Smelly Oak

Traffic congestion at Selly Oak Triangle

In the latter part of the twentieth century Selly Oak village centre was remodelled as a gyratory junction in the shape of a triangle. The photograph was taken on one corner of the gyratory system, and shows the typical situation on a Saturday. The queues of mostly private cars extend for some distance in every direction. Short of visiting the junction, you'll just have to imagine the smell of fumes. I recently responded to a consultation on proposals for the Selly Oak Triangle junction. I was greatly disappointed to see that despite the introductory words, Birmingham City Council is proposing to maintain an outdated automotive city style, bloated road network in place of what should be and could be a thriving high street. Why is Birmingham continuing to live in the past as far as infrastructure design is concerned, when other cities in the UK (London, Manchester, and Leicester, for example) are starting to copy what continental towns and cities have been doing successfully for decades, namely making themselves places for everyone, not just for people driving through?

The existing road layout is dismal. It creates conflict between motor vehicles, it causes pedestrians to spend an eternity waiting at multiple crossings for the short periods they are given to cross the carriageway, and for cyclists there is nothing at all (other than a nightmare). Clogged with six lanes of motor vehicles, it should be no surprise that what should be my local high street isn’t a high street at all. On one side there are a handful of shops grimly hanging on, whilst on the other side Sainsbury’s (which is situated on the largest island) has turned its back.

Selly Oak High Street

Selly Oak "High Street". Sainsbury's is on the left. Note there are even cars on the pavement.

When Birmingham City Council proposed doing the same to Kings Heath twenty five years ago, locals objected, citing Selly Oak as an example of what happens when you turn a high street into part of a multi-lane gyratory system.

The remodelling of this area should be taken as an opportunity to follow modern best practice and remove all unnecessary motor traffic from the high street, allowing people and trade to return (trade in New Street increased by 25% when it was pedestrianised). However, that is not what has been proposed. Rather it is proposed to keep the high street as a six lane highway, which in turn encourages motor traffic to continue using Bournbrook high street as a through-route for the A38 corridor. Instead of being a bypass, the Selly Oak New Road means that we now have an eight lane route in and out of the the city via Selly Oak. Just one, "possible", crossing is proposed to help pedestrians deal with these busy roads (a significant reduction on the crossings currently provided), and the suggestions (and they are only suggestions) for cycling infrastructure are laughable, with no attempt to link to any of the (albeit very poor) infrastructure for cyclists that does exist around the Selly Oak Triangle junction.

Over the past year there have been proposals to put pinch points and speed cushions on Gibbins Road to address rat-running. The problems in Gibbins Road are directly related to what has been allowed to develop at the Triangle. Completely contrary to modern best practice in road network design, motorists are provided with a filter lane into Gibbins Road to encourage them to use a residential road to bypass the problems created by the Triangle junction.

The filter lane into Gibbins Road encourages rat running on a residential road

The long queue of cars using the filter lane into Gibbins Road to rat-run around the Selly Oak Triangle extends on to the roundabout behind the viewpoint.

The stated aim of the proposals in Gibbins Road is to reduce the problems caused by rat-running (speeding and heavy traffic) and encourage cycling, but they will do neither. Speed cushions simply cause motorists to concentrate on straddling the humps rather than avoiding other road users. At pinch points motorists race cyclists into the gaps and force cyclists into the kerb. This is such a common problem that on a cyclecam video I made purely to show someone a route I was taking (I don't normally ride around with a camera rolling), I caught two motorists doing just that. Note that despite the enormous width here, on this recently rebuilt junction there are six lanes for motor traffic and two big traffic islands, but the cycle path consists of a strip on the pavement so narrow that two cyclists cannot pass on it.

