day. After all the anti-cyclist rhetoric throughout the show, I was pleased and annoyed in equal measure that it's taken the majority of the hour long show, for us to find someone saying, "we all just need to share the road". Coming from a cyclist who has had her legs crushed, it sounded more like a desperate plea than the sensible mantra everyone in London should adhere to.

But anyway, following the only talking head cyclist of the show one of my personal favourite quotes popped up, "Maniacs. They're all maniacs." Mix that in with the typical quote from the HGV driver that we all hear far too often, "They come out of nowhere..." The implication that we bring it all on ourselves just wound me up even more.

With the TfL representative from the show saying we want more cycling to ease congestion, the part about a critical mass really made my blood boil. These critical mass rides are often in response to a death or run of deaths. These are cyclists saying, look TfL, you want us to cycle, we want to cycle, we have the numbers, just give us the space! But when the voice over proclaimed that these thousands of cycle "activists" meet up en-masse purely for the purpose of causing misery to Londoners by forcing the roads come to a standstill. (Like the lady who was trying to drive across central London at night to get to a funeral?! How ironic that this critical mass is to prevent more funerals...) Of course the BBC were only too happy to show people who might be perceived as activists. No offence to those shown on camera, but the man in his recumbent with flags, poles and signs hanging off of it, and the disproportionate amount of facially pierced and dreadlocked cyclists we saw, it does look like these are your stereotypical "activists". It didn't show a true reflection of London's cyclists. We're not activists. We're just normal people who want to get to and from work without getting killed.


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