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Could the Black Country become a cycling Yamsterdam?

By Jamie Brassington | Features | Published: | Last Updated:

As cycling becomes more popular amid the pandemic, could the Black Country become a Yamsterdam?

A girl unlocks her bicycle parked amidst thousands of others at Amsterdam's Central Station

That is the vision being laid before us as the UK Government prepares for life in post lockdown.

A £2 billion grant has been set aside for councils to install miles of pop-up cycling lanes across the country.

It could see cycling lanes installed on bustling routes like the Willenhall Road, in Wolverhampton, where traffic regularly grinds to a halt.

It follows unprecedented levels of cycling in Britain which has been fuelled by the Government's tight travel restrictions over Covid-19.

With people forced to stay inside apart from essential travel, cycling and walking has allowed many to escape the confines of their homes.

This prolonged period of lockdown has also allowed people to reassess their lifestyles and daily habits.

Now the Government is aiming to capitalise on this sudden shift in public mood.

The Government recently announced its package for councils to install "emergency" bicycle lanes across the country. The move was welcomed by Black Country council leaders, who are keen to improve cycling infrastructure on our congested roads.

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Wolverhampton Council leader Ian Brookfield said: "We don't just want pop-up lanes – we want permanent lanes thank you very much.

"The upsurge in cycling, the huge numbers of people cycling, it is phenomenal. I have already been speaking to my colleagues on the council about receiving a share of the Government's grant in respect of creating new cycle lanes, widening pavements, having dedicated cycle lanes and safer cycling routes."

Places like the Willenhall Road, the i54 business park, and the Westside development could all feature cycling lanes, he added.

But while the Government's initiative will be welcomed by many, the UK still falls behind its European counterparts in terms of cycling infrastructure.

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In Amsterdam, Holland, there are 320 miles of cycle lanes. The city is usually ranked the world's second most bike-friendly – just behind Copenhagen, in Denmark.

In comparison, it is said the largest cycling network in any British city is Birmingham, due to its 100-mile canal network.

Cycling UK, a charity, has called for new pop-up lanes to be installed in the Second City.

The organisation says a mere 100 miles of pop-up lanes across 10 English cities would allow millions of people to cycle safely each day.

In Dudley, the council is looking at establishing new cycling routes along old canal tow paths, disused railway lines, parks and green spaces.

Cycle lanes have been put in across Wolverhampton city centre

"They’re an ideal place for walking and cycling away from busy roads," said the borough's council leader, Patrick Harley, who welcomed the Government grants for new cycling lanes.

He continued: "This is excellent news and a welcome boost to our work to get people out of their cars and onto sustainable forms of transport such as cycling and walking.

"I have asked officers to look into the potential for this funding pot, what can be achieved in the borough.

"In the short term there will be some opportunities to support people walking and cycling through temporary measures, as long as they are in the right places."

A council spokesman said factors like impacts on traffic, such as on buses and emergency vehicles, would determine the locations of new cycle lanes.

Sandwell Council is also looking to its canal network in a bid to establish cycling routes.

Routes are particularly being looked at around the £50million Aquatics Centre in Smethwick, which will host events in the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

"I’ve been prioritising the canal ways in connection with the Aquatics Centre in particular, which will be a catalyst for improvements," said the council's leader Yvonne Davies. "Cycle routes are already part of the planning.

"The Canal & River Trust is working in partnership with us.

"Clearly, Covid-19 is a catalyst which we need to be promoting cycling as a safe way to travel."

But not all council bosses are so enthusiastic about the idea.

Walsall Council leader Mike Bird said: "I find at this point in time now, because there are less cars on the road, cyclists are taking ownership of the road.

"With the pop up lanes, cars would be mingling with riders on a regular basis.

"We are told we need to give cyclists more distance when overtaking.

"Suddenly, at this point, I see cyclists riding two, three or four abreast in the road. It makes it extra dangerous for cars to pass.

"If you look at Amsterdam, the use of bikes there is long established. Therefore in many places where cyclists are permitted, cars aren't allowed. There are car free zones.

"I do believe there has been an upsurge in cycling. But before I say yes to pop up lanes, we have to look at road safety. To me I think the challenge is insurmountable."

Hugh Porter, centre, has backed calls for more people to take up cycling

One man who knows a lot about cycling is Hugh Porter MBE, 80, who won four world titles in the individual pursuit during an illustrious sporting career, alongside a Commonwealth Games gold medal.

He said: "I absolutely welcome plans for new cycle lanes.

"It has got several benefits. Of course health is very important. If we can get more cyclists on the road, there will be less motorists.

"Subsequently, there will be less air pollution. That is something that everyone is going on about at the moment.

"Also, it gives people the opportunity to cycle more safely if there is less cars on the road."

He continued: "There is a cycle lane on the Tettenhall Road," he said. "That is a very good cycling lane.

"But you do get people parking in the lane. I think you need to have a symbol that says 'cycling only' on the lane."

The Velo Birmingham & Midlands has proved a success despite some concerns over road closures. Image: Ian Baker Photography

Thousands of people have taken part in the mass cycling event Velo Birmingham and Midlands in recent years - although this May's edition had to be cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With the UK's population ever-increasing, and more cars driving on the road, a need to find a greener and alternative transport system is critical.

Cycling could form part of the answer.

Jamie Brassington

By Jamie Brassington
Senior Multi-Media Journalist - @JamieB_Star

Senior reporter at the Express & Star. Contact me at jamie.brassington@expressandstar.co.uk.

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