Andy Street: A transport revolution is under way in the West Midlands – with the launch of a new bike hire scheme

26 Jan

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The West Midlands is undergoing a transport revolution. Old railway stations will be reopened. Ground-breaking Very Light Rail networks are being designed. Miles upon miles of Metro tram track are being laid to link up communities. Fleets of electric buses are taking to our streets.

After decades of underinvestment, my regional transport plan is finally starting to deliver a world-class transit system to one of the UK’s most densely-populated places, connecting people with opportunities and providing healthier forms of transport, cutting pollution and easing congestion.

Before the pandemic struck, passenger numbers were rising in the West Midlands on every mode of public transport. The West Midlands was on the move, an example of how a Conservative mayor can make things happen, after decades of Labour inaction left the region lagging behind.

And next month will see the start of the next phase in this transport revolution – and this time, it’s on two wheels.

February will see the launch of the West Midland’s bike hire scheme – an ambitious project designed to appeal to the 30 per cent of people here who don’t cycle but say they would like to give it a go.

Almost every great city has a bike hire scheme, most famously London’s “Boris Bikes”. This is another area where the West Midlands has fallen behind the capital and places like Edinburgh – but we are catching up fast.

Through the unifying power of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), which has been committed to my goal of spending £10 per head of population on cycling per year, our ambitious plan covers not just a single city centre, but all seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town to the north of Brum, is pioneering the scheme with the first 75 bikes, thanks to a partnership with its forward-thinking Town Council.

It’s the ideal place to launch the scheme – a major self-contained community that sits within the city’s borders, which is also the home of Sutton Park, the region’s biggest urban beauty spot.

After Sutton, a further 1,500 bikes will be rolled out across the region in a matter of months, all in time for summer. Lockdown has deprived people of the freedom of getting out and about. I want this scheme ready for them to discover the freedom cycling can bring.

This is a project that is truly “Made in the Midlands”, with the bikes built by Pashley cycles, a firm that was founded in Birmingham in the 1920s and now has a factory in neighbouring Warwickshire. What’s more, 10 per cent of the bikes will be electric, with the charging docks also made in the region.

I hope that local people will take to these bikes, along with the electric e-scooters recently introduced to our cities both of which are an example of real investment in high-quality alternatives to the car. With Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations this year and the Commonwealth Games on the horizon, they will also provide a way for visitors to get around too.

But bikes are only part of the investment we are making, with truly ambitious plans to establish a world-class cycling network across the region.

The planned £270 million regionwide “Starley” network – named after the Victorian family who pioneered cycle manufacturing from Coventry – will be for the whole region, not just the city centres.

The vision is for 500 miles of safe routes across the region, linking our communities with either dedicated bike routes or miles of cycle lanes separated from traffic.

The Starley project would be a game changer for cycling in the West Midlands, building a vast new transit network reminiscent of the canal system created here during the Industrial Revolution.

Thanks to that era of innovation, it’s said that Birmingham has “more canals than Venice”. Well, a completed Starley Network would give the West Midlands a cycle network to rival Berlin. We are working now to attract the investment to make this ambition a reality.

Key to our cycling plan is identifying viable routes, like in Coventry, where the WMCA is investing £5 million in the flagship Binley Cycleway, linking Coventry University to the city’s main Hospital.

More than half of West Midlands residents say safety concerns put them off cycling. Binley is a great example of providing safe, separated lanes for bikes to remove the tensions that sometimes happen when cyclists and motorists compete for the same road space.

We are also looking to link up our cycling network with my wider transport plan. For example, there will be cycle provision alongside the new metro expansion in the Black Country, along Wednesfield Road to the brand-new railway station. It will also be integrated into our Sprint bus schemes.

All of this has been supported by the Government’s commitment to cycling, with the Department for Transport, under Grant Shapps, investing heavily.

Our region has securing £17 million from the Government for cycling schemes, from cycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly areas in Moseley, Birmingham, to routes along Tipton Road, on the boundary of Dudley and Sandwell, connecting residents to a Metro stop on the new Black Country line.

