Birmingham cycle superhighways

27th January 2020

Birmingham Blue Cycle route
Birmingham Blue Cycle Route

I rode Birmingham's Cycle Superhighways on the morning of Sunday 26th January 2020. They're very impressive.

Officially, they are the A38 and A34 blue cycle routes. The city council has produced a map of the A38 route and a map of the A34 route.

Birmingham cycle superhighways: what people think

Birmingham cycle superhighway, cyclists
People riding the A34 cycle superhighway

People I spoke to on the cycle superhighways thought they were very good. Nobody had a single criticism.

Nate, who uses the A38 cycle superhighway a couple of times a week between home and the gym, said: 'Yes, it's really nice - much better than when I had to ride on the road. It's all good...I mean they keep it clean.'

Most of those I came across seemed to the think that the cycle routes were great, and there was nothing surprising about that. Some of them probably didn't grow up in the UK, and haven't been scarred by the British tradition of using paint to create isolated bits of dangerous or unusable cycle route. (I am scarred, and I can scarcely believe that an English city council has put thought and resources into creating a high-quality route for bikes).

One 'proof of quality' is that I didn't see anyone not using the cycle superhighway, and riding on the road instead.

Birmingham cycle superhighways: A38

Birmingham A38 Blue Cycle Route
A38 Blue Cycle Route

I set off from the junction of Edgbaston Park Road and the A38 Bristol Road South, at about 8.30am. The cycle superhighway wasn't thronged (and neither was the road), but there were people about, using it. Positive: it struck me that they were completely relaxed - just doing a normal activity, with no sign of nerves about traffic.

From Selly Oak, the first part of the route is on the central reservation of the A38. It's great - wide enough (2m+), with a good surface, and completely safe.

Minor junction

A38 Blue Cycle Route

At the first minor junction, people riding on the cycle superhighway get priority over turning traffic - 'think BLUE, let cyclists through'.

That's a positive.

Major junction

A38 Blue Cycle Route

Pebble Mill is a more significant junction, and merits traffic lights. There seem to be sensors on the bike traffic lights, which detect your presence. The arrangement here is well thought-out, and works - another positive!

Where the central reservation ends, the cycle route crosses to the left side of the road. It's still two-way, and of the same good quality.

The strange case of Elmhurst Ballet School

Entrance to Elmhurst Ballet School
Arrangement at Elmhurst Ballet School

All along the route, the cycle superhighway is given priority over minor side roads and driveways. One exception is at the entrance to Elmhurst Ballet School - here, people going straight on by bike are asked to give way to turning traffic going in or out of the Ballet School's drive.

It is odd, because it goes against logic and the otherwise consistent practice on the route.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if there was ferocious lobbying by the Ballet School to get priority for their driveway? Did the Royal Ballet threaten to decamp to Wolverhampton? A dance school is involved in teaching young people a physical activity. It should be encouraging active travel, not doing its best to make active travel less convenient.

Entrance to Michael Court
Contrasting arrangement at a private drive a little further along

Even on a Sunday morning, I noticed the persistent noxious smell and taste of the vehicle exhaust fumes I'd been breathing in. This is a negative point, but not 100%.

There are benefits to cycle routes on main roads: they are direct, not roundabout; and they are visible to people in cars, who may consider trying them out. Also, unless you give people non-polluting options, you'll never solve the climate crisis nor local air quality problems. And bikes don't cause any pollution - despite the convoluted arguments you sometimes hear to the contrary.

Birmingham cycle superhighway alongside the A38
Cycle superhighway alongside the A38

To create the cycle superhighway, space has been taken from the pavement, not the road. (Given Birmingham's proposal to limit travel by private car, and increase walking and cycling, they might make a different choice on a future occasion).

One exception is at the junction with Priory Road, where (I believe) there used to be three lanes of traffic, and the cycle route replaces the left-turn lane. Vehicles may no longer turn left. This was clearly necessary in order to keep up the quality of the cycle superhighway. It will have required courage on the part of the City Council, and they were brave enough to do it - another positive.

Birmingham cycle superhighway bus stop bypass
Cycle superhighway, example of a bus stop by pass
Birmingham cycle superhighway junction with Sir Harrys Road
Cycle superhighway, junction with Sir Harrys Road

The route then switches to the right hand side of the road - but you're not abandoned and left to make your own way across the A38, there's a proper light-controlled crossing. Another positive.

You pass more good design at the junction with Balsall Heath Road, and arrive at the big MacDonalds junction - where again, there are really good arrangements to get you safely across. More positives!

Birmingham cycle superhighway, Balsall Heath Road junction
Cycle superhighway, good design at Balsall Heath Road
Birmingham cycle superhighway MacDonalds junction
Cycle superhighway, MacDonalds junction

Shortly after the big junction, you're sent off the Bristol Road and onto Kent Street.

Birmingham Blue Cycle route on Kent Street
Cycle superhighway on Kent Street

I guess that Kent Street used to be two-way for traffic, and half of it has now been taken for the cycle route. That's another positive example of a council actually being prepared to take a decision to re-allocate road space away from the private car, to make active travel possible.

At the far end of Kent Street, the cycle route finishes. There are signs for New Street station, but I wasn't going there - I was trying to pick up the other cycle superhighway, heading north out of Birmingham along the A34.

Route-finding was difficult across the city centre, without any help from cycle routes or signs. Eventually, I did make it to Lancaster Circus. The cycle superhighway starts just before this junction, although the underpass route at Lancaster Circus isn't very super or well signposted.

Birmingham cycle superhighways: A34

Birmingham A34 Blue Cycle Route
A34 Blue Cycle Route

The A34 cycle superhighway is built to the same high standards as the A38 route. The thoughtful way junctions have been planned makes it easy to ride. Another positive.

Birmingham cycle superhighway, cycle zebra at Newtown centre
Cycle superhighway, cycle zebra at Newtown centre
Birmingham cycle superhighway, bus stop bypass and junction
Cycle superhighway, bus stop bypass and junction

There weren't many people around at all, using any form of transport, but I chatted to a man with a folding mountain bike. He told me it cost £100, and he goes everywhere on it, including across the city centre, south on the A38 cycle superhighway, and on using canal towpaths to the QE Hospital. He was really enthusiastic about Birmingham's bike routes.

Birmingham cycle superhighway, cyclists
People riding the A34 cycle superhighway
Birmingham cycle superhighway, junction
Cycle superhighway, junction

I was disappointed when the route ended at Churchill Road.

End of A34 Birmingham cycle superhighway, cyclists
The end of the A34 cycle superhighway

On the cycle superhighways, I never felt in danger, and I never felt like a 3rd class citizen (behind those in cars and on foot, in that order). The council hasn't bodged the design and it hasn't shied away from difficult decisions. It's kept up the consistent quality throughout. (At least) three cheers for those behind the scheme. Now let's have more!

Birmingham cycle superhighways: nearby roads

Edgbaston Park Road
Edgbaston Park Road

I rode part of Edgbaston Park Road and Pritchatts Road, which are close to the A38 cycle superhighway. They've been made 20mph zones, and bicycles have been painted on the carriageway.

I'd say this is better than nothing, where there isn't space for a protected bike lane. It could provide a 5% benefit over a 30mph road with no cycle markings. What's really needed, though, is police enforcement of the 20mph limit, and traffic-calming measures.

Evidence suggests that on their own, 20mph signs only have a small effect on vehicle speed. To make a road more suitable for vulnerable road users, enforcement and road humps are needed.