Consultation - Sprint rapid transit bus routes

Artist's impression of a Sprint bus

This month, Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) is holding a consultation on what factors would encourage respondents to cycle more regularly to a Sprint rapid transit bus stop. This is a golden opportunity to tell TfWM how they can help you to cycle to and make use of these major public transport schemes. The consultation also includes details of 3 Sprint routes that TfWM is proposing in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in 2022, from Birmingham city centre to Birmingham airport, Walsall and Sutton Coldfield. These will increase the public transport links for important venues such as Alexander Stadium and the NEC, as well as making sure that the new residential development in Langley has fast public transport links. 4 more routes, linking Dudley, Halesowen and Longbridge to Birmingham city centre, and one route linking Hall Green and Solihull to Birmingham airport and HS2 Interchange, are planned to be completed by 2026.

The current consultation runs until the 5th October 2018, and can be found here: 3 Sprint routes consultation (We will put up a separate blog post for the Hagley Road preparatory works consultation - the link will go here when we have finished writing it)

Details about the Sprint programme, the standard of service and route maps can be found on the Transport for West Midlands website.

General comments on the consultations:

I'm only half-joking when I say that this consultation is about factors influencing people to cycle to Sprint stops. The first questions asked in the consultation, after your postcode, are:

  • Would you cycle to Sprint stops?
  • Would you take your bike on Sprint vehicles?
  • Would you use a cycle route alongside a Sprint route?

This is the first public transport consultation that I've seen in Birmingham (in the UK?) that has opened with questions about cycling to the stops like this. We have often felt like stuck records at public transport consultations, emphasising the importance of cycles in the door-to-door experience of public transport, but now here is a consultation that takes that seriously.

With regards to the technical details of the Sprint routes, there isn't much for us to comment on as a cycle campaign group. The physical highway works are mainly limited to straightening up the kerb line, removing parking spaces on main roads, painting out many more miles of bus-lane and installing bus-lane priority traffic lights. There are extensive new bus lanes planned with cycling allowed - which will be welcome news to those of us who take advantage of them. Less welcome will be the prospect of sharing those bus lanes with a 'bendy' bus which is significantly longer than standard buses and the dangers when being overtaken that that will bring. These extended bus lanes will not bring any new people into cycling - segregated high-quality cycle routes alongside the Spring bus lanes is necessary for that. However, while that would be ideal, there is no scope for including cycle tracks in with the physical highway work that is proposed for these routes; the sections of roadworks will be too short and spread out to offer an opportunity for installing cycle tracks at the same time. Thankfully, though, the plans do not include any changes that would make installing cycle tracks later on - there are only a couple of limited locations that are the exception, which I'll cover at the end.

Talking points for your consultation response:

(1) If you live close to a proposed Sprint stop and would cycle to that stop - please tell them, in the 'any comments' box, which stop you would use and give them suggestions for how your route to the Sprint stop could be improved. We think that the Sprint team are genuinely interested in finding out how to encourage more people to cycle to Sprint stops, and your comments will be taken on-board and for use in future plans. This is more than simply an opportunity to comment on current proposals, and your insights into your local area are very valuable.

(2) Answer the questions about 'how likely are you to cycle' honestly, but do think about the difference that cycle routes and cycle parking would make for you. Even if you already cycle everywhere, you might find that the existence of a cycle route and secure parking at the Sprint stop would encourage you more to cycle to that destination. In that case it would be appropriate to rank the likelihood of cycling to a Sprint stop without any cycling intervention as lower than if there was cycle parking and/or good cycle routes. Make sure your answer does show what difference cycle facilities would make for you.

(3) Make sure you also answer the question about how likely you would be to use a cycle lane next to a Sprint route at the bottom of the third page. It is easy to miss, but this is a key question for showing how popular direct high quality cycle routes along these main roads would be.

(4) You don't need to give detailed comments on any of the routes if you don't want to - so you could focus just on the cycling questions if you wished to or if your time is limited. It might be that you are most interested in a cycle route along a Sprint corridor, rather than using a Sprint bus. Or you might want to just comment on the cycling-public transport interface and what factors make you more likely to cycle to a public transport stop.