Locally, the WMCA has earmarked £2 million of Whitehall’s Transforming Cities cash to launch our own Better Streets Community Fund, which received 144 applications from residents, resulting in 31 projects that will be delivered by the end of this year.

This local engagement is vital, as building cycle provision is disruptive, and unwanted proposals can be rejected by communities, wasting time and cash.  If cycling is to really succeed, it requires grassroots support in the areas where routes are created.

There is, of course, a serious health issue driving our cycling revolution. We have a significant air quality problem in the West Midlands, particularly in denser cities like Birmingham and Coventry.

This, combined with the very real threat we face from climate change, makes clear the health and environmental benefits of cycling. We are investing in public transport to tackle congestion and pollution.

After years of inertia, a Conservative mayor has provided the push needed to finally get public transport moving in the West Midlands. We can do the same thing for cycling.

Until now we have lagged behind other parts of the UK, but with our new Bike Share scheme and ambitious plans for a region-wide network, I’m confident we can quickly catch up with the leading pack – and then power past them.

Royston Smith: I was lent an e-bike to trial – and see now why they could help power a green revolution

23 Nov

Royston Smith is MP for Southampton Itchen

With more homes being needed in already congested cities, policy makers have a huge challenge in how more people are going to be able to move around efficiently. The coronavirus pandemic is making us rethink a lot about our lives, but will it really bring an end to our reliance on cars for many of us?

Probably not – but if we are to see the green transport revolution that the Prime Minister has announced, the case must be made for more accessible sustainable transport options, such as e-bikes.

Last month, my local Halfords store in Southampton lent me an e-bike to trial for a few weeks. When Simon, the branch manager, set me up on the impressive Carrera Vengeance, I had my doubts. His advice was straightforward – ‘just ride’. I expected I would need to do something with the throttle to boost the motor. Instead, it really was that easy, the constant feeling of riding in the lowest gear, unless I chose to add some resistance.

The effect of this was to make even the mightiest hills feel flat; very welcome in a hilly city like Southampton. It really couldn’t have been easier, and made cycling a viable option for me in a way it probably wouldn’t be for most slightly overweight men in their mid-fifties who have fallen out of the habit of cycling regularly.

I was also impressed that e-bikes maintain their charge for so long. Halfords showed me that on average charging is required every 30-50 miles, making e-bikes a practical alternative to using the car and public transport for many. E-bikes are included in the Cycle to Work scheme, which allows employees to spread the cost of a new purchase through tax free salary installments over 12 or 18 months making getting one a more affordable prospect than ever.

As with most urban areas, Southampton has a relatively well-mobilised cycle lobby. They frequently present it as a binary choice: you are either with them, or against them. Many of them have decided I am anti-cyclist because I maintain cycling isn’t a realistic choice for everyone, and have concerns about the delivery of cycle infrastructure in the city.

The Government is frequently happy to grant generous sums of public money to help deliver more sustainable cities, with green transport at the heart of this. The job of local authorities should be to be realistic about how this is spent, they know their locality and should deliver infrastructure which is sensitive to differing needs.

In Southampton, the Labour-led council has spent £11.5 million on the first phase of its cycling strategy, with many of these new cycle lanes having been left largely abandoned. Why? Because creating cycle lanes does not make cycling more accessible to all. The gridlock that resulted from halving road capacity to make space upset motorists and made air pollution even worse.

My experience of an e-bike showed me how they make cycling accessible to many more people than regular cycles. Halfords reported a tripling of sales of electric bikes this year. With the technology being cheaper and better than before, a quiet e-bike revolution is already taking place. E-bikes are perhaps not the entire solution – but they have great potential and should continue to be supported by policy makers.

James Palmer: Why I’m backing electric bikes as a safe and healthy way to travel in my region

21 Aug

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

This month, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority became the first region in the country to roll out e-bikes and e-scooters to the public so people can enjoy quicker, healthier journeys as they return to work and school.

