Having finished the tram line from Centenary Plaza to Five Ways along Broad Street, Birmingham City Council is consulting on the Traffic Regulation Order to finalise the traffic movements (including cycle traffic) around Broad Street. The new traffic regulations will ban cycling on two sections of Broad Street, meaning that it can no longer be used as a route for accessing the city centre from the Hagley Road direction - something that we think is a major step backwards for cycling in Birmingham. Broad Street is a much more direct route than the alternatives, with less climbing and descending, meaning it takes less energy to cycle that route. It is also an important destination, with many apartments, offices and hospitality businesses around there. It is particularly busy with delivery cycle riders as well.
The consultation can be found on the BeHeard website (Metro Edgbaston Extension Traffic Regulation Order) and it closes on Friday October 15th 2021.
Where will cycling be banned on Broad Street?
There are 3 sections where cycling is banned (See the map at the end of this article):
- In the underpass from Hagley Road to Broad Street.
- After the junction of Ryland Street (it is not clear from the consultation how long that section is)
- Between the junctions of Granville Street and Berkley Street
Why is cycling being banned on parts of Broad Street?
Essentially because cycle wheels can get trapped in tram tracks, or slip on the metal surface, resulting in the rider coming off their cycle. Although there is space for someone to ride a cycle between the kerb and the tram track for most of Broad Street, at the tram stops, the platform juts into the road, and there is not enough space for someone to cycle between that and the track. This means that cycle users would be forced, by the road design, to cross the tram tracks, creating a risk of falls.
Cycling in the underpass is banned because the lanes have been narrowed down there, and where the tracks exit on to Hagley Road, the angle that they cross the road is too sharp to be able to safely cycle over them. As cycle users can use the pedestrian concourse to get past Five Ways island (or cycle on the island itself, if they wish), we don't have any complaints about the banning of cycling in the underpass. Our complaint is about the banning of cycling on Broad Street itself, where there are no clear, direct and attractive alternatives for people to take.
Will banning cycling at those locations stop crashes there involving cycles?
No. Street signs are only one factor in the decisions that people take when driving, cycling or walking - other factors involve the directness of the route, familiarity with alternative routes and calculations about perceived attractiveness of the different options. We do not advocate that anyone breaks these bans, as we agree with Birmingham City Council that there are inherent risks in cycling across tram lines. But the focus of our campaigning is on infrastructure and how it can be designed to remove conflicts working with human psychology. It is clear to us that banning cycling at these locations will not prevent people from cycling through there.
Firstly, none of the alternative routes are as direct and fast as ignoring the 'no cycling' signs will be. Indeed, it will be faster to get off and push past those sections than to use any of the alternatives - but someone who gets off and pushes is likely to stop doing that and cycle when they observe there are no police around and other people cycling through haven't been stopped.
Secondly, none of the alternative routes are signposted, so even if someone wanted to take them, they would have to have detailed local knowledge to know where to go. Even people who have been cycle commuting along Broad Street for years might not know the roads around it, and tourists who have just picked up a hire bike definitely will have no idea.
Finally, the alternative routes are carrying some of the displaced private motor traffic from Broad Street, and will feel less welcoming than cycling along Broad Street, where it will mainly be trams, buses and taxis.
Is it safe to cycle along the rest of Broad Street?
Based on the factors that have gone into the decision to ban cycling at locations where crossing the tram tracks is unavoidable, probably not. If the risk factor is crossing the tram track, then the assumption for the rest of Broad Street must be that a cycle user on there will remain in the space between the kerb and the tram track to stay safe. But that is unrealistic, because of the various obstacles that will force people to either choose to cross the tram tracks or to come to a complete halt. There are numerous bus stops along Broad Street, so cycle users will have to choose whether to go past the buses or stop and wait for the buses to move. The same goes for taxis picking up and dropping off customers on Broad Street. In addition, there will be many people walking along Broad Street and some of them will enter the carriageway in front of people cycling, forcing them to cross the tram tracks.
We know from research that many crashes involving tram tracks and cycles are in part due to pressure from the road environment - from other vehicles or from sudden obstacles - distracting the cycle user from focusing on the tram tracks. A cycle user taking a deliberate action to cross the tram tracks at a tram stop will be safer than a cycle user taking evasive actions to avoid someone who has just stepped off the pavement in front of them.
So why is cycling being banned at these tram stops?
At the tram stops, it is the physical design of the street that presents the danger to cycle users, not the actions of other people, and so blame for crashes at those locations could be argued to have a clearer link directly to the local authorities - Birmingham City Council and the West Midlands Combined Authority - who installed the infrastructure. There have been several court cases in Edinburgh where cycle users have been awarded damages from the local authorities as the judges decided that the tram tracks were the main cause of the crashes, not negligence or fault of the cycle users, and the tram tracks were the responsibility of the local authority. Taking this into account, banning cycling at specific locations on Broad Street appears to be a sensible choice from an institutional perspective - it protects Birmingham City Council from litigation even if it is unable to prevent people from cycling through those banned areas.
What is the solution?
In the long-run, the solution is to provide well-signposted, attractive and comparably direct alternative routes for cycling in the Broad Street corridor. The Birmingham Local Cycling and Walking Investment Plan (LCWIP) shows two parallel routes on its map of city centre routes (see pages 37 and 38 of the Birmingham LCWIP), one passing through Brindley Place (which is a private development) and the other using Holliday Street. Neither of those routes currently has been developed and because of the issues that there are with those routes, they will need development and improvement before they can be considered alternatives for Broad Street.
