Big Birmingham Bikes: A Revolution In The Waiting?

Being right is useless! It’s one of the hardest but most invaluable lessons that any enterprise learns. The point of our existence is not to be right but to fail and to fail quickly. We are enormously capable human beings capable of learning from our failures, of adapting our lives and of moving towards a far greater level of success than we could ever have envisaged. If on the other hand we succeed early we are often too easily seduced by our success, we believe we are better and more capable than we actually are and thus begins what soon becomes a terminal decline. 

Steve Jobs infamously failed as a  college student, unable to focus and to work within the necessary academic constraints of the university. Jobs dropped out and failed his degree. Except that on the road to failing he chose to attend a class practicing the art of colligraphy. In this class he learned the fundamental importance of aesthetics, he learned about 'what makes great typography great' he learned that fonts could be varied and different and thus came the beginning of multiple font choices we commonly use several times a day. The genius of Jobs began with his failure, with his getting it wrong, with his being unable to do the right thing. What made Jobs a genius was not that he got it right but that he failed and quickly adapted, not once but hundreds of times. 

In a manner diametrically opposed to our obsession with young talentless success there is much to be said for getting it wrong. 

In recent days my Facebook timeline has been bombarded with links to a mutlitude of articles exclaiming the launch of the Big Birmingham Bike; an ingenious program endeavoring to offer 5000 free bikes to worthy candidates. It’s a key part of the city's cycle revolution and a visionary attempt to increase the number of people cycling within our city by addressing the fundamental problem of bike ownership. If you’re keen to join the cycling revolution but finances are tight, no longer must you settle for a naf pile of second hand rust in a vaguely bike shaped format, instead you could acquire a brand new Raleigh hybrid. Admittedly never my bike of choice but certainly an improvement if the alternatives are nothing at all. 

I have huge sympathies for this project. I’ve spent my entire working life in communities blighted by poverty and am excited by anything which might help people reach beyond that poverty and towards a better life. Mobility is crucial. 

I am however unable to shake a lingering voice in my head which reminds me that ownership is rarely the question and almost never the problem we think it is. 

In many western homes there will be a multitude of items we never use, we own them but we do not use them, nor do we ever intend to use them. My son has a guitar, it is seemingly a good weapon against his brother but rarely meets with the musical form for which it was designed. Why? In truth this is probably because I lack musical ability and have been unable to nurture that new possibility in him. That’s a sad truth but to see it as anything else would only be to let pride stand in the way of progress. If my son had a much more musical parent then I suspect the guitar on his bedroom floor would in fact be a source of great joy. 

To ask ‘how’ the supply of free bikes will actually address some of the major issues in under participation is not to dismiss the clearly good motives behind this project it is to offer those motives half a chance of achieving their ultimate goal. 

There are three issues which, to my mind at least, the Big Birmingham Bikes project does not address and which I fear will prevent its success. 

Firstly, storage. Let’s assume you live in any one of the small terraced houses or high rise flats which dominate some our cities most deprived wards. Where exactly will you store the bike you have been given? 

Secondly, training. Read the blurb and it states that training will be provided to Bike-ability level 2. This is a standard which falls far short of enabling any resident of an area blighted by hazardous driving to develop the skills to ride safely and proactively. 

Thirdly, safety. Ask any none cyclist the number one obstacle to cycling and they all offer the same response; ‘it’s not safe’. While their are proposals to introduce 20mph across many urban areas of the city there is nothing in those proposals which outlines how that limit will be enforced. Given the complete disregard for the long established 30mph, double yellow lines and school zig zags you’ll forgive any urban resident for their lack of confidence in a new 20mph zone. 

At the heart of my nagging concern there is the very simple observation that across much of our beloved city there is an absolute lack of cycling culture. Cycling is as alien to many urban residents as horse riding and I doubt that activity would change if you provided free horses. 

For the same reasons my son rarely plays his guitar I suspect many of the Big Birmingham Bikes will fail to meet their desired outcome. 

‘What about Boris Bikes?’ I hear you cry, ‘Surely it proves that affordable provision changes cultural behavior’ or so the argument goes. Not quite! The comparisons are extremely limited and the facts (if we're still interested in supporting social and economic mobility) far from encouraging. While Boris Bikes are not without their difficulties the mass of bespoke cycling stands all across London mean they do have an obvious storage solution, their is also little clear evidence that they address a problem of economic mobility, and you only need to ride one for a matter of seconds before you find yourself swept along in a mass of cycling activity which alters perceptions of safety and makes London a deeply problematic comparison. 

As with every opportunity in life I hope I am wrong, that in five years time the provision of Big Birmingham Bikes has been an overwhelming success, that their use is far higher than predicted and that urban residents have sought and identified innovative solutions to problems of storage, safety and cultural malaise. I also hope my son picks up his guitar and amazes me with his Henrix like ability. 

To have hope is a very strange thing.