Electric bikes and scooters have the potential to revolutionise travel, making fast, clean, and inexpensive journeys possible, and help to ease congestion, reduce pollution, and allow for social distancing.

As an innovative organisation, focused on delivery, the Combined Authority has brought forward this solution by appointing European e-scooter operator, Voi, on a 12-month trial basis. Voi will provide e-bikes across the region and test out e-scooters in the centre of Cambridge where they will be assessed closely for safety and viability in the coming weeks, with e-bikes rolled out in October.

This move follows a recent announcement of £2.9 million, negotiated from central government, to improve cycle and pedestrian facilities across the region to get more people walking and cycling.

These measures are part of a vision for healthier and more sustainable travel across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough post-Covid.

Traditional modes of public transport have been hit hard by social distancing.

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough bus use is just over a third of what it was pre-Covid in Peterborough and only one-fifth of what it was in Cambridge.

Footfall at One Station Square in Cambridge has fallen from a peak of 18,000 people crossing in March before lockdown, to an average of below 2,000 since. There are signs of people making more train journeys again, with a high of 8,000 footfalls recorded in August.

Meanwhile, average daily car use in some parts of the region, such as South Cambridgeshire, is as much as 24 per cent higher than pre-lock down levels and that is before many people have returned to the office and children to school.

It seems while the threat of Covid-19 remains, many people feel reluctant to make journeys by bus or train and so there needs to be a viable public transport option which allows for social distancing.

Without drastic action and investment in alternative modes of travel, congestion on the roads could reach a critical point very quickly as more people are encouraged to return to the office, and children are expected to return to school. Or, we could have a situation where people are discouraged from returning to public life, opting to remain at home. Both scenarios could have disastrous consequences for our region.

Firstly, for our economy. Recorded footfall in retail locations are down 41 per cent in Cambridge and 34 per cent in Huntingdon to the same point last year. We simply must get people out and about again or our local businesses, restaurants and highstreets will suffer.

And, for our environment. Emissions from cars and emissions per capita are 50 per cent above the national average in Cambridgeshire. On average, 106 deaths per year in the Greater Cambridge region alone can be attributed to air pollution.

During lockdown, carbon emissions dropped by 17 per cent, with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on track to record a 27 per cent decrease in carbon emissions this year. But with public transport use down by two thirds, and car use going up, we must reverse these trends if we are to meet our target of eradicating carbon emissions by 2050.

Electrically assisted bikes provide a safe and healthy alternative mode of travel to the private car, bus, or train, which enables the user to practice social distancing while also helping to reduce carbon emissions.

E-bikes are likely to be placed at rail stations throughout the region, as well as at Park and Ride sites, and potentially at stops along the guided bus way, so they can be relied upon by commuters for significant parts of their journey to work and by others including students and visitors travelling into cities, towns, and other areas of interest and leisure.

It is thought that 60 per cent of current car journeys are only 1-2 miles in length and e-scooters and other modes of active travel could help significantly reduce unnecessary reliance on cars for these short journeys. E-scooters will allow visitors, tourists, students, and commuters to make quick short journeys across town.

The initiative by the Combined Authority to provide e-bikes and e-scooters will aim to reduce by 400 tonnes of CO2 emissions across the region by August 2021.

Providing e-bikes and e-scooters will also help to prevent the spread of coronavirus by allowing people to make journeys while remaining socially distanced. In addition, handlebars will be covered in Shieldex® Copper-Tape designed to kill 99.98 per cent of coronavirus on contact and all scooters are disinfected every 24 hours.

Along with a decrease in carbon emissions, due to a temporary drop in car use during lockdown, this year has also seen a 200 per cent increase in people using cycle to work schemes. With people enjoying improved air quality and fitter lifestyles, the benefits to a fully integrated active network for our region are clear and our investment shows we are serious about making our vision for greener more sustainable travel, a reality.

