Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The West Midlands is on the move. The economic ascent of the region continues at pace, with recent figures confirming the greatest increase in productivity anywhere outside London. Now we want to get the West Midlands on the move in a different way – by kick-starting a transport revolution that steers our population towards healthier ways of getting from A to B. That means encouraging more cycling and walking – and that means big investment is needed. We are well on the road to this aim in the West Midlands, but we want to work with the Government to secure more funds for cycling.
So is it worth it? I agree with Jesse Norman, the Minister responsible for cycling, who argues that active travel is good for the economy. How? It reduces the cost of congestion, cuts pollution and drives physical activity, which itself helps both personal health outcomes and reduces NHS costs. Higher footfall helps our high streets too. The business case for spending more is compelling.
Across the UK we need to make cycling and walking policy priorities. Our job in the regions is to ensure that we make the right choices with the funds we have, which means sharing ideas and learning from each other. But if we want to see a step change in how people move around, more funds are needed. We aim to supercharge cycling in the West Midlands. By 2023, we want five per cent of all trips to be made by cycle, from current levels of 1.7 per cent. This would represent roughly a three-fold increase and put us on an equal level with London.
Government backing, through the Department of Transport’s Transforming Cities Fund, is already helping to make cycling a more viable choice for journeys across the region. Its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy is making £2 billion available across the UK. But when it comes to boosting cycling in the UK’s regions, we want to be the leader of the pack. To use a cycling term, we want that yellow jersey.
Our aim is to bring about a modal shift from dependence on the car to public transport and healthier alternatives. Ambitious transport plans are already underway, investing in everything from Metro tram routes to new railway stations, from rapid bus services to park and ride hubs – but cycling must also play a critical role.
We face our own obstacles. The sprawl of the West Midlands – across its seven boroughs of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Solihull, Walsall, Coventry, Dudley and Sandwell – make pedal power a tougher challenge than on the Lycra-clad streets of London.
However, we now have a clear and ambitious plan to get people into the saddle and steer them towards trying a healthier mode of transport.
That’s why we have set a goal to raise cycling investment to at least £10 a head each year. This commitment – described by Cycling UK as a ‘truly landmark announcement’ – aims to create a network of strategic cycle routes, backed by an investment of up to £250 million. We have identified 26 priority corridors for investment, covering 200km through Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry and Solihull. A route linking Birmingham and Wolverhampton – along a restored canal towpath – is now nearing completion.
A West Midlands Cycling and Walking Ambassador should be appointed by the end of March. Communities will help identify great places to cycle, and a family festival of cycling will spread the word. All of these strands will be united under one recognisable regional brand – West Midlands Cycle.
But this isn’t just about persuading people to get on their bikes – it’s about providing the opportunities for them to do so. We want local people to catch the cycling bug. This May will see the Birmingham Velo, a 100-mile closed road cycling race. 17,000 people have signed up to take part and a shorter 42-mile course has just been added, with an extra 3,000 places.
In Wolverhampton, the first 25 ‘nextbikes’ have just arrived, as our region’s first bike share scheme pilot gets underway. Provided at five stations across the city, the bikes are part of a trial ahead of a full launch across the region later this year. The scheme will eventually offer 5,000 bikes with three planned maintenance hubs, creating 50 new jobs including area managers, van drivers and mechanics. Crucially, it will be the UK’s first bike share scheme to be integrated with a region-wide smart ticketing system and will be the largest of its kind outside London. We hope to achieve the kind of impact that Boris made with his bikes.
Aside from cycling, we also want to encourage people to utilise a mode of transport known in the Black Country as ‘Shanks’s Pony’ – the simple art of walking. Statistics show that, between the mid-1970s and 2011, the total number of walking trips per person each year fell from 336 to 186. In the West Midlands, levels of walking are the lowest in the country. We are applying the same logic to encourage walkers as we have with cyclists, by identifying direct routes to important destinations – such as town centres or employment sites.
Just as with cycling, encouraging walking is also about giving people enough room and improving safety, with better road crossings and lighting. Signage also plays an important role. We have been working with walking charity Living Streets, to encourage schoolchildren to walk to school with great results.
Finally, as we encourage people off the roads, we are lucky in the West Midlands to be able to turn to an existing network that predates the age of the car – the canals. Our historic canals are a significant part of the existing West Midlands Metropolitan Cycle Network with 219.2 km of towpaths across the region. TfWM and our seven constituent local authorities have been working with the Canal and River Trust for years to restore these much-loved routes, which travel through the heart of our communities.
Many of these canals, once derelict relics of our industrial past, are now synonymous with the regeneration of the West Midlands – forming iconic city-centre landmarks and offering pleasant walks and cycle routes. They are testament to how real investment can revive areas and change perceptions. Sustained support for our cycling plans would put us in the fast lane to achieving real change.