Birmingham City Council, through its Wellbeing Service, has provided more than 4,000 free bikes and cycle training to residents living in deprived areas, in order to improve their mobility, health and wellbeing, as well as to increase access to workplaces, education and training.
The scheme was also designed to bring about behaviour change by encouraging people to travel by bike rather than private car, thereby reducing congestion – and pollution – on roads. Big Birmingham Bikes has linked up with over 50 community groups including homeless and mental health charities, and GPS tracking is used to monitor the effectiveness of the scheme and provide data to guide planning and policy to support cycling.
This inspirational project is not only getting people out of their cars and onto their bikes but is also improving the health, wellbeing and mobility of an often hard-to-reach demographic. There is huge potential to replicate the scheme and other cities should take note as its simple pragmatism could really help to reframe the national environmental debate.
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Birmingham is one of several towns and cities in the UK where air pollution has reached a crisis point. Nationally, air pollution contributes to 40,000 early deaths annually and was named a ‘public health emergency’ by a cross-party group of MPs in 2016. Transport is responsible for 80% of nitrogen oxide emissions in roadside areas and is one of the key opportunities for improving the situation. The additional health benefits associated with getting people out of cars and onto bikes are well established, making cycling a win-win strategy for tackling this issue.
Big Birmingham Bikes (BBB) is part of the City Council’s 20-year Birmingham Cycle Revolution scheme to increase cycling in the city and reach a 10% modal share of journeys by bike in 2033. BBB, started in 2015, focuses on the people that are most affected by the city’s poor air quality – those living in areas of higher deprivation. By working at the grassroots level and teaching those with little or no cycling experience how to ride confidently around the city, it is laying the foundations for a cycling culture that will develop from leisure riding into practical journeys. The Council has also put 20 mph zones in place across approximately a third of Birmingham’s residential areas and plans to increase this further, having identified traffic speed as a key barrier to participation.
By offering a free bike to households within specified postcodes, there is a real incentive for residents to get involved and take part in some of the many training sessions and group rides organised by BBB. For communities where cycling is not widespread, and where cost is often a prohibitive barrier, free cycle training gives people the confidence to go out and cycle safely, especially if others from similar backgrounds are joining in too.
Part of BBB’s success has been down to its decision to include innovative GPS tracking, provided by WRD Systems, in each of the 4,000 free bikes it has distributed. The recipients give permission for the tracking, and can see their own journeys made on the bike using an online dashboard, including distances and average speeds. This wealth of data also gives the council evidence that the project is increasing cycling uptake in these communities, acts as a disincentive against any possible thefts and ensures that the person is making full use of the bike – as it can be reallocated to another person on their waiting list if not.
This data also presents an opportunity for the Council to make the most of further cycling infrastructure projects, allowing it to identify cyclists that are regularly using particular roads and routes, and asking them to take part in focus groups and consultations on planned infrastructure, such as cycle lanes and bike parking in those areas.
Many of the areas in which the BBB programme is focused do not have a cycling culture and there are sometimes perceived cultural barriers to the uptake of cycling. By basing regular lessons and group rides at the eleven council-run Wellbeing Centres, BBB has embedded its work in the local community, and gets residents interested through word of mouth and the visual presence of the eye-catching orange bikes. It has found that once a resident has gained confidence in basic cycling skills, the enthusiasm to build on their skills grows, leading them to join the local cycling clubs it has helped start up, and start using their bikes for practical journeys.
In addition to the free bikes that have been given to individuals, BBB also holds bikes at the local Wellbeing Centres for free, short-term hire to any member of the public that registers at the centre. Of the 4,000 bikes distributed so far, 3,400 have gone to individuals, 400 to Wellbeing Centres, and 200 to community groups that manage their own bike loan schemes.
The health benefits for those taking up cycling are tracked through surveys and are clear. The GPS data also shows BBB the number of people regularly exercising throughout the week; 1,780 people are cycling for 30 minutes at least once a week and 635 people are cycling for 30 minutes at least five times a week.
BBB’s approach is to go further than just distributing the bikes, it also ensures that its recipients are confident and comfortable. Car-free areas are used for the initial lessons to teach people to ride, before moving on to more advanced lessons for cycling safely on the roads. Training in basic cycle maintenance is also available, and the bikes are supplied with lights and a lock. Over 1,000 Birmingham residents have been trained to Level 2 cycle proficiency and have completed the maintenance training.
The group rides, for those who are more confident in their cycling, are organised by volunteer leaders; there are now over 100 such volunteers, all of whom have undergone training in first aid, maintenance, safeguarding, risk assessments and route planning. A mentoring scheme also ensures that the first few rides they lead run smoothly. In addition to the volunteer ride leaders, 35 people have been trained as volunteer cycle instructors to run BBB lessons. The volunteers return the cost of their training through 36 hours of voluntary work, amounting to over 1,000 volunteer hours to date.
I wanted women in my community to cycle, but they were too embarrassed to - I wanted them to see me cycling, so they would realise they could too. It’s given us a chance to experience something we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
BBB has plans to distribute further free bikes in future, and the wider Birmingham Cycle Revolution has a series of segregated cycle routes planned, as well as progressively rolling out 20 mph zones in residential areas. Together, this package of measures will make cycling progressively more attractive to the people of Birmingham, helping cut pollution, reduce congestion and improve health. BBB also has a legacy programme of creating community cycling groups to carry on its work in their own communities, delivering cycle training and leading rides, and has set up 14 groups so far.