Route review: A47 Parkway

Spitfire sculpture

The first section of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution is drawing to a close, and so we are starting to review the routes that have been made. This is a review of the A47 Parkway route that goes from Millennium Point alongside the A47 dual carriageway to Spitfire Island and the edge of Castle Vale. Although the initial plans included works to improve the underpasses at Ashted Circus, a 'pinch-point' scheme to do away with the whole island has superseded the BCR plans, and so that section of the route is being left alone for the moment. So I am reviewing the route from just past Ashted Circus.

I will be using the Cycling Environment Assessment Tool to give a score to the route, to demonstrate the use of the tool. CEAT is being developed by Cycle Nation to assist cycle campaigners in communicating with councillors and highways engineers. It is intended to give a fairly objective score of (sections of) a route, and to give clear suggestions as to how to improve that score. I hope that this review will assist you in understanding how the tool is used.

Overview:

The A47 Parkway route is a roughly 5 mile main corridor route that connects Castle Vale with Birmingham City Centre. From Ashted Circus to the roundabout where the A47 meets the B4132, the route takes quiet back streets, and then from that island until Spitfire Island, the route is all on the pavement next to the A47. I am going to assess those two sections separately, as they have different characteristics. On my heavy sit-up-and-beg Dutch bike, I completed the route in about 35 minutes without pushing myself too hard. There are few side roads, so it is possible to make good progress, although at some of the roundabouts there are multiple crossings which perhaps add 5 to 10 minutes to the actual journey time (I averaged 11 mph, but with stoppage time at the junctions, it was closer to 9.5 mph). The route as a whole feels safe - there was only 1 place that I felt was actually dangerous, at the entrance to the Fort Shopping Park.

Very little work needed to be done to the route to bringing it up to this standard - the most expensive part will have been the upgrading of the toucan crossings, and in some places the path was widened a little. This shows what good use can be made of existing pavements in areas where there are few people walking on the pavements. However because the route consists of adapted pavements, it does not look distinctly like a cycle route and so will not advertise itself. Good signage is needed to help local people to understand what the route is and where it goes.

There are a few important destinations along the route - Star City and Costco Whole Sale (good for those with cargo bikes such as mine); Aston station and Duddeston station are close to the route; The Fort Shopping Centre and Fort Dunlop; through Castle Vale, the route connects to Water Orton and the countryside beyond. The route also should attract people from parts of Castle Bromwich, Castle Vale and Walmley who want to cycle to the centre of Birmingham. Once they have reached the route, it is clear and direct to the city centre.

This route does not have a very attractive environment due to the high volume of motor traffic adjacent to it, but it will make a good commuting and utility route for the various destinations along the way. If, that is, the local people who could use it actually know that it is there - the installation of good signage is essential to advertise this route.

Section 1 - Ashted Circus to the B1432:

CEAT factors - This section is on a road without any cycle specific infrastructure, with a speed limit of 20mph. The road surface is very smooth and the effective width is over 4 meters (although there are parked cars which take it down a bit in places), and there are no barriers at all. The back streets are not as direct as cycling on the A47 at this point, and I have estimated a deviation of within 25%. There are no pedestrians on the roads, but I found it difficult to evaluate the volume of cars using the road. 1,000 PCUs is about 1 car every 90 seconds. I did not have that many cars pass me on that section, but I don't know if it gets busier during rush hour or with school traffic. I selected 1,000 PCUs, and that gives an overall score of 4/5. To improve the route to 5/5, CEAT recommends making the route more direct and adding at least advisory cycle lanes. However 4/5 is still a very good score and more than acceptable.

However, if the PCUs is higher - between 1,000 to 2,000 per day - the score reduces to 3/5. As I don't know what volume of motor traffic there is during rush hour, then my evaluation may be slightly out. In that case the addition of advisory cycle lanes would raise the score to 4/5.

Other comments - This section needs signposts (see the photos below). I had to use the cycle symbols to check where I was going, and on the way back I missed one of my turnings. In addition, without clear signposts, the cycle symbols will confuse people driving cars who will wonder what the symbols are meant to signify.

