In recent weeks, cyclists in Birmingham may have noticed a number of new additions in terms of the cycling infrastructure around the city. Sadly, most of them hardly qualify to be named infrastructure, so let's take a look at the example which fits into this category – painted cycle symbols and Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) on parallel routes, with a particular focus on Edgbaston Park Road.
What is it?
The newly introduced parallel routes are one of the essential elements of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) programme. The latter involves "improving cycling facilities within a 20-minute cycling time of Birmingham city centre", including "improving cycling conditions on popular main roads and parallel routes into the city centre".
It sounds good but in spite of the promises I have yet to see any substantial improvements for cyclists on the main roads. However it looks like the improvements to the parallel routes have been already delivered. But if we naively expected that improving cycling conditions means either selecting quiet roads or providing segregated cycle lanes and tracks where conditions require so (for example where traffic speeds and flows are high), or implementing traffic calming/filtered permeability in order to reduce traffic speeds and flows, we were clearly wrong. What has been delivered in the past weeks on parallel roads is far from any such expectations. Birmingham City Council (BCC) have decided that roads such as Edgbaston Park Road and Vincent Drive in Edgbaston, Ladypool Road in south of Birmingham, Slade Road in north of Birmingham qualify as parallel roads which appear to be suitable candidates for cycle improvements, but all that BCC have done is paint a number of cycle symbols on those roads and introduced a few ASLs. At the same time they made no other changes whatsoever in terms of reducing traffic flows or speed which would be the first genuine step to improving cycling conditions.
⇑ Cycle symbols on Edgbaston Park Road
Cycle symbols on Vincent Drive ⇒
What is wrong with it?
I understand the aim of the BCC was to create (quiet) parallel cycle routes where no particular "hard" cycle measures need to be introduced and where directional signage might be sufficient. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this idea because cycling can be appealing on a quiet road providing that routes are genuinely quiet or are made quiet, i.e. where traffic flows and speeds are low. Indeed, in the Netherlands, the most cycle friendly country in the world, 80% of the urban roads are shared use, mixing cyclists and vehicles. The designers and planner there apply the principle of "separating where needed and mixing where possible" so there must be something good about sharing the road. However, mixing cyclists and vehicles is always planned with safety in mind, i.e. only on roads where 30km/h (20mph) speed limit applies and never on roads with high traffic volume or speeds. Similarly, quietways are an important part of the London cycle network, consisting of traffic-calmed neighbourhoods and streets rather than cycle specific infrastructure. Compare this genuinely quiet street in the photo below with the photo of Edgbaston Park Road above and notice the difference.
Quietways in London
On the other hand, BCC selected roads as parallel routes which are far from being acceptable to be treated as quiet roads. Let’s take Edgbaston Park Road as an example. The fact that it is a quieter route than Bristol Road doesn’t make it quiet. Whereas I have no access to the official figures of traffic flows or speeds on this road, it is easy to establish from a user perspective that Edgbaston Park Road is a link with:
- a medium to high movement function (for which separation would be required)
- 30mph speed limit (which automatically limits the potential for quiet route)
- traffic flows which are too high to be comfortable for cycling
- a relatively busy bus route with bus services 98 and 99 running every 10 minutes
- poor condition of Edgbaston Park Road with a bumpy surface full of potholes and hilly terrain, something that does not contribute to the comfort of the cyclists
Considering these starting points, such a road would necessarily require either separated cycle facilities or significant reduction of traffic speed and flows. Neither of these options have been applied to Edgbaston Park Road but BCC instead decided to opt for a low cost but unfortunately ineffective approach of painting bike symbols which do absolutely nothing for the safety or comfort of cycling, and below I outline why that is.
1. The applied solution by BCC is contrary to all best practice cycle guidance documents. In absence of national design standards I refer here to the London Cycling Design Standards (LCDS), Welsh Active Travel Guidance, and Greater Manchester Cycling Design Guidance (which were all supporting partners in developing draft Birmingham Cycling Design Guidance as part of the BCR).
For example, according to the LCDS, the basic level of service without separation can be achieved where 85th percentile speeds are below 20mph and where volume is above 1,000 vehicles during the peak hour. However, for lower degrees of separation, the highest levels of service come with peak volumes below 200 vehicles per hour.
In addition, where quietways have to join busier roads, or pass through busy, complicated junctions, segregation should be provided. According to the Welsh Active Travel Guidance, cycle lanes or tracks should be provided where speed limit is 30mph or more and designers should always consider the potential to reduce motor traffic speed and volume to create acceptable conditions. The Greater Manchester Cycling Design Guidance defines Quiet Streets as links where cyclists occupy the lane together with motorised traffic, and is only recommended in typically residential environment on low-speed (20mph), low-volume roads with <7.0m carriageway width and where no cycle lane markings are needed, but rather large cycle symbols only. The latter (symbols) is exactly what was implemented in Birmingham, but of course ignoring the traffic speed and volume requirements.