Michelle Lowe: Local government has an important role in helping us beat obesity

31 Jul

Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

Governments for decades have planned to fight obesity and help the nation lose weight with schemes from the sugar tax to the Prime Ministers new plans to ban junk food advertising before 9pm, calorie counts on restaurant menus and GP’s prescribing Weight Watchers. These measures will probably make a difference, but in my experience as Deputy Leader of Sevenoaks District Council overseeing a health-in-all-policies approach to tackle obesity, this will only scratch the surface.

Most overweight people know the causes are poor diet and lack of exercise. They also know that eating better and exercising more will not only help them lose weight but will make them healthier – yet they do not take the difficult path to shed the extra pounds. To help them the government needs to understand the reasons why people choose unhealthy lifestyles and tackle the causes as well as the symptoms.

Obesity is linked to mental ill-health. People who feel anxious and/or depressed are unlikely to feel motivated to lose weight even if deep down they would like to. Tackling mental ill-health, something that may have been made worse by lockdown, will help to fight obesity. As well as prescribing Weight Watchers it might also be worth prescribing specialist, holistic weight loss schemes that also includes counselling, exercise and practical advice about debt.

You are probably wondering what debt has to do with obesity. In my experience quite a lot. Debt can lead to mental ill-health, which is linked to obesity, but it can also be linked to choices. People running out of electricity may choose not to cook a dinner and risk the kids not eating it – and buy them a filling bag of chips instead. People on lower incomes are less likely to buy fresh fruit and vegetables unless they live near a supermarket as they can’t risk it going rotten before it is eaten – buying crisps is a better bet.

Lifestyle also has a lot to do with obesity. People working fulltime do not always have time to cook healthy meals – it is often easier to throw unhealthy meals together quickly that the whole family will eat. There are some people that don’t know how to make a healthy meal as we have lost a lot of practical skills such as these over the generations. Busy people may not have time or the energy for extra exercise over and above what they do during the day, which means active travel needs to be incorporated into their daily routine. This is where local government comes in.

Local government is great at social prescribing. At its best, it understands its local area and population and can work with other agencies and charities to put together social prescribing programmes that meet local peoples’ needs. Mental health support and debt advice needs to be included in some weight loss programmes, in order to tackle the symptoms as well as the causes, and local councils should understand how this mix will work for their locality.

Councils can encourage people to take on allotments which will help them understand food better. It is a healthy outdoor activity in its own right – that can lead to healthier eating. This can be linked to educating children and their parents through schools and other outlets about how to make fast, healthy, cost-effective meals.

Councils are also the leisure authority and can link leisure centres, local tennis courts and other activities into social prescribing activities. They are also the planning authority and if they plan well can make sure walkways and cycling paths, secure places to lock bikes are included in new developments – and incorporated in existing ones where possible. They can also control the types of food outlets and vans through planning and licensing, and I also believe there is a bigger role for Environmental health in promoting healthier choices on menus when they inspect restaurants.

Taking a holistic approach to obesity and its causes with central government, local government, schools and the NHS working together to identify the causes and solutions in particular localities will yield longer term, sustainable results.

Judy Terry: The increase in cycling poses safety risks

27 Jul

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Congratulations to Suffolk County Council (SCC), which has won £376,501 from the Department for Transport for emergency walking and cycling schemes, improving safety for people to make essential journeys and take daily exercise by foot or cycle whilst maintaining social distancing.

Work has already started in Ipswich, with changes to layouts, closing off sections of roads to motorised vehicles, widening existing footpaths and cycle lanes, and changing traffic signal timings to reduce waiting times at puffin and toucan crossings. The Government requires evaluation and consultation to be included during the emergency interventions, allowing some to be made permanent where possible.

Cllr. Andrew Reid, The Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways, says:

“It is crucial that the measures work for the majority of people, ensuring accessibility for businesses whilst reducing congestion.”

Cycling maps and marketing campaigns will be updated to support health and air quality benefits.

During the lockdown, more people have taken to cycling, which is great for health and fitness, and the environment. However, few people appear to take their safety seriously; whole families take to the road without helmets. Young teenagers (usually boys) are everywhere cycling in groups, blocking other traffic, which then take risks overtaking.