In the short-run, the solution is to not run trams past Centenary Square, and to fill the rails with tarmac (as has been done to sections during the construction work) to make the road safe for cycling. As the infrastructure has been completed, it can be opened up to other traffic, so that buses and taxis can use it, and then, once the alternative cycle routes are set up and ready to use, trams can be allowed to run along Broad Street up to the terminal on Hagley Road. While this may seem like an extreme suggestion, is it any more extreme than putting in a ban on cycling that won't actually make the situation safer for cycle users, but will shift blame on to them?
Thank you for reading this far. We now have some further suggestions and comments about the route, but you have reached the end of our main argument. We hope that our reasons for our position are clear and that you will support our objection to the TRO consultation.
Further comments and suggestions:
Can't we just use shared-use pavements?
Although the pavements on Broad Street do look wide, there are numerous businesses opening on to the pavements, and a lot of street furniture and signs, all of which impact on the useable width of the pavement. Broad Street has a strong destination function - many people come to Broad Street to go to restaurants and bars, to meet friends, and so on, so the pavements are busy with people who are enjoying themselves and not really moving anywhere fast. This makes it difficult to incorporate cycle traffic that wants to just get through Broad Street as quickly as possible to get somewhere else, and that means shared-use pavements are not really viable for most of Broad Street.
That having been said, the north-west pavement of Broad Street from Ryland Street to Sheepcote Street has very few doors opening directly onto it, and so it might be possible to use that section as a shared-use pavement to bypass the tram stops there. It also has the advantage of linking directly with the cycle infrastructure in the underpass, so could be easy and direct to use if sign-posted clearly.
Do trams have a place in modern cities?
My answer here will be personal, rather than as an organisation. I used to think that trams were a useful addition to public transport in a city centre - they look modern, they have some of the romanticism of trains, and they can carry large quantities of people efficiently. However I think I've changed my mind. In locations where trams can be segregated from motor traffic and cycle traffic, I think they are good, but on a street like Broad Street, the impact they have on other transport modes is not worth the additional efficiency they bring. Broad Street ought to be a major cycle route into the city centre with high quality cycle tracks, but it can't be that because of the tram tracks. It is the flattest, most direct route between the Hagley Road corridor and Victoria Square, and the alternative routes are either narrower and more convoluted, or involve more up and down. Broad Street is not included as a cycle route on the city centre cycle route plan in Birmingham's LCWIP because of the tram line - but in 20 years time, Birmingham's aspirations are to have more people cycling through that area than can be carried by the trams. If trams and cycles can't both be accommodated on a city centre street, then equally consideration should be given to scrapping the tram plans as are given to preventing cycling - but that's not what happens at the moment.
The lure of big shiny trams is too strong for local authorities, and cycling conditions suffer as a result. I think that it would be better to use alternatives like Sprint now, and get the cycle network built and up-to-standard, before planning any more tram routes in Birmingham.
What are the alternative routes for cycling?
Route 1 - Grosvenor Street West and Brindleyplace:
Turning off Broad Street straight after the Five Ways roundabout, onto Ryland Street, it is possible to use Grosvenor Street West, and then cycle through Brindleyplace to get past the two sections of Broad Street where cycling is banned. There are some issues with this route though.
Firstly, Brindleyplace is a private development, with 'heritage' cobblestones in sections and steps across some 'street' sections. It is busy with pedestrian traffic, and feels even more of a 'destination' than Broad Street does. Birmingham City Council cannot signpost a cycle route through Brindleyplace without the agreement of the company managing it, and there would need to be some changes made to parts of the streets in Brindleyplace to make it suitable for higher volumes of cycle users. It is highly unlikely that the private company managing this development would agree to the changes necessary to making this option work.
Secondly, Grosvenor Street West is now carrying all of the private motor traffic going to destinations like Brindleyplace, as well as having residential parking spaces on it. While the current traffic levels will reduce once the buses are re-routed back onto Broad Street, it is likely to remain too busy for a main cycle route without any segregated cycle infrastructure.
Route 2 - Bishopsgate Street, William Street and Holliday Street:
This route takes cycle users off Broad Street just after Five Ways roundabout again, and takes them down under the canal on Holliday Street, to then go under Suffolk Street Queensway, and onto Navigation Street. It is a good route for reaching New Street Station and heading towards Digbeth, but it does involve some climbing back up the hill if you want to head to New Street and the Colmore Row area. In the Birmingham LCWIP, this route is listed as a future route for development, although we have not seen any plans yet for it.
These streets, however, have a lot of private motor traffic on them. Some modal filters (as are being used in the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods) would remove motor traffic from William Street, and Bishopsgate Street is broad enough to have a segregated bi-directional cycle track on it without needing to restrict private motor traffic. From Granville Street across to Suffolk Street Queensway is more difficult though, as this section is used for access to several residential developments as well as deliveries to parts of Broad Street. Removing on-street parking would provide some space for segregated cycle tracks, but the section under the canal is not wide enough to provide segregated cycle infrastructure and retain two-way motor traffic, so that might need to be made one-way.