My First Month as Coventry’s Bicycle Mayor
This time last month, I was in Amsterdam with the team at BYCS, organisers of the Bicycle Mayor programme, and many other Bicycle Mayors from around Europe. Even with over 25% of trips being made by bicycle in Amsterdam, the team there still felt they needed to do more for people on bikes when they created the first Bicycle Mayor position in 2016.
They were inspired by another progressive program, the amusingly-named Night Mayors, also born out of Amsterdam. Night Mayors were appointed by the local community and bar and club owners to engage with government and other key stakeholders to protect and grow the nightlife economy that Amsterdam is well-known for.
During my trip to Amsterdam, I met and discussed with other Bicycle Mayors during the European Bicycle Mayor Leaders Summit. I wanted to find out more about what they had done in their respective communities, learn best practices and be inspired by the change that had already been made. We visited the province of Gelderland to speak with city officials there and be shown around the city of Arnhem, which while impressive for cycling, is on a mission to improve further. The government in Gelderland has passed a law which means that any future transport infrastructure needs to meet the objectives set in the climate emergency. This, which will come as a shock for Britain, means not building planned new road projects, even if funding was already committed and available.
As someone else described on Twitter, saying there’s a climate emergency but still building new roads without cycle provision is like proclaiming you’re on a diet, but you’ll start just as soon as you’ve eaten every single thing in the house.
The Dutch approach to people-focused transport is refreshing. While on a boat tour, I also discussed with a cycling stakeholder at the Amsterdam City Government. They have not only engaged with the Amsterdam Bicycle Mayor, they’ve funded the programme which has allowed it to flourish not only in their city but also around the globe.
I returned to the UK totally enthused and bought into the vision of the Bicycle Mayor programme. As I arrived back to the Midlands and went for a ride, like anyone who has ever cycled in the Netherlands, I was hit with just how stark the contrast was.
If the Dutch can see it, why can’t we? If their economy and transport system functions without using cars for short distances, why can’t ours? Despite the temptation to be frustrated, I was more determined than ever to try and change things for my local community and home city of Coventry.
I am the UK’s second Bicycle Mayor and the first in a UK city. The first in the UK, Richard Ingham has been doing some great work in Cumbria and it was great to discuss with him at the recent summit. Ahead of the UK City of Culture 2021, a lot of eyes are on Coventry, which gave me the opportunity for a solid media launch. As others have noted, as a PR guy, it’s perhaps not unsurprising that a lot of emphasis was put on growing awareness of the role through the media. But for Bicycle Mayors, this is one of the most important and impactful facets of the role. Bicycle Mayors are independent of government and can uniquely work with the media to highlight the issues for people on bikes, and those not yet on bikes, to hold power to account.
I got wind of a national funding announcement for cycling, so launched the news the day before. This gave me a platform to talk about how national funding opportunities (or lack of) would affect Coventry. I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling and Walking’s event to hear the announcement by Chris Heaton-Harris MP, the Minister responsible for cycling and walking. It was clear that this funding announcement was rushed, lacking clarity or vision; indeed the Prime Minister’s answer during PMQ’s prompted further confusion, with even lower figures (£350m, instead of £1 billion) being quoted in an answer to Ruth Cadbury MP.
This made me acutely aware of the lack of transparency when it comes to plans for cycling and the associated funding. Each time there is a rushed funding announcement, cycle campaigners and journalists are forced to attempt their own calculations in lieu of clear facts to try and decipher what’s been referred to. Funding for cycling should be a clear strategy, not an obscure calculation
Transparency is something I want to harness in my work as Bicycle Mayor; pushing for figures, facts and action. Across the country, but especially in Coventry, we need a little less conversation and a little more action when it comes to cycling.
In today’s landscape, where 60% of UK Councils have declared a climate emergency, the time is now to ensure that we take fast and decisive action. I believe Bicycle Mayors have a big role to play here; while there is a growing national conversation on climate change, congestion and air quality, it needs to be explained and campaigned at a local level for maximum impact.
The time for change is now so I’ve spent this last month meeting with stakeholders, experts and the wider community to talk about my vision as Bicycle Mayor for Coventry, and to seek their feedback, advice and support. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s clear that Coventrians want a more livable city and there is a large group of “interested but concerned” people who would cycle if we made it safer and more attractive to them. Importantly, for Coventry, we need to make driving less attractive too; a difficult quandary for the UK’s motor city.
Campaigners in the areas of cycling, safety and air quality are already doing great work and it’s clear that I can complement what they’re doing and lend a hand in getting them heard to new audiences. In the last month, I’ve met with several groups and discussed cycling provision with schools too, including visiting Finham Park Secondary school and giving a presentation on the benefits of cycling to 240 Year 7 children.
