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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