Sadly, a coroner recently ruled that the death of a cyclist early one evening was likely to be attributed to alcohol. This doesn’t surprise me since, a while ago, a cyclist enjoying a tin of beer as he travelled on the wrong side of the road in daylight at about 6pm fell onto my stationary car, causing several hundred pounds worth of damage. Completely oblivious, he quickly righted himself and carried on.

Cycling proficiency tests, already available to children, are to be offered to adult novices, with instructors funded by the taxpayer, to build confidence and competence. Courses are not mandatory. Yet Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, admits that “it is crucial for cyclists to understand the rules of the road, manoeuvring skills and positive interactions with other road users.”

It’s worth pointing out that not all cycles are actually roadworthy; too many have non-existent brakes, and inadequate lights, making it impossible to see them at night. Taking precautions in rural areas, where roads tend to be narrow and twisting, without streetlighting, is especially important. Cyclists may use bridleways, but not footpaths – or pavements.

So, I suggest the Government should legislate to require:

  • Cyclists wear helmets and a hi-viz jacket;
  • Cycles must be certified as roadworthy;
  • Cyclists must be trained in the Highway Code and pass a test;
  • The same alcohol limits should apply to cyclists as to motorists;
  • Cyclists should have appropriate insurance (which would require evidence of roadworthiness and passing the Highway Code test).

With lockdown easing, now would be a good time to run courses in public parks, supporting novice cyclists, and checking roadworthiness. Volunteers could be recruited to help; discounts on equipment could also be negotiated with suppliers for attendees, and the wider community.

It is time to ensure that all road users are governed by the same rules, being appropriately qualified and equipped. It’s bad enough having millions of untaxed and unqualified drivers on the roads, lacking any respect for others and ignoring speed limits. Government should acknowledge that legitimate motorists – and the Police – have more than enough to cope with. But, without further action, there will be more accidents – and motorists will undoubtedly get the blame.

Adding to the problem, the Government has now decided to allow rented electric scooters to share cycle lanes and road space in pilot schemes, in some locations from this month for a year’s trial. Conditions include users having a provisional or full driving licence, wearing a helmet and a 15.5 mph maximum speed.

Inevitably, relaxing the rules in specific areas will encourage greater illegal use elsewhere.

Just a few days ago, I found myself following an (illegal) electric scooter down a narrow main road in Ipswich, with legal parking down one side virtually blocking one lane; within just a few minutes, the rider nearly caused two major accidents: first, his speed was approaching 30mph. He fell off, and the scooter skittered right across the road, causing three cars coming in the opposite direction to brake sharply. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, but took his time to recover the scooter and get back on.

He carried on, in the middle of the road, at the same speed, whilst looking at his mobile phone, which he continued to do as he approached traffic lights. Instead of stopping in the empty designated priority cycle space, ahead of vehicles, he stopped next to a car indicating a left hand turn. When the lights turned green, he looked up from his phone, heading straight across the road, having ignored the car still indicating as it slowly turned left. Falling onto the vehicle, he shouted abuse at the driver, then carried on again, gathering speed.

I don’t envy the Police trying to control this sort of behaviour, without any form of users’ identification, once word gets out that e-scooters can use the roads. For too many people, regulations on speed and rental won’t apply. Nor does common sense.

It costs billions of pounds to maintain public roads, so it is only fair that cyclists should share the burden with other road users. An annual £20 tax for individuals, with £40 for a family of four, would not only contribute to the economy at this difficult time, but it would help to encourage greater responsibility for their personal safety. Some cyclists display a particular arrogance, taking risks, compromising everyone’s safety, instead of respecting other road users, including pedestrians.

Suffolk County Council, and other rural county councils, should also take measures to protect horses and their riders. According to the British Horse Society, 845 horses were killed on the roads in 2019 – equivalent to nearly two horses every week. There needs to be a national awareness campaign, with penalties for selfish motorists who carelessly speed through country roads and villages, with never a thought for vulnerable road users, whether riding a horse or cycle, or simply going for a walk.