Discover more from Counter Cut
Harness the Private Sector for a Cycling Revolution in the West Midlands
We're lagging behind other cities in encouraging residents to adopt cycling. Does the private sector hold the key?
I took the uncharacteristic decision to commute by bicycle recently. After an overnight stay in Camberwell, South London, I was heading into Westminster in morning rush-hour.
The thought of getting on the bus - an unfortunate eventuality forced by the lack of underground in South London - for the 50 minute 3.5 mile journey was distinctly less appealing than during the pandemic when the legions of commuters were staying at home and the journey time halved.
I’d noticed on my way to the bus stop that on every corner there were parked bikes belonging to various private hire bicycle companies, all available by quickly registering on an app on my phone, so I decided to try out an electric bike in an effort to save time and avoid the misery of an oversubscribed bus.
There were no fewer than 6 possible bike hire platforms to choose from - Lime, Human Forest, Tier, Dott, My Cycle and Santander's 'Boris Bikes'.
We are an independent news and opinion site in the West Midlands - we have a FREE weekly newsletter. Join our subscribers:
Having chosen ‘Human Forest’ as my bike-hire company of choice (purely due to the proximity of an available bike nearby), I was delighted to discover the first 10 minutes of my ride were free! Not just a new-user gimmick (though they will give you 20 mins free if you refer a friend), but an offer valid on every ride.
Sticking exclusively to bus lanes and cycle lanes - the vast majority of which were segregated - I made it to Westminster in 20 minutes, despite two wrong turns.
I parked my bike next to a bike rack by College Green (incurring a £1.50 charge for not using a 'Green Bay' designed to encourage safer parking) and went on my way without a bead of sweat to show for my efforts.
My experience begs the question why the West Midlands, and Birmingham specifically, are so far behind the cycle 'revolution' seen in London, Paris, Amsterdam and many other major cities on the continent.
There are two reasons behind this. The obvious answer is infrastructure. With the exception of some notable new cycle-ways, cycling in Birmingham involves jostling for road position on a dual carriageway or an unexpected dip when a teenager shoves you into the canal from the towpath unsuited to cycling.
The West Midlands's newly appointed Active Travel Commissioner, Adam Tranter, was brought in by Andy Street’s Combined Authority partly to address the lag in cycling uptake across the region.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our free weekly newsletter. No ads, no spam, no nonsense! Join here:
He accepts that the region has been slow off the mark compared to somewhere like London, but highlights the recent influx in Government funding to build active travel infrastructure - projects are already being delivered across the region.
It will take time for segregated cycling infrastructure to be put in place (it is not aided by local political opposition in many places) and this is only part of the hold-back.
The second part of the answer to the lag in West Midland’s cycling is access to bikes. The success of Boris Bikes in London demonstrates that there has long been an appetite for cycle hire schemes which solve this issue and the emergence of a host of app-based cycle-hire companies in London has driven the revolution forward.
In the West Midlands, the WMCA have now rolled out the West Midlands Cycle Hire Scheme (or ‘Beryl Bikes’), offering a combination of regular and e-bikes, enabling access to cycling for many more people.
But some people remain sceptical about using a bike for the commute, rather than just a leisurely ride at the weekend. Arriving at work a sweaty mess isn’t a nice prospect, so cycling just hasn’t been on the agenda - showering at your place of work still feels weird for lots of us.
Electric-bikes are a game-changer in this dynamic, until now reserved for the wealthy (prices range from £600 to £8,000 per bike).
Riding an e-bike is easy-work. On my London commute, I put in very little physical effort and was pulling away from the occasional traffic light faster than any of the lycra-clad aficionados in my adopted commuter ‘pack’ (or are they a herd? a peloton?).
Counter Cut spoke to the Active Travel Commissioner, Adam Tranter about access to e-bikes in the West Midlands. He told us, “there are a whole load of ways to get hold of an e-bike now, from outright purchase to monthly subscriptions, the cycle to work scheme and the various sharing schemes on offer.”
He added, “E-bikes offer a whole load of benefits to people and I’ve not yet met anybody who - after using one - didn’t agree that these could be game changing for personal transport. Indeed, our West Midlands Cycle Hire e-bikes are hugely popular.”
Whilst the publicly-owned WM Cycle Hire Scheme offers a handful of e-bikes, the investment required to provide the quantities needed to cater for over 2 million people across the region would be enormous, and in my view far better spent on providing what the private sector can’t - infrastructure.
Tranter has been impressively innovative in bringing in flexible docking points that have made it easier to roll the WM Cycle Hire Scheme out at pace. Allowing the private sector to enter the West Midlands cycle-hire market would immediately increase the availability of e-bikes (and regular bikes) available without exposing the tax-payer to any financial risk.
Still not subscribed?
We put this to Tranter, who responded: “While it is true that engaging with the private sector on micro mobility can bring about benefits, it has to be noticed there are some significant disbenefits to local authorities too. We’re seeing in some London boroughs that with so much choice, and a race from businesses to capture market share, it is not uncommon to see companies not operating as they should, with bikes strewn across the pavement and without the resource to keep them maintained in a race to maximise profit.
“The West Midlands Cycle Hire scheme requires bikes to be in docks or virtual bays and we have a contract with a service provider to keep things in order.”
It is clear that bikes dumped across pavements are not desirable, but with the right mix of regulation and local authority oversight, private bike hire could be the catalyst for the widespread modal shift from cars to bikes that we want to see in the West Midlands. Beryl Bikes are the first step in the cycling revolution, but it could be driven forward at greater pace through better collaboration with the private sector.
Adam Tranter’s final comment to me is one we can certainly agree on: “whether it’s cars, e-scooters, e-bikes or anything else - I’m in favour of public spaces being used for public good.”
Written by Dominic Stanford
Thanks for reading Counter Cut! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.