Section 2 - B1432 to Spitfire Island:

CEAT factors - I have selected 'high protection' because the route is on a shared-use pavement with the minimum of a high kerb separating cycle users from motor traffic. With this option selected, the speed of the motor traffic and the volume of motor traffic has no effect on the rating because of the physical segregation. I selected 40mph and more than 10,000 PCUs per day. The majority of the route has an effective width of about 3 meters, so I selected that, and there were no barriers on the route. The directness is just slightly less than for motor traffic because of the crossings at the roundabouts, but I chose less than 10% because there were not too many crossings for the length of the route. There are few pedestrians - less that 100 per hour - and overall the surface was smooth. This gives a rating of 3/5.

To improve the score to 4/5, CEAT recommends increasing the width of the path. At the moment that is not needed because of the low volume of cycle traffic, but if the route became as popular as some of the canal towpaths, the width would need to be increased at least in the sections where there is only a kerb between the path and the motor traffic.

Other comments:

There were three places that I felt were dangerous. The first was at the entrances to the Fort Shopping Centre. The roundabout here is fast and motor traffic exits into the shopping centre roads at high speeds and often without signalling. One of the entrances is a dual carriageway and although there is a central reservation, crossing two lanes with fast moving cars felt very unsafe. I expect that there will be road traffic collisions (RTCs) here unless further steps are taken to improve this junction. The other entrance only has a single lane in each direction, but the central reservation is too narrow and the vegetation obscures cycle users trying to cross. Anyone on a recumbent cycle or any children would be invisible until they entered the carriageway - again, I expect that this will have RTCs unless further measures are taken to improve conditions. In our response to the original consultation, Push Bikes raised concerns about these two road mouths but they have not been improved sufficiently.

The other 2 places that I felt were a little dangerous were at the entrances to Costco car park and at the entrance to the Fort Dunlop building. At both of these entrances, cycle users heading towards Castle Vale have to look at a sharp angle over their shoulder to see any motor traffic turning into the entrances. Although the cycle users will be clearly visible to the drivers, I always prefer to be able to look for myself rather than trusting drivers to watch out for me. At Costco, the cycle path needs to cross the entrance road a little further in, so that cycle users only have to look 90 degrees, and the angle of the corner needs to be tightened up so that motor vehicles have to slow down significantly. At the Fort Dunlop building, the owners of the building need to put in a cycle track going through the drop-off area, so that cycle users are not crossing the paths of motor vehicles. Some cycle parking at the front of the building would also be very beneficial for people going to the 24/7 gym here as well.

Other than those 3 locations, I felt very safe on the rest of the route. The other side roads were all for small industrial areas with minimal motor traffic which means low risk of collisions. However some of the angles could be improved to aid people cycling towards Castle Vale - those people cycling towards Birmingham City Centre have good visibility because they are cycling against the direction of the motor traffic.

The surface of the pavement was good, even where there were paving slabs. A couple of sections had some tree root issues, but those were quite short. I did not feel that the surface was slowing me down, although people on road bikes who are used to getting up to 15mph average speed or more might find the surface not as good as the carriageway. The main issue, though, was the amount of dirt and debris on some sections of the pavement. On one section the sun caught the glass strewn across the pavement, giving a sparkling effect to a long downhill section. I have Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on my Dutch bike, but for people riding with faster lighter tyres along that route regularly I would expect punctures several times a year. At one point I came across a decomposing cat on the pavement. There are street-sweepers that are narrow enough to drive along these pavements, so it is unacceptable that cycle users are being asked to put up with debris that car users are not.

With regard to the width of the footpath, it was very good for the majority of the route. Compared with the width of most of the canal towpaths, there was nothing to complain about. In a couple of places, though, vegetation had been allowed to grow out over the path. If there were more people cycling along this route, that vegetation would need to be cut back. There were a few places where the footpath had been widened to give a better width for cycle users - I have a few photos of those sections below - and also a couple of places where the pavement had been widened at sections with a turn in the desire line. It was only at a couple of the roundabouts that I felt that the width was restricted, and only for a few meters. This is much better than many of the routes around Birmingham.