The automotive city concept is thoroughly discredited, because it simply results in over-use of private cars, congestion, road deaths, pollution, and poor health. It also causes great problems and hardship for people. Some will make sacrifices to buy and run a car, but a big repair bill will leave them with no personal transport. For many a owning a car is an impossibility. In Birmingham the proportion of households without a car varies from about 20% to about 60%, depending on the ward. In Selly Oak, the figure is 37%. Forty percent of the city's population is under 25Children (including teenagers) are completely locked out out of the automotive city concept, and become reliant on the parental taxi service. Even young adults are locked out, finding the cost of insurance prohibitive. Yet according to the city's own publicity material currently on display in Fletcher's Walk, 40% of the city's population is under 25. So why does that city major on building infrastructure for a form of transport they cannot legally use or cannot afford? The Dutch famously recognised all this decades ago and opted for a balanced, sustainable approach, which provides transport for all, no matter what their age, ability, or income. Other British cities are now recognising that the Dutch approach works much better. When you build a road like the Selly Oak New Road to bypass a local centre, you close the old road to through motor traffic, which allows it to be downgraded. The space freed up can be used for cyclists and pedestrians, who will bring trade to the local centre (it’s very easy to stop and shop when on foot or on a cycle). Similarly, residential roads like Gibbins Road should be closed to through motor traffic, which makes them quiet enough to be used for cycling without any further construction work. Such closures are achieved with nothing more than bollards and planters. This technique, which is called filtered permeability, is tried and trusted in mainland Europe. Leicester was also rebuilt as an automotive city, but Leicester City Council has since proved that applying the same techniques works in the Midlands too (not that this came as any surprise to people campaigning for reform of British infrastructure). It does not result in increased congestion, because people switch to sustainable transport once it becomes more convenient than driving. Walthamstow has found exactly the same, and has just recently published the statistics for the effects of its own filtered permeability scheme (which it calls a mini Holland). Since the scheme was introduced eighteen months ago:

  • Traffic levels in 12 key roads in the “village” area of Walthamstow fell by an average of 56 per cent (ranging from 22% to 97%), or 10,000 fewer vehicles a day.
  • Provisional results for Walthamstow reveal an overall traffic reduction of 16 per cent, including a slight increase in traffic on two roads bordering the “village” (traffic in Hoe Street rose three per cent and 11 per cent in Lea Bridge Road).
  • There were no reported collisions between last September and April, compared with 15 between September 2012 and August 2015.

The full results, which will be released by the council early next year, are expected to include a large increase in the number of people cycling and walking. By way of comparison, the reduction in motor traffic during school holidays is around 6%, so 16% represents a very noticeable and significant reduction. Continental cities typically achieve a cycling modal share of around 20% after five to ten years following the introduction of cycle-friendly infrastructure, so Waltham Forest Council, which ignored protests against the scheme, is bang on target and has achieved a result to be proud of.

Despite all the evidence, Birmingham City Council just assumes in its traffic modelling that motor traffic levels will not drop and that therefore there is insufficient space to build for sustainable transport. Despite all the evidence, Birmingham City Council pushes cycling as transport to the margins, to the extent that it is usually not considered at all. If you ignore all the evidence and do the wrong things, then you are bound to fail.

The irony is that Selly Oak is being touted as a Green Travel District. If this means more painted cycle symbols, indirect, low quality, gravel-strewn shared-use paths to nowhere, and leaflets telling people they should leave the car behind and cycle through unreformed streets, it wont work. It will be a complete waste of money. These ideas have been tried many times, and have failed every time, frittering away funding. I see little hope for it being anything other than this. I regularly see councillors supporting the right of people to drive anywhere and everywhere they want, even though it makes life unpleasant for the people who live along the way. Yet there’s a reason why houses in cul-de-sacs command a price premium, and why the fact of a house being in a “quiet cul-de-sac” always appears on property fliers in estate agents. Nobody wants their home street, or their high street, to be heavily trafficked. So why on Earth is Birmingham City Council so stuck in the past? Why does it keep flogging the dead horse that is the automotive city concept?

