What do Birmingham's local elections mean for cycling?

Local campaign groups are making cycling an election issue in Birmingham
Following the election of a regional mayor last year, local elections present a new opportunity in Birmingham
As parts of the UK prepare to hit the ballot once again, our Infrastructure Campaigner, Tom Guha, explores four key cities where all seats are up for election. First on his tour of local democracy is Birmingham, where campaign groups have been emboldened by a new metro mayor and a BBC film crew.

2018 provides a unique opportunity for Birmingham’s cycle campaign Push Bikes. In a city where council seats are normally elected by thirds each year, boundary changes this year mean all seats are up for election. This gives local campaigners the chance to canvass all councillors in one go and secure long-term commitments for cycling in all wards. The opportunity is timely, as the city has been a hive of cycling activity in recent times.

Last year the West Midlands elected its first metro mayor. The election campaign put the region’s transport system under the spotlight and the successful candidate, Andy Street, stood on a platform of addressing its many woes. He signed up to all the policy asks put to him by Cycling UK and Push Bikes – and he is already delivering.

Putting the region’s transport further under the microscope was a BBC2 documentary entitled Fighting for Air. The programme followed a group of Kings Heath residents as they hoped to tackle local air pollution for a day. Cat Watton, Push Bikes member and one of the documentary’s protagonists says it “provoked conversation and is catalysing a sea change in peoples’ attitudes to travel and place.”

The local campaign group have been considering how best to capitalise on the tide of change.

“Local council candidates are interested in their wards and we, as campaigners, have to tap into that,” David Cox, Chair of the Bike West Midlands Network, tells me. “We are going hyperlocal. Things like safe routes to schools, the local high street and air pollution have proved to be this year’s rallying calls.”

Push Bikes are joining a broad coalition and are working with residents in each ward to put highly localised policy asks to candidates, in an attempt to play to the tune of how the local election is being fought.

Coalition working has increased the group's capacity. As other groups are brought into the fold, the pool of activists taking part in their campaign has widened.

The group hope to nurture their new supporters into long-term volunteers. As cycle use in the city grows, the demands on the campaign group will increase. Push Bikes anticipate needing members in all parts of the city to ensure all councillors are aware of ‘the cycling vote’ and no consultation passes without a cogent Push Bikes response.

The approach serves another purpose too. As Watton explains, “Not only have we increased our capacity but our message is landing better now.”

In Birmingham, where few people cycle, Watton suggests that ‘cycle campaigning’ does not always resonate but “most people get the arguments for safer, healthier and more attractive streets”.

“To me cycling is a means rather than an ends,” says Watton. “I cycle and want to feel safe doing so but I also want to live in a happier, healthier neighbourhood, where everyone can enjoy the benefits of clean air and more active lifestyles.”

“It just so happens that re-organising our streets in a way that favours cycling, walking and public transport is the best way of achieving those goals.”

With a new metro mayor enthusiastically trying to implement the West Midlands Cycling Charter, a new bike share scheme hitting the region’s streets this year and some major infrastructure schemes shortly incoming, there is cause for optimism in Birmingham.

“Progress was sluggish for such a long time but the pace of change is picking up at a rate of knots… it really is staggering,” says Cox.

2018 gives the group a unique opportunity - to complement the strategic vision of Mayor Andy Street with a blanket of locally supportive councillors. If successful, there is no reason to doubt the rate of change could speed up faster still, so that no Brummies are left Fighting For Air. 

You can join Push Bikes and their broad coalition on 21 April, when they will gather in Kings Heath to demand clean air. Details are to be confirmed so please contact campaigns@cyclinguk.org if you are interested. 

Not in Birmingham? On 21 April, Cycling UK groups across the UK are taking to the streets – find an event near you!