Finally, even according to the obsolete LTN 02/08, cycle lanes or tracks should be provided on all links where there are more 300-800 vehicles per peak hour (even if speed is lower than 20mph) and where speeds are greater than 40mph (even if flows are more than 150 vehicles per peak hour). For 85th percentile speeds between 20 and 30mph and between 30 and 40mph cycle lanes or tracks should be considered if there are more than 300-800 vehicles per peak hour, respectively.
Even without the official traffic flow data, a short observation of the junction of Edgbaston Park Road and Church Road/Priory Road on Thursday 12th of May around 7pm (hence after peak hour) revealed around 14 vehicles per minute of signal cycle both from Edgbaston Park Road arm and Church Road arm. With a green signal on Edgbaston Park Road arm being 50 sec long this would add up to more than 500 per hour in what was not even peak hour. It also needs to be taken into account that speeds at that time were low due to congestion, and that in free flowing conditions speeds are much higher. I could be cynical and say that BCC achieved basic level of service according to the LCDS guidance, but is basic service really something that should associated with the cycle revolution?
2. Not only is the implemented solution not appropriate and in contrast to the published guidance, but it is also proven it doesn’t work. The measure that BCC has opted for is similar to what the Americans call sharrows, and a study on effectiveness of sharrows in Chicago found that cycle commute rates more than doubled in areas with new bike lanes, compared to a 27 percent increase in areas with new sharrows, and a 43 percent increase in areas where nothing changed. In addition, where bike lanes were installed, injuries decreased 42 percent; in the sharrows vs areas with no changes, the difference was not statistically significant.
3. Several surveys have already established that the biggest barrier to cycling is road danger associated with high speeds and the unwillingness to share roads with motor traffic. Birmingham is no different – Bike Life Birmingham report from 2015 found that only 27% of people rate cycling safety in Birmingham as good or very good, with over 8 in 10 people wanting better safety for people riding bikes, but the report emphasises that better safety requires, unsurprisingly, more investment. Protected bike lanes are one of the kinds of routes most people want to help them start cycling or to cycle more – 90% of people who do not ride a bike but would like to, and of occasional bike riders, say this. Looking at the implemented "improvements to the parallel routes" it can be seen that nothing has been done to address the two issues this survey exposed – road danger and lack of segregated routes.
4. Road safety statistics prove the above point. Between 2010 and 2014 there were 3 slight and 5 serious casualties involving pedal cycle users on Edgbaston Park Road and additional 6 slight and 5 serious pedestrian casualties, which indicates that mixing cyclists with busy traffic is dangerous and costly to the society.
5. There is no difference in safety, comfort or attractiveness of cycling on these roads. Having cycled on Edgbaston Park Road myself before and after the implementation of these measures on Edgbaston and Harborne roads I can testify from a user perspective that I see no difference in safety, comfort or attractiveness of cycling on these roads - which remain on a very low level. Even on Vincent Drive, which is a less busy road than Edgbaston Park Road, the effectiveness of such measure is questionable if speed limit remains at 30mph. Most cyclists I spoke to found the implemented measures ineffective.
Lack of space and narrow carriageways should simply not be an excuse for such poor design. In fact, there are sections of Edgbaston Park Road where there is a wide hatched centre-line which takes unnecessary space which could be dedicated to cycle lanes, but BCC has not opted for such solution. The only traffic calming feature are SLOW signs (painted long time ago) which from the experience do not do much to bring the speed down. Continental countries often arrange the carriageway such that opposing vehicles have barely enough space to pass, because it encourages drivers to slow down when the road is busy.
Considering the ineffectiveness of the measures taken I wonder if investment in the new paint is a reckless waste of public money which could be spent on much better cycle schemes with better value for money?
Advanced Stop Lines
In addition to the bike symbols on a carriageway, BCC also introduced a number of advanced stop lines, for example at the above mentioned junction of Edgbaston Road or Priory/Church Road (see the photo). In cycling developed countries like the Netherlands ASLs are almost entirely a design feature of the past, as it was found that they provide insufficient protection from vehicles at junctions. However, I acknowledge that are number of cases where such an approach can give cyclists a basic level of service by helping them move away from a safer, more advantageous position at a signal-controlled junction at the start of a stage, providing they are well designed, enforced, and applied at appropriate locations. According to the LCDS, "they should, however, not be relied upon alone as a measure to cater adequately for cyclists at signalised junctions as the benefits they offer are conditional upon the stage of signal cycle when the cyclist arrives at the junction, and on how they are accessed under different traffic conditions". Indeed, they are only beneficial at the signal start (hence they are a part time facility), and they might encourage cyclists to position themselves in the blind spots of vehicles. In addition, the TfL research found that while using an ASL, 36% of cyclists experienced encroachment into the ASL reservoir by motorised vehicles. Anyhow, good design is the prerequisite to make ASLs work so let's see if BCC has succeeded at least in this. According to LCDS the minimum recommended depth for the ASL box is 5 metres (although regulations allow 4 metres) and unsurprisingly BCC went for the 4 metre minimum depth with a "gate" instead of a lead-in lane. LCDS also states that in all cases, a lead-in lane is preferable to gates, which represent a lower level of service. Indeed, a mandatory lead-in lane to an ASL is recommended providing it is minimum 1.2m wide. However, no lead-in lane was provided on Edgbaston Road or Priory/Church Road arms, making the ASL useless for the majority of time unless cyclists reaches it before the vehicles.
