Here’s everything we learned spending an afternoon on route 11, Birmingham’s Outer Circle bus

Here we go! Image: Hamz/Wikimedia Commons.

For just over three years, Birmingham’s number 11 bus lost its coveted title as Europe’s longest urban bus route – and, what’s worse, to an obvious copy-cat.

In June 2013, Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) introduced the 360 City Circle, a 31.5 mile loop around Coventry. The idea was obviously inspired by the long-standing success of the Birmingham Outer Circle, a 27-mile loop that has been circling Coventry’s larger neighbour since 1926.

It didn’t take, though: in July 2016, TfWM announced that too few passengers were using the 360 to justify the necessary subsidy. And so, that route was broken up, and the number 11 regained its crown.

Indeed, it’s gone from strength to strength. While the 360 was getting fewer than 14,000 passengers a month, the 11 is reported to have more than 50,000 a day. Every 10 minutes or so, if you’re so minded, you can get on a bus somewhere in suburban Birmingham, and spend three hours traveling past 266 stops, 233 educational establishments, 69 leisure and community facilities, 40 pubs, 19 retail centres, six hospitals and a prison.

The route. Image: Centro, via Birmingham Museum & Gallery/Flickr.

I was so minded. So one recent Sunday, I boarded a bus somewhere in North Edgbaston, for no other reason than to get back to where I started. Here’s what I learned.

The Outer Circle is a road as well as a bus

The route follows the A4040, the Birmingham outer ring road. But that isn’t a specially built orbital route: it’s just a bunch of disconnected roads given the same number, so that you can, if you fancy, circumnavigate the city.

As a result, in a few places, the bus route suddenly doubles back on itself:

The route around Cotteridge. Image: National Express West Midlands.

The Outer Circle pretends to be two routes, but isn’t

Technically, there are two number 11s. The 11A circumnavigates the city, running from Harborne to Kings Heath to Acocks Green to Stechford to Erdington to Handsworth to Harborne again.

My bus, though, was an 11C, which does the same route, but the other way around. If you’re wondering why there’s no 11B, it’s because the letters stand for anti-clockwise and clockwise. You could have an 11B, meaning “backwards”, but that might get confusing.

Anyway: this is really just a single route with two slightly different labels, to get around the fact that destinations aren’t much use on a circular route. It reminds me of Glasgow’s insistence that its subway has an inner circle and an outer circle, rather than a single circle with two directions.

In western Birmingham there’s a station named after a bus route

Winson Green Outer Circle is a stop on the Midlands Metro tram route. Winson Green is the name of the area; Outer Circle is the name of the bus you can change for there.

I’m not certain this is unique, but it must at least be unusual. London stations don’t name themselves after their interchanges with road services, otherwise you’d end up with nightmarish formulations like ‘Plaistow 69 241 262 325 473’. I mean, imagine the roundels.

The lampposts are colour-coded, sort of

“You get to see all the lampposts colour-coded by area,” occasional CityMetric contributor David Barker told me.

This, it turns out, is a real thing. According to the Birmingham Mail in 2010:

THE humble grey lamppost is set to get a dazzling new lease of life in Birmingham, with communities being invited to pick their own colours.

The dull grey poles can now be replaced with red, greens, blues and blacks or even, at extra cost, a different colour.

The Irish Quarter in Digbeth could go for green, while Caribbean communities in Handsworth might favour a green, yellow and red motif.

Sadly all I spotted on my journey was that the ones in Handsworth are orange. Still, though, it’s a nice thought. If anyone out there has done a map, let me know.

Birmingham’s islands are very disappointing

Birmingham, its fans like to tell the world, has more canals than Venice. This is true (35 miles to 26 miles), though it rather ignores the fact that Birmingham is physically quite a lot bigger than Venice.

Despite this profusion of waterways, the various “islands” the number 11 passes are not nearly as nice as they sound. In the Brummie vocabulary, “island” means “traffic island” – or, to you and me, “roundabout”. Perry Barr Island is not nearly as scenic as its name suggests.

Bromford is a real place

This is quite a personal one, but I’ve never quite been able to believe in the existence of Bromford. It sounds like the sort of place a guy from Romford might make up as his hometown in an attempt to impress a woman posher than he is.

Bromford. Image: Google Maps.

But no, there it is. Huh.

This used to be a nice name, once

Look what I found in Stechford:

No comment.

Brummie roads have a lot of wasted space

Look at that central reservation:

There are loads of roads like that in Birmingham, with big, grassy gaps between the two carriageways. Some of them have trees on them. Some of them just have a big metal barrier.

Things like this seem like they should make the world more scenic. But often, so it feels to me, they just make everything feel a bit windswept.

The spaces were once, someone told me, used for trams. Couldn’t they do that again? Or at least, cycle paths? The current set up just feels like a bit of a waste of space. It’s not like you’re ever going to have a picnic in the middle of the Bristol Road is it?

The route 11 makes southern Birmingham feel like the posh bit

Many of the suburbs on the north side of the city appear, from the bus, to be fairly run down, ex-industrial districts. Those on the south – like Kings Heath, or chocolate-box-y Bourneville – are relatively plush residential areas.

Is this really how the economic geography of the city breaks down, I wondered? Or is it just a function of which route the bus happens to take?

The BBC’s Joey D’Urso suggested it’s a bit of both. On the one hand:

But on the other:

Worthy topic of further bus-based Birmingham research, perhaps.

Traffic is genuinely lower on a Sunday

All the stuff I’d read about the route suggested that it would take as much as three hours to do the whole circle. At the stop I’d got on at (City Road/Fountain Road, if you’re interested), the signs showed journey times up to the eastern suburbs – the furthest point of the route, presumably on the grounds that to go any further you’d be better off taking the bus from the stop across the road. This, they said, was 90 minutes away.

My bus though took just 2hrs21 to do the entire route. Huh. Turns, out roads really are quieter on a Sunday.

Bit disappointing, though. I was hoping for the full three hours.

Ah well, maybe next time. 11A, baby!

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.