I’ve met and discussed with local residents who are concerned about the lack of active travel position in large-scale new housing developments in Coventry, which led me to submitting formal objections to the Council in the case of the proposed development on former greenbelt land at Eastern Green.
I’ve been amazed by the number of people who are passionate and eager to make Coventry a better place for cycling and walking. I want to build relationships with these people so that we can drive change together, so I’ve had discussions with Council officers and Councillors, as you’d expect, but also Avanti Trains (operators of Coventry station), West Midlands Police, Coventry City of Culture 2021, as well as national experts in active travel, including academics and planners.
It can be daunting how much change needs to happen in Coventry but the time has to be now. Within the first couple of weeks of being Bicycle Mayor, Coventry City Council announced their approved measures to reduce toxic air in the city, which had been mandated by central Government. The original plans would cost nearly £80m and include four high-quality cycle routes; in the end the direction from Defra prioritised measures to reduce NO2 emissions as quickly as possible with just £24m, so long-term solutions like cycle paths were scrapped in favour of traffic optimisation, likely to only be effective in the short-term (because of Jevons paradox).
There’s also a big focus on electrifying the existing fleet. Currently, Coventry City Council aren’t reporting on particulate matter (also called particle pollution), which is still caused by electric vehicles through road, brake and tyre wear. For a city known for building cars, I can see why promoting new electric cars is tempting, but this form of air pollution is associated with an adverse effect on infant brain development, and as of last week in a new study, affecting the sporting performance of children.
I wrote to Defra Minister, Rebecca Pow MP, explaining that we need to take a long-term view for public health; the NO2 limits shouldn’t be the arbitrary target to reach, we need to be reducing all forms of air pollution to as a low a figure as possible and this won’t happen through trying to maintain existing travel habits. In addition, I released a statement on Coventry’s plans to reduce air pollution which gave me a platform in media to help raise awareness that we simply can’t electrify ourselves out of the problem.
It’s fair to say it’s going to be an interesting couple of months for the Midlands. In Coventry, we have local Council elections and in the West Midlands Combined Authority area, an election for the Metro Mayor. With this in mind, I attended the launch of Sustrans’ Bike Life West Midlands report which included keynote speeches from the elected Mayor Andy Street, and TfWM Managing Director Laura Shoaf. It was interesting to see the vision for the Midlands, which should be applauded, but like with so much in this space, the devil is in the detail of the delivery.
I took the opportunity to meet with the West Midlands Cycling & Walking Ambassador, Shanaze Reade, to compare notes and explore ways of working with each other. Shanaze is a truly inspirational individual and has the ability to enthuse a whole new audience in the Midlands to cycling, walking and a healthier lifestyle.
I have recently written to all the Mayoral candidates to engage with them ahead of the elections. I’m going for a bike ride with Labour candidate Liam Byrne at the end of this month, and hope to do the same with the other candidates.
The beginning of the month started with Holland, and that’s where it finished. Sort of. I spent a morning visiting the Mini Holland scheme in Waltham Forest. I’ve never cycled anywhere in Britain and felt as safe and comfortable as I did in this pocket of northeast London. I’m immensely grateful to LCC campaigners Paul Gasson and Simon Munk; not only for their informative and insightful tour, but the years and years of behind-the-scenes campaigning to make Mini Hollands a reality for their local community.
Mini Hollands have brought Dutch-style cycle infrastructure to outer London boroughs. As detailed in a recent government case study, “Mini Hollands aim to make cycling pleasanter, safer and more convenient. The infrastructure changes include; segregated cycle lanes; measures to calm motor traffic; redesigned town centres; cycle hubs and a range of behaviour change measures including community bike rides. The schemes also include measures to improve the walking environment such as new pedestrian crossings at key locations, and the creation of new public spaces with seating, trees and flowerbeds.”
Once you see this stuff you can’t unsee it. The great news is that, despite limited ambition from central Government, there is money on the table for more Mini Holland pilots and I think it would be perfect for Coventry. Communities in the city could benefit from reduced congestion, healthier communities, new public spaces to support regeneration and – importantly for Coventry – drastically improved air quality, as this map of Waltham Forest illustrates.
I have written to the relevant members of Coventry City Council’s cabinet inviting them to join me on a Mini Holland tour and to discuss a bid, something I’ll be pushing hard as a key focus to try and make a reality.
And finally, a huge thanks to everyone who has supported me so far. Especially to more experienced cycling advocates, such as Chris Boardman, Simon Munk, Phil Jones of Phil Jones Associates, George Riches of Coventry Cyclist, Phil Upton of BBC CWR, Nick Chamberlain from British Cycling, Will Butler-Adams from Brompton and many more who have helped me be as impactful as possible in these first thirty days.