But even then they are useless! A short observation also revealed that for the majority of traffic signal cycles the ASL was occupied by vehicles which ignored the stop line before ASL - in a few minutes I counted at least 4 vehicles blocking the ASL in 4 consecutive signal cycles, as shown on the photo below. Based on that it can be easily concluded that BCC invested in fresh paint which does absolutely nothing to protect cyclists or give them priority at junctions. Considering that at this junction there are no pedestrian crossings, maybe I should not be surprised – car centric design remains even in the time of the "cycle revolution".
Another new feature that I noticed on Edgbaston Park Road is a right-turn pocket or ghost island at the turn to Somerset Road. Whilst it would be better if a certain degree of protection was provided, for example with an island (provided it does not create pinch points for cyclists using the carriageway), I welcome this solution as it allows cyclists to wait for a gap in oncoming traffic to turn right. Again however, I cannot stress enough the importance of reduction of traffic flows and speeds if we want such design feature to truly benefit cyclists in terms of safety.
How could it be made better?
There is plenty of evidence above that the implemented solution of painting bike symbols on what are still busy roads provides no benefits to cyclists and could be considered as an ineffective spend of money reserved for interventions that should create a positive change for cyclists. Even with the ASLs and right-turn pockets I see the implemented scheme as inadequate. In turn I list several ways on how parallel routes could be truly improved for cycling:
- Prioritising the parallel routes that can actually be turned into quiet routes. I do not support the piecemeal and "better than nothing" approach on routes which remain hostile to cyclists and have poor potential for quiet routes as they provide poor value for money which should instead be invested in interventions that actually make a difference. This could be achieved by limiting the interventions to the routes that can actually function as quiet routes and where more money should be invested to make sure they are truly quiet (see below).
- Reducing the traffic speed and flow: by creating 20mph zone with traffic calming measures, such as chicanes. This would not only benefit cyclists but would also create a more pleasant environment for a huge number of pedestrians and bus users, particularly around University of Birmingham along Edgbaston Park Road, who are currently facing narrow pavements on one side of the road only. Furthermore, removing the centre-lines would help bring the speeds down, as was evidenced in the research carried out by TfL. Finally, removing wide central hatchings would create additional space that could be turned into cycle lanes.
- Reducing traffic flow volume and rat running by limiting traffic access to the parallel routes. For example by creating one-way system for motor vehicles and two-way system for cyclists, including traffic calming. This way access for vehicles is not restricted whilst offering a larger degree of comfort and safety to cyclists. Considering that Edgbaston Park Road and Vincent Road surround the University where there is probably the greatest potential for cycling, such measure would be more likely to be supported. Alternatively, selected parallel roads could be closed off to allow only buses, cyclists and pedestrians whilst retaining the necessary vehicle access for residents and deliveries. Any of such solutions would create a truly quiet residential road attractive for cycling and walking, but would of course require more substantial investment and strong political commitment.
- Providing that traffic calming has been implemented installing directional cycle signage in addition to the on-carriageway symbols would be beneficial in terms of way-finding.
- All ASL’s should be designed with lead-in mandatory lanes and early release green light for cyclists and enforced.
- Resurfacing major potholes on Edgbaston Park Road would be beneficial to all road users.
The implemented solutions on a number of roads in Birmingham, particularly bike symbols and poorly designed ASLs do nothing to improve cycle safety or comfort, not only on Edgbaston Park Road but also other roads where traffic is too busy or too fast. The selected interventions are not in line with the best cycle design practice in the UK, research proves that they do not work, and they do not address the safety issues that prevent Birmingham residents from cycling and that it is heavily criticised by existing cyclists. They would work only on truly quiet ways, which the road presently are not, and that no effort has been made by BCC to turn them into quiet routes. How such infrastructure would attract new cyclists is beyond me. In order for the scheme to be of satisfactory quality there are three major things that BCC should do:
- reduce maximum speed
- reduce maximum number of vehicles
- and improve surface
I appreciate the time and financial constraints of the BCR programme, however these should not be an excuse for sub-standard and ineffective schemes which seem to only tick the boxes but in reality do nothing to improve conditions for cycling. Particularly if a "cycle revolution" is supposed to represent significant positive changes and not just a splash of new paint on busy roads. Public money and money ring-fenced for cycling should be spent on schemes that actually make a difference, even if this means that a lower number of routes receive a treatment. Spreading the money too thinly is a common problem to most local UK authorities and I hope BCC will learn from these lessons to invest into schemes that will actually meet the BCR objective which is to "improve cycling conditions on popular main roads and parallel routes into the city centre".