Joe Holyoak

I was a teenage racing cyclist, almost permanently attached to my bike by the shoeplates on my paper-thin kangaroo-skin racing shoes, and covering about 10,000 miles a year. Nowadays I ride a tiny fraction of that distance, sitting upright on my folding Brompton, but it still feels more natural for my legs to be going round and round than to be going backwards and forwards. Riding is mostly more to get somewhere necessary than for pleasure, but an exception was in September when I rode in the Skyride in Birmingham. Sky is not one of my favourite businesses, but like some other cyclists I know, I suspend my dislike when it comes to their sponsorship of Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins.

On a damp Sunday, 11kms of streets between Digbeth and Cannon Hill Park were closed to all but bicycles, and the whole circuit was filled with thousands of cyclists of all types and ages. Many of them were tiny children on tiny bikes, out with their parents. For small girls, pink helmets seemed to be an essential fashion item. It was a delightfully surreal sight to see tiny tots pedalling fearlessly down the centre of the four-lane A441 Pershore Road, which on any other day they wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near. It was an inspiring vision of what the city could be like if it were differently organised, with more intelligent priorities.

Across the country, cycling as a regular means of urban transport is fast gaining respectability. We might wonder why it has taken so long, when we look across the water at precedents that urban designers have long celebrated, like Copenhagen or Amsterdam (60% share of the modal split). I long ago became aware that many good and positive things happen for the wrong, or at least for accidental, reasons. Froome and Wiggins are certainly part of the explanation for the increased popularity of cycling in Britain. Yet there is no sensible relationship between Chris Froome burning off the opposition on Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees, and someone cycling quietly along the River Rea to work in Digbeth. The pink helmets are probably part of the connection.

In November 2013, Birmingham, long notorious as a car-mad city, and madly redesigned in the 60s as a result, launched a consultation paper on reorganising its transport patterns, with a major role to be given to cycling. The city has won £17m from the Department of Transport’s Cycle City Ambition Grant scheme, and aims to achieve 10 per cent of all journeys made on bikes by 2033. It’s a modest ambition, starting from 2 per cent, the second lowest share in any UK city. It will be interesting to see how the city’s motor-oriented infrastructure will be modified in order to achieve this. MADE, the regional architecture centre, has responded quickly by organising a training session on Design for Cycling, run by Phil Jones.

Not the least satisfying element of the city’s Mobility Action Plan is seeing the Council’s Leader, Sir Albert Bore, rebranded as a born-again cycling evangelist. I don’t recall Albert previously espousing cycling, and I have never seen a photograph of him on a bike. But in the words of the Prodigal Son’s father, be glad… I wouldn’t bet against seeing rows of Albert Bikes for hire in a few years from now.

URBAN DESIGN 129 Winter 2014 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 129 Winter 2014

Want to read more like this? If you're not already an Urban Design Group member, why don't you consider joining?

Local bike shop in Digbeth


The Birmingham Skyride


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation.

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.