The route had a good level of social safety because of the high volume of motor traffic on that A47. In some sections there was vegetation separating the carriageway and footpath, but that has been kept low so that the footpath is still overlooked by the motor vehicles. I would feel much much safer riding along the A47 route at night than I would along the canal towpath - this is something that is very important in major cycle routes as we need them to be welcoming at all times of the day. It is because of this social safety that I feel this route is good despite the high level of motor traffic immediately next to it.

Most of the toucan crossings along the route had good response times of less than 10 seconds. However at Spitfire Island I found myself waiting for a long time, and even crossed 3 lanes without the light turning because I had seen a (very large) gap in the motor traffic. Toucan crossings are set to respond more slowly if they have just been triggered, and on major junctions such as Spitfire Island, waiting times are set longer in order to 'smooth' the flow of motor traffic. However these measures encourage poor crossing behaviour by cycle users and pedestrians who get tired of waiting for the crossing to turn. The needs of pedestrians and cycle users need to be more heavily weighted in the decision making process for timings of crossings.

 

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Overview of the A47 Parkway route
Overview of the A47 Parkway route

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Start of the A47 cycle route.
Start of the A47 cycle route as Ashted Circus. A dropped kerb has been installed, but there are no signs to let anyone know that this is one of the main cycle routes. This area, however, will be changed significantly when the pinch point scheme at Ashted Circus goes ahead, so it is understandable that not much has been done here at the moment.

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Parked cars on the A47 Parkway route
Parked cars on the A47 Parkway route. I assume that many of these cars are local people, but it may also be a popular location for commuters to park for the city centre. The road has an adequate width despite the parked cars and it feels quiet.

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Junction with cycle symbols on A47 Parkway route.
Junction with cycle symbols on A47 Parkway route. At the moment there are no signs to indicate which way to go, so the only navigation aid is to see where the bike symbols continue. On the way back I missed this turning because I didn't see the bike symbols on my way past. Without signposts, the route will not be used as much as it should be.

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Joining the pavement.
This junction is at the end of the on-road part of the A47 route. At the end of this road, the speed limit returns to 30mph, and the road gets much busier. The pavement here is not too narrow but I do not know if it will become busier during rush hour and school start and end. However those people who ride the route regularly will use a cut-through on private land here that bypasses this section of pavement completely. I am disappointed with the width of this dropped kerb - it is too short, so that if two cycle users approach at the same time, one will have to wait for the other. It would have been better if it was twice as wide. Thankfully the dropped kerbs on the rest of the route are better than this one.

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Shared use pavement next to A4132
Shared use pavement next to A4132. I was glad to have joined the pavement at this point as it allowed me to skip past this line of motor traffic. Note, however, that there is a sign post in the middle of the pavement which restricts the width a bit. If you used this route regularly, you would use a cut through private land that would enable you to miss this section completely.

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Bloomsbury Library
This beautiful building is Bloomsbury Library in Nechells. The crossing here has been upgraded to a Toucan crossing, and has a good width and is direct. The photo is mainly just an excuse to show off the building.

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Staggered crossing close on the B1432
Staggered crossing close on the B1432. The fresh tarmac shows where the crossing has been upgraded to a Toucan crossing, but the stagger still creates a pinch point for people crossing here. This distance could be crossed in 1 phase by someone on a bicycle, but in the UK we install 2 separate crossings so that the motor traffic is 'smoother'.

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Widening of footpath next to B4132 junction with A47
Widening of footpath next to B4132 junction with A47. The fresh tarmac shows where the fence line has been pushed back to give more space.

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Filtered permeability at Nechells Place
Filtered permeability at Nechells Place. The footpath on the roundabout has a connection with Nechells Place so cycles and pedestrians can have a significantly more direct route than motor vehicles. Stopping up this road mouth was done a long time ago to make the roundabout safer. The use of bollards and a dropped kerb makes this accessible for pedestrians and cycle users.

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Narrow section of pavement next to A47.
Not all sections of the pavement were of adequate width. This section was thankfully short, but the young man walking along here shows how easily the pavement can become blocked when it is narrower. The railings take up a significant part of the pavement as well as collecting debris beneath them.

