One of the hazards of taking an interest in active travel is that novel or innovative infrastructure projects become niche tourist attractions and bike-lane geekery informs how you perceive the places you visit. Just as my first visit to Copenhagen was largely motivated by a desire to cycle on the Bicycle Snake, closer to home I have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to visit Birmingham since I heard about the brand new “blue route” cycle lane along the Bristol Road, a congested dual carriageway along which I would cycle to university as student back in the mists of the late last century.
And thus, with 2019 marking the 25th (gulp!) anniversary of graduation and an alumni reunion event arranged, said opportunity materialised. A plan began to form: get the train to New St. then complete the final leg to the uni by bike. But which bike? Taking one of my own would be feasible but faffy; taking the scooter as I did recently to London was an option, but the 3+ miles out to Edgbaston is a long scoot. So I looked into rental options. There’s no municipal bike-hire scheme in Birmingham, but there are several Brompton docks, a folding-bike hire initiative that enables users to pick up a Brompton folding bicycle from automated lockers sited at selected train stations. For an annual membership fee of £5 and a 24-hour rental rate of £6.95 (frequent users can access different rates), it’s a very decent deal indeed.
You use an app to select the location you want to rent from, you’re sent a code to unlock the door, you take the bike out and that’s that. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to cotton on to this brilliant service.
An added bonus for me was the chance to learn that essential life skill of assembling and collapsing a Brompton, which I mastered in full view of the Birmingham public without looking like too much of a chump. It transpired that the machine allotted to me was jammed in the highest gear, but Birmingham isn’t particularly hilly, so I decided not to bother arranging a replacement. And thus I headed off to my uni reunion essentially on a highly geared, single-speed Brompton, and am most definitely #NotAHipster.
With central Birmingham largely pedestrianised and at this time of year heaving with slow-moving seasonal shoppers milling between German-style market stalls, I wheeled the Brompton down to the nearest actual road at Stephenson St., swung my leg over the bike and headed vaguely in the direction of the university. My first surprise was a cycle contraflow continuing along the second half of Hill St., feeding into a glorious bidirectional bike lane on Hurst St., which continued as a similar protected contraflow on the lower half.
“Crumbs,” I ponder, “Birmingham has really been thinking about this stuff,” as I wait on a traffic island at the Hurst. St./Sherlock St. junction for a cycle-specific traffic light phase to guide me across the junction at a 45-degree angle to join the carriageway on the other side.
Following really rather comprehensive signage towards South Birmingham, I progressed through Balsall Heath along quiet back streets and, wherever possible, protected bike lanes – which now even run past the house I lived in for several years after graduating.
After a pleasant stretch through Cannon Hill Park, I headed towards the Bristol Road (for some reason major roads in that part of the world often take a definite article) and the new blue route – which lived up to all expectations.
Rather than taking any space away from the vehicle carriageway, this bike lane runs along what was a wide, grassy reservation that divided the two directions of the road. In smooth, striking blue tarmac, with a line of trees between the cycleway and the two vehicle lanes either side, it’s a very pleasant ride indeed.
There are fat give way lines demanding that any drivers turning perpendicular to the cycleway cede priority to bikes, and again, dedicated cycle traffic lights at the more major junctions.
At the university itself the cycleway moves away from the carriageway to behind the pavement, and this was my turn-off, and so I headed on to my reunion with people I have known for the best part of 30 years. Where does the time go?
The next day I headed back towards the city along the canal, which I recall being a very pleasant (and of course traffic-free) route between the university and the city.
With a little time on my hands before the train home, I extended my ride beyond the revamped (gentrified?) Gas St. Basin & Brindley Place areas, traversing some decidedly industrial canalscapes that still bear the grittier signature of sprayers as opposed to developers.
Leaving the towpath at some random location, I headed towards what I identified as the centre by the Telecom Tower, and was pleasantly surprised to find nice little modal filters and bike symbols painted liberally over many of the roads. OK, so painted bike symbols aren’t protected infra, but they do show that bikes are being thought about and – purely anecdotally – I was given plenty of space whenever being overtaken on these quiet routes.
So that was my 24 hours in Birmigham poking about on a Brompton. Posting some of these photos on Twitter, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive: apparently Birmingham is quietly doing good things for cycling (of course with a few exceptions – errant bus drivers, some badly treated junctions, dodgy underpasses).
In Birmingham for an event. City centre cycling stuff really rather good! The smooth, blue asphalt down the middle of the Bristol Rd. cycle path is just 👌 pic.twitter.com/oB6E9Cpwc4
— Prestwich Pootler 🕷️ (@pootlers) November 16, 2019
But on the face of it, and for a flying visit, this looks like a city that is taking this stuff seriously. Any readers who have greater insight into what’s happening there are encouraged to enlighten us further. And anyone finding themselves in Birmingham with a bit of time on your hands, pick yourself up a Brompton and get along the blue bike lane on the Bristol Road. You’ll love it!