Slow down, you move too fast, sung Simon and Garfunkel in The 59th Street Bridge Song, before advocating making the morning last by kicking down the cobblestones and chatting with lamp posts in order to feel groovy. Alas Bridge Street has been failing to make me feel groovy for some time now. I guess a certain recreational substance favoured by Paul Simon might help, but I would rather have something a little more substantive.
Bridge Street used to be just a quiet back road that was part of National Cycle Route Five (NCN5). There was a toucan crossing to take NCN5 across Broad Street to the various attractions in Centenary Square, and onwards as far as Holyhead. Hardly stellar cycling infrastructure, but better than it was after the council decided to divert a load of motor traffic along Bridge Street, resulting in it becoming absolutely rammed with barely moving cars. With no gaps for filtering these certainly slowed you down, even those sensible enough to cycle, but not in a way that made anyone feel groovy.
More recently it was felt necessary to completely block off NCN5 to extend the tram network by a massive 1.5 km. A barrier was built across Broad Street that for most of the time was not needed to make safe the tram works. People on bikes were officially sent on a scenic, convoluted detour of 2.3 km via Five Ways island, along roads that drivers can make very unpleasant to cycle. I know I wasn't the only one who instead opted to dodge through the barriers. The official detour was not well signposted, and I only found out out about it when I asked if was really necessary to have the barriers.
The tram line is now complete, and always keen to smack in the climate change home goals, the city council has unnecessarily blocked the cycle route with a traffic island. It is possible to cycle around the end of the island, but it means crossing the tracks at far from the best angle (90 degrees), and in one direction it brings you into conflict with any motor traffic emerging from Bridge Street. Needless to say Push Bikes has been on to this, and for some time now. Right back at the planning stage we were reminding officers of the need to consider cycling, and especially NCN5. Since then I have raised the matter with Adam Tranter and Cllr Liz Clements (Cabinet Member for Transport), and we have raised it at city council's cycling stakeholder meetings. At one of these meetings we fobbed off with excuses so feeble they are ridiculous. Apparently it's a really complicated problem that requires years of thought.
- I have been told that it is unreasonable of me to ask for my own individual cycle route, even though the route of NCN5 across Broad Street has been shown on the OS map for decades and it takes people on bikes using a national cycle route to the central library, one of Birmingham's premier theatres, and the International Convention Centre. I could be wrong, but I believe I'm not the only person who visits these attractions. Moreover, in countries with proper cycling infrastructure there is no concept of a cycle route; you can safely make any journey by bike via any legal thoroughfare.
- I suggested that the problem could be simply solved by providing filtered permeability across the island, to line up with Bridge Street and the existing flush kerb for cycles in Centenary Square. Flush kerbs either side of the island would be adequate, but having level access across the island would be easier for people who use a cycle as a mobility aid. This was met with more ludicrous excuses. I was told that the island is critical for preventing drivers from making an illegal right turn into the bus corridor, but nobody is asking for the island to be removed, just provided with a filtered permeability channel wide enough for two cycles to pass. It would be narrow for a car and at an angle, so it would be a really awkward way to make an illegal right turn, but if felt necessary it could be fitted with a central bollard.
- I was then told that the island wasn't wide enough should someone have to stop in the middle to wait for traffic, which would put cyclists in danger and block the precious tram. I pointed out that even if it wasn't wide enough, there's very little traffic, so it's very easy to pick a moment when it's possible to ride straight across without stopping, even when forced to go around the end of the island (as I have many times, gingerly crossing the tram tracks). Moreover, this junction is already partially controlled with traffic lights, so even as built, in one direction cyclists have to wait for a green light, so there's no conflicting traffic from the right. The junction could be completely controlled by traffic lights, with a low level aspect and a beg button in Centenary Square, though it's hard to see why a controlled junction is felt necessary here given the low traffic levels. But even without the traffic lights the argument is false, because with the aid of what must be rocket science to Birmingham city council officers, I determined that the island is plenty wide enough for all but the most extreme cycle combos. Yes, I took my tape meaure with me when I went to the library the following week, stopping on the island and taking my time over making measurements. I can't say I would like to spend my holidays there, but I was not placed in any danger by the passing trams and buses, and neither was their movement impeded. Using these measurements, I was able to produce the plan below showing how the island could be provided with filtered permeability for cycles. This arrangement would formalise the crossing and ensure best practice for cycles negotiating tram tracks.
Note that the city-bound bus lane is considerably wider than the out-of-city-bound bus lane, so even if the city council suddenly wants to take care over designing for the most extreme cycling combos, there is room to widen the island. This would also render illegal right turns by motor traffic even harder. However, whilst it would be the sensible way to design for low carbon transport right now, it's not necessary and would be irrelevant if the crossing point was made fully controlled by traffic lights.
It's not as if council officers have found a better alternative to sending people via Five Ways Island, despite having had years to do so and the opportunity to build in an alternative. There is one alternative to using Bridge Street that doesn't involve a massive detour, but it would require a lot of work to make it safely usable by cycle users of all ability, and it would still represent a diversion of NCN5. This would be to use Berkley Street in one direction and Gas Street in the other (both one-way roads are more than wide enough for contraflow cycling, but even this simple measure has not been provided). However, against Push Bikes advice during the planning phase, nothing has been provided for cycling on Broad Street. Cycle users can get as far as Berkley Street before they are banished completely, but it is along the length of the tram tracks. If someone parks their car on the tram tracks (as happened to me a couple of weeks before writing this), or it becomes necessary to make an emergency manoeuvre around one or more pedestrians, an oblique and dangerous track crossing is needed. It would therefore be reasonable to cycle on the pavement (Home Office guidance is that this is allowed if someone feels the carriageway is too dangerous), but that is just indicative of Birmingham city council's cycling policy being in a mess. However, there is a second problem that is not so obvious, and that is the painted roundabout at the end of Berkley Street. I have often found myself in conflict with motor vehicles here, as drivers routinely blast across the painted roundel, and many emerging from Berkley Street fail to correctly observe cyclists who emerge from Holliday Street and then go all the way around the roundabout into Gas Street. Drivers simply look to their right (though not always, in my experience), drive out across the painted roundel, and discover there's a bike in front of them. Birmingham City Council shows no sign of fixing this unnecessarily dangerous junction.
Whilst city council officers just wring their hands and make feeble excuses, I wonder what the three gentlemen on the plinth near the dropped kerb would make of all this. Boulton, Watt, and Murdoch are three of the most respected engineers and inventors of their time. I think they could probably work out how to get NCN5 from Bridge Street to Centenary Square, and I don't think it would take them years of thought. These gentlemen didn't know about climate change, but in the modern era we do. With it now resulting in severe weather right here in Birmingham, when is the city council going to stop finding excuses for blocking the least carbon intensive transport there is? The tram represents an approach that is so costly to build it is never going to address climate change in the timescale required. Cycling infrastructure is a much cheaper solution, even when protected cycleways have to be built, and once built, cycles don't require an electrical supply that is currently largely generated using a very expensive fossil fuel that is in itself an even worse greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide it produces when burned.