I started off writing this blog post as a discussion of the Snow Hill Public Realm Consultation - which I have left below - but I feel that branding this 'Colmore Row cross-city cycle route' is more apt. Birmingham city centre has long been criticised as impenetrable by cycle, with the routes that exist being convoluted and broken up by dismount signs. One of the most direct routes, along New Street and the High Street, is unattractive due to the volume of pedestrian traffic, and solving this routing problem has long been a golden grail. We need solutions not only for delivering cycle users to the city centre shopping areas, but also for helping cycle users move swiftly and comfortably across the city centre without taking the tunnels.
The proposals for the Snow Hill Public Realm are exciting because they offer a new vision for public realm in Colmore Row, shifting away from a street-scape dominated by motor traffic towards one that is more people orientated. This is moment of change should be taken as an opportunity to improve the Colmore Row area for cycling as well, to provide a cross-city route that is direct and attractive, away from any future tram track routes.
The consultation ends on November 2nd - I hope that you respond to this consultation.
In my response, I will emphasise the following points:
- This is an opportunity to create a direct cross-city cycle route that will by-pass the main shopping areas and Christmas Market.
- Providing contra-flow cycling on all of these 20mph one-way streets will make the Colmore Row area much more welcoming for cycling.
- Bus gates and drop-off areas on Livery Street should be used to remove even more private motor traffic from the front of Snow Hill Station.
- The redesign of the square is an opportunity to provide desperately needed visually attractive cycle parking at the front of Snow Hill Station.
- The proposals for Lionel Street are very welcome, but bus gate cameras will be essential to stop abuse by private motor traffic.
Cross-city routing for cycles:
Colmore Row is part of a direct, flat, desire line for cycle users between Broad Street and Aston University (see map at the end). Currently it is a good route from Aston University to Broad Street, but cycling in the opposite direction is long and winding due to the one-way system on Colmore Row. This convoluted route positively encourages cycling through the Minories Shopping Arcade or along the tram-tracks at Bull Street. Providing contra-flow cycling along Colmore Row would open up a direct cross-city route for cycle users that would by-pass the pedestrianised areas of New Street and the High Street and avoid the tram lines. As these new proposals will be significantly reducing motor traffic on Colmore Row, the opportunity should be seized now to introduce this new route for cycles. There is ample parking on the side roads off Colmore Row and so the on-street parking could be removed and a cycle lane installed instead.
Permeability for cycles:
Contra-flow cycling in the whole of the Colmore Row area needs to be permitted in order to give an advantage to cycles. This would be of limited cost as most of the streets are low in motor traffic volume and have sufficient width for cycles and motor cars to pass each other, so no physical segregation for cycles would be needed and very little change to on-street parking would happen. An area wide network of contra-flow streets would legitimise the actions of some existing cycle users, while encouraging more cycle users by making their journeys easier. For example, this summer one of my friends led me the wrong way up Church Street, rather than taking the legitimate route up Livery Street, because she feels safer contra-flowing on Church Street than mixing with the heavy motor traffic and buses on Livery Street. We passed several cars on the way up Church Street with no difficulties or conflict.
Colmore Row as a destination:
The cathedral grounds, adjoining Colmore Row, provides a green haven in the middle of Birmingham. In the long run we should be aiming to make the street scape around the cathedral an extension of that attractive space. These current proposals are a start to that process, but more will need to be done. Buses are undergoing a process of electrification, which will reduce their noise and air pollution in destinations such as Colmore Row, but we will need to discourage private motor traffic and encourage the switch to electric taxis and delivery vehicles in order to combat air pollution. Making the Colmore Row area permeable to cycles, with a direct through cycle-route connecting to the wide Birmingham cycle network, will be part of encouraging more people to cycle to Colmore Row, rather than driving. Reducing the volume of motor traffic through bus gates and road closures will further increase the attractiveness of the area for cycling. Planning for cycling goes hand-in-hand with the long-term objectives of attracting more people to the businesses in the Colmore Row area.