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Cycle route crossing entrance to industrial site.
Here the route crosses over this entrance to an industrial site. With the low volume of cycle traffic at the moment, this crossing is acceptable although not directly on the desire line. However if the volume of cycle traffic increases significantly in the future, this crossing will need to be reviewed. These dropped kerbs were already here, though, so very little money was spent on this section - a trade off between getting more length versus improving small details for minimal current benefit. As there is little traffic turning into this industrial site, this crossing is ok now.

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The A47 crossing over the canal.
Here the canal passes under the A47, and you can clearly see the re-surfaced towpath paid for through BCR funds. While the resurfaced towpaths are much better, the footpath here next to the A47 is wider and smoother with better social safety due to the cars close by. The canal towpath is more tranquil and has more wild life, but my personal preference is for the A47 route here - not all will agree with me though and it is good that we have the option of both routes.

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Footpath separated from the A47 by vegetation.
Here a verge with low vegetation separates the footpath from the A47. This gives a more comfortable feeling with the motor traffic not so close by, while still providing a good sense of social safety. It would be wonderful if the whole route was like this, but unfortunately that's not possible.

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Vegetation growing over the footpath.
Here we can see a section where the vegetation is narrowing the effective width of the footpath. Luckily there is still a verge separating the footpath from the motor traffic - otherwise this section would have felt much more dangerous. The route needs to have good maintenance so that vegetation like this is kept cut back and the route kept more open on its whole length.

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Paved footpath next to junction with Aston Church Road
This section of footpath appears to have been widened. There were long sections of footpath laid with these paving slabs, but luckily the slabs were still in good condition with very few displaced or sticking up. Just around the corner the footpath narrows significantly unfortunately.

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Toucan crossing on Aston Church Road
Thankfully this section was short, because the footpath here was narrow and the railings made it even narrower. The running lanes for the motor traffic are wider than they need to be, so in the future it should be possible to reallocate space from the carriageway to the footpath to bring this footpath up to an acceptable width. The tight 90 degree turn makes the lack of space worse - if two cycle users met each other coming in opposite directions, someone would have to give way, reducing the time that they have to cross here safely.

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Old bridge over the canal.
This old bridge has been retained and converted into a link for pedestrians and cycle users. This is good, but there is no cycle infrastructure going up Aston Church Road towards Aston Station.

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Entrance to Costco car park
This entrance is very poorly laid out. The central island is off the desire line and will not be used by most people. There needs to be a wider and longer central island and the footpath should cross 1 car's length from the exit, so that car drivers can focus on motor traffic separately from pedestrians and cycle users. There is ample space to achieve this but more money will need to be spent.

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Textured tiles at a pedestrian entrance to Fort Shopping Centre.
This stretch of tram-line tiles is notable for being the only mis-use of textured tiles along the whole 5 miles of the route. This is to be lauded. These tiles, however, need to be removed as they are creating a hazard for cycle users along this section. They should be located inside the side path rather than on the main footpath, if they are to be used at all. The only reason for them to be in this location is that there might be a boundary between the Fort Shopping Centre land and the BCC Highways land preventing BCC installing them in the correct fashion.

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Map of the Fort Shopping Centre
This map shows the junction where the A47 meets the internal roads for the Fort Shopping Centre. Is it really necessary for there to be a dual-carriageway entrance serving the car park next to Ben & Jerry's?

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Dual carriageway entrance to the Fort Shopping Centre
This screenshot of Google Streetview shows the dual-carriageway entrance to the Fort Shopping Centre. The wide corners here permit motor traffic to enter this road at speeds which are too fast and the vegetation in the centre of the island prevents cycle users from getting a good view of all the approaching motor traffic. This crossing is dangerous and there will be RTCs here. It urgently needs work done to make it safer.

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Second entrance into the Fort Shopping Centre area.
This entrance is safer as there is a central reservation and only 1 lane to cross on each side. The central reservation is too narrow, however, and the vegetation here on the corner obscures the view of the footpath. Children on bicycles and adults on recumbents will not be visible to car drivers.

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