Brum Brum

We moved to Birmingham early in 2018 and bought a house in October that year. Our son’s nursery was in the centre of town, a five-mile jaunt along the Worcester and Birmingham canal, the Rea Valley cycle route, or the brand spanking new A38 cycle lane. I got used to ferrying him there and back in his bike seat, first on my drop-bar 26er and then my stolid, solid Kaffenback 2:

Bike with child seat riding between Centenary Square fountains.
In Centenary Square. (Image courtesy of Simon Felton.)

The commute was fine, I guess. I had a choice of mostly off-road routes and a pre-schooler who didn’t often throw himself around in the seat behind me. The Kaff was always a nervous kiddie-hauler, and the 42×32 gearing was never helpful on the hills, but that was about the worst of it.

My son eventually graduated to his own bike, so we started taking our bikes on the train into town, after which we would cycle (slowly, carefully) to the nursery together and I would cycle home on my own. But even without a kid on the back I could never shake the feeling that Birmingham would prefer it we got off our bikes and bought a car instead. The side roads near home were and are clogged with cars. The city-centre dash at the other end, on a futile patchwork of cycle lanes that go nowhere, is an obstacle course of tram lines, wobbly cobbles and roadworks, invariably decorated with “CYCLISTS DISMOUNT” signs.

This is Britain’s second city, with one of the youngest populations in Europe and the busiest train station outside London. Is it too much to ask for a coherent cycle network? Apparently so.

Then there was that one night in leafy Bournville, back in 2019, when I was fumbling for the keys to our front door and heard a car blasting along the street behind me. Then, an almighty metallic crunch. I turned round to see that a driver had slammed into a parked car so hard that his own car had rotated through 90 degrees. It was the sort of crash you see on TV: his airbag went off, his horn beeped, his front-right tyre popped, and he came to rest with his car spreadeagled across the road. The car he hit was a write-off and two others beside it were scraped and smashed. The street was littered with broken glass and plastic trim.

The driver tried, after a moment, to reverse out of his predicament, occasioning a lot of engine noise and not a lot of movement. Both his car and his composure were shattered.

By now our neighbours were out in force in dressing gowns and pyjamas, regarding the scene with interest. The driver was persuaded, eventually, to turn off the engine and get out of his car. Or rather, to try to get out, because he was too drunk to unbuckle his seatbelt. Someone called the police, who declined to attend because no-one had been hurt. Among the owners of the damaged cars there was consternation about insurance premiums; among the others there were mutterings about the standard of driving and what-is-the-world-coming-to. Gradually we drifted back into our homes and went to sleep. Just another near-fatal car accident on a residential road. Why let it bother you too much?

My wife bought a bike early in 2020, the better for her to avoid crowded trains and buses on her own commute into town. She landed a step-through Kona Coca for £595, which, in retrospect, was absurdly good value for money. It had lovely, deep, plum metallic paint, cushy 650b WTB Horizon tyres, a 9-speed Shimano groupset and mudguards as standard. Our Hamax bike seat fitted on the back, too. Perfect!

Then she tried the commute: five flat, easy miles along the canal, the Rea Valley, or the A38 cycle route. But her experience was worse even than mine. The canal was too dark for safety and too narrow for comfort, especially with a four-year-old pendulum on the Hamax behind her. The Rea Valley route wended through the notorious bike-jacking spot of Cannon Hill Park and disgorged her onto busy suburban streets as soon as it ended. The A38 blue route took her down Selly Oak high street, a busy and mostly terrifying traffic sewer with fading bike lane signs and oblivious pedestrians, and necessitated an equally stressful negotiation of Chinatown and the city centre at the end.

I’d somehow convinced myself that all these dangers – potholes hiding in the darkness; muggers hiding in the bushes; cars rushing past just inches away – were exhilarating rather than terrifying. For an inexperienced cyclist, and a woman to boot, there was no silver lining. Cycling here is outright dangerous. More so if you don’t have the ego or the experience to blunt your perceptions of it.

In May 2022, as the pandemic finally started to abate, I found myself slogging up Oak Tree Lane in Selly Oak, aka the A4040. It’s one of those unnerving suburban streets that shouldn’t be scary, but it is. It’s wide, but only to the degree that traffic flows quickly rather than considerately. There are few side roads and sight lines are good, so no-one checks their speeds at junctions. There are frequent hatched areas between the lanes so that cars speed along beside the pavements rather than beside each other. If you aren’t in a car, it’s not a pleasant road.

So, near the crest of the hill, a little Peugeot passed me too close. I don’t know how close – it always feels like you could reach out and touch them – but my blood boiled. Like everyone else, I was already on edge, and here was someone whose commute was more important than my life.

“Oi!”, I shouted as it went past.

I caught up with the Peugeot as it sat in traffic. The driver’s window was already open and she was on the defensive. “Don’t come it with me!”, she snapped, her hand on the door handle as if to warn me she might get out to have a go. Her other hand, on the wheel, had a can of Red Bull in it.

Neither one of us acquitted ourselves well. She shouted, I shouted. Eventually I gave up. We were getting nowhere. I pushed off to leave her behind in the traffic, but as I went I felt something wet on my side. I pulled over and checked my jacket. She’d flicked her Red Bull at me as I’d left.

Years later, I am still incandescent at this. The sheer pointlessness of it all.

That close pass was only one of a parade of incidents around where we lived.

In 2018, just after we moved to Bournville, a driver managed to accelerate across a junction, smash through the gates of a church and then drive into the church itself. She had mistaken the accelerator for the brake. Later that year, another driver wedged their car into the gates of the primary school on Linden Road.

In 2019, there was the drunk driver on our street. In 2022, the close pass. Later the same year, at the end of our road, a front-seat passenger died when a driver smashed into a tree. The driver then absconded. As far as I can tell, he’s still out there. For a year or so there was a small shrine of flowers and pictures. It’s gone now.

In 2023, a driver demolished a different gate at Bournville Village Primary School, apparently by reversing into it. They drove off afterwards. Up the road in Selly Oak, near my close pass, a driver took out one of the exterior walls of Selly Oak Methodist church. And on the Bristol Road, a “stroad” that borders Bournville, a motorcyclist died after hitting a tree.

It is endless.

I don’t want to be negative about all this. There are green shoots here and there – the A34 and A38 blue cycle routes are good, for one thing. Great, even, although two decent cycle routes for a city of 1.1 million people is perhaps not an amazing ratio. Dom Whiting’s drum and bass cargo trike attracted enormous crowds in the summer of 2021. Here in Bournville, there is the promise of changes to make the roads safer and to encourage walking, wheeling and cycling, even if they seem to be perpetually delayed.

And look, I get it; there is history here with the motor car. Even if Birmingham is, in large part, responsible for the invention of modern cycling, that has long since been overtaken by its status as a hub for car manufacture – although that, too, is now in the past. The city’s ambitious remaking in the 1960s confirmed that the car was the way to get around.

But none of this matters when I’m coming up to a junction with a kid on the back, my eyes on a swivel for doors opening on parked cars, for red lights being jumped, for drivers with their eyes on the phone in their lap, for lorries whose drivers can’t see us from their cabs, for mud or ice in the gutters that are never cleaned. There are a million and one ways for someone else’s mistake to end things for me or my son. For his guileless, babbling happiness to be snuffed out in a moment. It breaks my heart to even think about it.

I’m trying to do the right thing here. I’m trying to make a short, local journey using an efficient means of transport that is, in most other circumstances, a joyful way to get about. I’m trying to make things quieter and safer and less polluted for all of the people who live here with us. And I’m trying to teach my sons that a car isn’t always necessary. But, my God, Brum makes it hard.