And now for the discussion of the plans themselves:
The aim of the proposals:
The stated aims of the proposals are good - 'to create a pedestrian first space' where 'it's enjoyable to walk and cycle'. I'm always wary of taking that second part at face value, however, as often the 'and cycle' part is added in without much thought as to how it will be achieved. The proposals aim to improve conditions for people on foot in the public square in front of Snow Hill, and provide crossings for pedestrians on the desire lines that exist from the cathedral grounds diagonally across Colmore Row. The only current improvement in this are for cycles would be the reduction in motor traffic levels that are suggested will come from the changes in the road layout. As Colmore Row is 20mph, if the motor traffic level is reduced sufficiently then it is acceptable for cycles and motor traffic to mix - the question is whether motor traffic levels will be reduced sufficiently.
Specific design points:
Slowing down motor traffic:
The main feature of the design (see diagrams at the end), from a highways perspective, is to stop motor traffic driving up Livery Street at the side of Snow Hill Station and then turning right onto Colmore Row. This permits a large extension of the pavement area across the mouth of Livery Street, greatly increasing pedestrian space. In addition, however, the central reservation in Colmore Row in front of the square will be removed, with pedestrians having to cross 2 lanes of motor traffic.
The plans state that the designs will calm the motor traffic and slow it down. I am not convinced - if the road surface only looks 'pedestrianised', with no rough surfaces to shake car drivers, the speed of vehicles is unlikely to remain low. The motor traffic may slow down if pedestrian levels are high enough to introduce a constant stream, but we do not currently see that on Colmore Row. There needs to be a stretch of rough road surfacing on the approach to the pedestrian crossings to give drivers a physical signal to slow down - and this needs to be rougher than the 'rough' surfaces normally used in the UK. The running lanes on the carriageway should also be kept as narrow as possible, with a rougher 'over-run' area provided to accommodate the turning circle of buses if necessary. There is a similar issue at the junction of Colmore Row and Snow Hill Queensway, where the light-controlled junction is being replaced with a standard 'give-way' T-junction. It is good that the carriageway will be narrowed, but without a rough surface to indicate that a lower speed is necessary, then motor traffic may continue to drive too quickly around this corner.
Reducing motor traffic volumes:
The banning of right turns from Livery Street onto Colmore Row will do a lot of reduce private motor traffic in that direction, but why does private motor traffic need to drive across the front of Snow Hill Station? With the introduction of a section of 2-way motor traffic on Livery Street, I think that the drop-off point for private motor cars should be at the side entrance, where the car park is. No private motor cars should be allowed to drive up Livery Street to Colmore Row, but instead a bus gate should be installed just after Barwick Street, to stop motor traffic.
The plans say that lower kerbs, just 65mm, will be used in the areas that are being designed to feel pedestrian-friendly. Kerb lines are important delineators of space for people with visual impairments and for guide-dogs, and will give these people a safe space away from vehicular traffic. However, even a kerb of 65mm presents a hazard to someone on a cycle, and in an environment designed to facilitate the free flow of pedestrians, there is a danger that cycle users may face a choice between a pedestrian who has just stepped in front of them and a vertical kerb. The installation of angled, forgiving, kerbs would permit cycle users to move between the carriageway and the pavement with less danger of falling off. Forgiving kerbs are widely used across the Netherlands in town centre locations in order to delineate the carriageway but provide a flexibility in use that suits both pedestrians and cycle users.
Much attention is paid to the design features of this public realm, including the street furniture, but there is no mention of cycle parking provision. Currently within the plans are 7 or 8 sheffield stands, and it is not clear if these will be retained in the renovation of the square. An ongoing issue, though, has been the utter lack of cycle parking provision at Snow Hill Station. The public square in front of Snow Hill Station would be a good place to position some cycle parking, and this renovation of that space is a good opportunity to do so with attractive cycle parking designed to fit in with the surrounding features.
Turning in to and out of Colmore Row from Livery Street:
The current proposals will close this off for motor traffic, but retain a route for emergency vehicles. While this route will be crossing a pedestrian space, it should retain some carriageway features, and should be designed to permit cycle users to still turn right into Colmore Row. It would also be useful for cycle users to be able to turn into Livery Street and have a contra-flow down to the two-way section. While form most destinations, Church Street will be a more attractive route, there will be some cycle journeys where the best route to the end destination will be down Livery Street. In order to encourage more cycling, it would be good to have as much permeability as possible.
Lionel Street junction:
The proposals also include a bus gate at the Lionel Street junction with Old Snow Hill, which will make the section of Lionel Street under the railway arches two-way for cycles and buses. This is a very positive proposal, but bus gate cameras will need to be installed in order to prevent the abuse of this bus gate by private motor traffic.