No Ring Road Required

I've heard it said many times that the cycling infrastructure is easier in the Netherlands because all their towns have ring roads. The argument is that a ring road allows one to treat a city as a set of segments connected only via the ring road, with motor traffic prevented from crossing from one segment to the next except via the ring road. With through motor traffic removed, other roads become quiet enough for cycle traffic. I've even heard this ring road argument used with respect to Birmingham, which is bizarre when you consider that Birmingham was rebuilt as a motor city with an inner ring road (now intentionally broken), a middle ring road (now just called the ring road), an outer ring road (the A4040), and what is effectively an orbital motorway. However, even if you ignore these multiple ring roads, or assume they are in some mysterious way "completely different" from Dutch ring roads, a quick glance at any OS (Ordnance Survey) map will show you that this argument is completely spurious, and nothing more than a desperate attempt to defend the indefensible.

OS maps are something of which Britain is justifiably proud. They are nothing short of superb. Their detail, accuracy, and clarity are all first class. I will often take a paper OS map with me, as I know it wont fail me, and very often when I'm back home and relaxing with a cup of coffee I'll just sit and look at the map, because there is just so much to see on them. One evening recently I went to do that, and the map randomly opened with Weoley Castle in the middle. What the map (above) showed very clearly is that Weoley Castle in Birmingham is surrounded by a primary route (the green line), an A road (the red line), and a B road (the light brown line). These are all main roads, and they form a loop, so Weoley Castle has a de facto ring road. The fact that it is not called a ring road is irrelevant. Look anywhere in Birmingham on the relevant OS map, and you'll see these loops cover the entire city.

More interestingly still, it turns out that Weoley Castle is a little bit Dutch; Bottetourt Road is closed to motor traffic half way along its length, a rare example of filtered permeability in Birmingham. Is there rioting on the streets? No. Are there regular protests, with processions of furious motorists asserting their right to use the Queen's highway? No. Actually, it's all rather peaceful:

Use the controls to zoom in a bit, and you'll see children playing where the carriageway would be. I pass this way quite often, and it's always like this, or quieter. The reason for this break in the road is that there used to be a foot bridge over the Dudley No 2 canal at this point. The canal fell into disuse, and at some stage it was infilled and the bridge removed, but the two ends of Bottetourt Road were not connected. Given that the road would provide a North-South link through Weoley Castle that isn't otherwise available one would think this would have been done, but it wasn't. The Lapal Canal Trust web page from which I got this information has been removed, but an earlier version is still available and hints at the reason, saying "It is understood that a full road bridge would not generally be favoured here, to prevent additional anti-social vehicle activities". In other words, it's closed for the same reason that the Dutch close roads to through motor traffic. Instead of a rat-run with speeding cars, there is a space in which children play safely. And how do motorists get from between Harborne and Bournville, given that they can't cut through Weoley Castle? Simple - they use the de facto ring road I referred to above. Why do I use this road quite often? Because I'm on a bike, so I seek out roads that are free from speeding rat-runners.

But all is not golden. Despite this example of filtered permeability being appreciated by local people, the rest of Weoley Castle is just like every other part of Britain. So whilst Bottetourt Road is very quiet, the road south (Castle Road and Middle Park Road) is plagued with cars racing into pinch points (the second overtake in this video was filmed on Weoley Park Road, which is parallel to Middle Park Road), or "anti-social vehicle activities".

Much of the housing in Weoley Castle is owned and rented by the Bournville Village Trust, an organisation set up by George Cadbury to maintain and build a model village around his world-famous chocolate factory. George Cadbury was guided by his Quaker principles, so his model village has a wide range of housing types mixed together, including social housing. Whilst in the Netherlands in 2014 I visited a social housing area. Rather than "anti-social vehicle activities" I got to see children cycling safely to school:

Social housing area in the Netherlands

So why not reap the same rewards and apply the Dutch approach to the rest of Weoley Castle (and indeed the rest of Birmingham), forcing through-traffic out on to the de facto ring road, which can handle it better? It should be possible to achieve this with very few changes to the road network, changes that could be tried out using temporary measures. My own suggestion, which is just one possibility and not necessarily the best, is shown below. I've limited myself to the part of Weoley Castle south of Bottetourt Road simply because I don't know the rest of the area very well, and have no idea what are the traffic flows. South of Bottetourt Road I know that Gibbins Road has a serious case of car sickness, with speeding the norm (a radar-operated speed limit sign has been erected, and it spends most of its time telling people to slow down), and traffic so heavy that it can take several minutes to exit one of the side roads. The first overtake in this video was filmed on Gibbins Road. Shenley Fields Road and Middle Park road also see much aggressive driving, though they are not as bad as Gibbins Road. This sort of driving is associated with rat-running, and is almost certainly caused by people trying to avoid the junctions at Selly Oak and Northfield, as well as people just taking the most direct route. All three roads are residential.

Suggested changes in Weoley Castle to quieten the roads

The red bars indicate where the carriageway would be closed to motor traffic using some sort of bolt-down method, such as wands. At roundabouts the road would be reduced to one lane, so traffic in one direction would have to give way. The intention is to ensure that using just a few changes there is no easy direct route for motor vehicles between the four points marked in red (California, Northfield, Stirchley, and Selly Oak). Through motor traffic would have to use the main roads (the de facto ring road), though bus gates would be included as required. It's worth adding that in the Netherlands buses do not wind their way through every estate. Instead they follow main roads, making bus travel much quicker and more attractive. To get to the bus stops people cycle.

Once the through motor traffic is eliminated the roads will become attractive for local journeys by bike or on foot, and quieter and less polluted for residents.

Other cities have made temporary changes to their road networks to see what happens, and have found that far from the world ending, motor traffic just disappears, perhaps because people are making fewer unnecessary journeys, or perhaps because people have taken advantage of the quieter roads to cycle instead of drive. Unfortunately Birmingham has to date stuck rigidly to traffic modelling, and in their modelling have assumed that no modal shift will occur. Such modelling just tells them that cycling infrastructure on most roads is completely impossible. Those cities that have taken a more practical approach have discovered that cycle-friendly infrastructure creates a modal shift, so much less road space is needed for motor traffic. Continental countries already know this. So will Birmingham follow their lead, or will council officers sit in their office chairs studying the results of inadequate modelling and proclaim "It can't possibly work; Weoley Castle doesn't have a ring road"?