What You Can Do

The text for this article is heavily based on an email I sent to Karen McCarthy (Labour councillor for Selly Oak) three weeks ago, asking her if she wanted to see a modern, thriving Selly Oak, or one that remains a giant junction for motor traffic. I have had a reply, but I get the impression that the message that our road network does not have to be bloated is not sinking in with councillors. The effect of traffic reduction of the magnitude achieved first by the Dutch and more lately by others has to be seen to be believed, but neither councillors nor officers seem willing to look. The ease with which that traffic reduction can be achieved is similarly not believed. Yet the basis of this reduction is clearly laid out in Birmingham City Council's own document, the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan (the precursor to Birmingham Connected), where it states:

Getting a 20% cycling modal share is easy if you discourage the large number of car journeys under three miles that are made by car, many, if not most of which could be made on a cycle if the infrastructure were not so hostile.

A very large percentage of journeys under three miles are driven, and filtered permeability directly addresses that by discouraging people from driving short distances whilst simultaneously encouraging cycling (by rendering roads much less hostile). That's why it is so effective.

We need to keep pushing this message, and hard, so contact the Selly Oak councillors, and ask them for something better, something that by design encourages sustainable transport (ie cycling and walking). Ask for filtered permeability, and point out that the big modal shift that results from it means that junctions such as that at the Triangle do not need to be so bloated, which in turn means there is more space for protected cycling infrastructure, and more space for pedestrians. Having shown that there is space for protected cycling infrastructure, ask for it to be included as part of remodelling. And don't forget to point out that Sustrans have shown that Brummies do want to cycle, just like the people of Walthamstow, but at the moment the city council is blocking their wishes.

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Selly Oak Triangle Proposal

Selly Oak Triangle proposal
This is Birmingham City Council's proposal for the Selly Oak local centre. We're now well into the twenty first century, but the council's highways department is still firmly in the 1960s with this automotive city design. The road on the bottom edge of the triangle is supposed to be Selly Oak High Street. From: http://tinyurl.com/j4z2r3z

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Why the Automotive City Concept Doesn't Work

Why the automotive city concept doesn't work
Cars require far more space to transport people than any other form of transport, so there simply isn't room in a typical city for everyone to make their journey by car. The automotive city concept originates in the US, but even in the US, where there is far more space than in the UK, they have seen appalling congestion and pollution as a result, and are starting to look to cycles as a solution. Whilst trams and buses are far more spatially efficient than both walking and cycling, they typically rely on fossil fuels and they have the fundamental flaw that they follow fixed routes. That's fine if your journey lies on a route, but not otherwise. Additionally, journey times tend to be much longer than on a cycle, because a cyclist doesn't have to stop every few hundred metres to collect and drop off passengers, so a cyclist will achieve a higher average speed. Cycling occupies the sweet spot for city transport.

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Car Ownership in Birmingham - 2011

Car ownership in Birmingham - 2011
This map shows the percentage of households in Birmingham that have no car. It is from https://goo.gl/Bz9Sli, and is based on ONS statistics. There are many reasons why people don't own a car, such as ethical objections, the financial burden, lack of a parking space, disability, and ineligibility (eg children).

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Reclaiming a Marketplace

Reclaiming a marketplace
This German town has reclaimed its marketplace. In place of a dual-carriageway with centre reservation parking, there is now a traditional town square, where twice a week there is a large and thriving farmers' market. On warm days people sit at tables in what was once the middle of the road, and engage in conversation over coffee and cake. You can still drive here if you have to, but the speed limit is 15km/h, and the only way out is the way you came in, so not many people do. For cyclists and pedestrians it remains a through-route. Motorists making a through journey are sent all round the back of the town; it's quicker to cycle, so that's what many people do. The square is lined with cycle stands, and they are routinely fully utilised. The remodelled street looks so different it is hard to tell it is the same place, but the viewpoint in both pictures is almost the same, the only difference being that in the first photo the camera is turned more towards the right and is higher up. Look for the white building in the distance with a terracotta roof that is marked with a red dot in both photos. The next two buildings on the right (closer to the camera) can also be seen in both photos. Then there is a building that has been replaced by the time of the second photo, and finally there is a white building with square features just below the roofline. That last building is on the far right in the second photo.

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Assen Markt

Assen Markt
This road is part of the filtered permeability area in Assen. People no longer drive through here, getting furious with the traffic (ie everyone but themselves). Instead they walk and cycle to the pavement cafés, where they spend money and enjoy themselves. From: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/beforeandafter

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