(4a) If you don't want to give detailed comments on any of the 3 routes, you can just give a comment in general support of (or opposing, if you wish) the Sprint routes - the best place to do that would be on page 3, in the 'any comments' box above the questions about cycling.

Our general comments in response to the consultation:

(1) The effect of improved cycle routes to Sprint bus stops.

Push Bikes has been arguing for several years that the use of cycles compliments public transport use by completing the door-to-door journey. But an intimidating road environment, or one that disproportionately favours car journeys over walking and cycling, actively discourages the use of cycles. If someone is going to cycle to a public transport stop, they may sometimes be carrying a heavy load, or be travelling with children, or have other conditions that mean that they can not engage in vehicular cycling and take the lane to assert their road position. Building cycle routes that are comfortable and direct will enable a far wider range of people to use cycles to get to and from public transport stops. Someone's journey must feel safe and be easy from door-to-door, or they will fall back on the often easiest option of just driving a car. We think that building improved cycle routes will encourage people to cycle who may not now imagine that cycling could be an option.

An important point about encouraging cycling to Sprint bus stops is that it will increase the area that a Sprint stop can service, as people can cycle considerably further than they are willing to walk. Much of the efficiency and attractiveness of Sprint will come from the reduced number of stops, allowing the service to cover its route more quickly. If stops are planned cycling in mind, then they can be more spaced out, giving a better travel time to the Sprint service. 

(2) The importance of secure cycle parking.

It is not quite clear what is meant by 'secure' cycle parking in this question. Secure cycle hubs have been installed at some stations around the West Midlands, and although it takes time for the spaces to be taken, these cycle hubs have been quite successful. But they can only have spaces offered to a limited number of people, in order to make sure everyone can have a parking space, so they are not as flexible as a row of open-access Sheffield stands would be. Cycle parking should be overlooked by CCTV cameras and in a public area, so that if someone does try to steal anything, there is more surveillance. Without good cycle parking provision, far fewer people will chose to cycle to a particular station because of the inconvenience of finding somewhere to lock up and the risk of having their cycle stolen. But while the provision of secure cycle hubs is useful for regular commuters, the majority of cycle parking provided should be flexible use, to best provide for people who may only use the station once or twice a week.

(3) Taking cycles onto Sprint buses.

While the local trains in the West Midlands have been good for transporting cycles, the trams here have not, with cycles currently banned on them. There are other tram and metro systems that provide space for cycles onboard, with several services able to fit more regular cycles on than our local trains. However, the normal focus for mass transit planners is how to maximise the number of people who can fit into the carriages at peak hours, and providing space for cycles creates problems for that. Without doubt, there will be a demand for people to be able to bring their cycles onto the Sprint buses, to be able to cover the final mile at both ends of the journey, and so we strongly support the provision of space for cycles on Sprint buses.

With regards to managing capacity on Sprint buses at peak hours, we understand that there will be high demand for the limited space, and that many of the service users will either be able to walk at one end or other of their journey, or will be able to take advantage of the cycle hire bikes that will be rolled out this autumn. But there will still be some people who need to travel at rush hour but whose journey is in areas that have no cycle hire bikes and limited connecting public transport routes. We think that most people will be put off from trying to struggle onto a crowded Sprint bus with a cycle at rush hour, and that will effectively suppress demand for cycle transport at times when the Sprint buses are operating at capacity. But as there will be some people for whom there will be little alternative to cycling at both ends of their journey, we think that the option should remain for people to take cycles on Sprint buses at all times.

The provision of space for cycles is also important for leisure cycling. The Sprint routes will be going from the centre of the urban conurbation to the edges, and will be attractive as an option to reach green spaces for leisure cycling. This type of use is common on local trains in the West Midlands, and it is important that Sprint buses provide a similar level of service.

(4) The provision of cycle routes alongside Sprint routes.

At peak hours in the West Midlands, most of the train services and many bus routes are operating at full capacity. We expect that the Sprint routes will have a similar high level of demand. It is interesting how often people who do not cycle are surprised at the distances that can be covered quickly and easily on a cycle. The Sprint routes are not long distance routes, and they are going predominately through urban areas. These routes are the same direct, convenient, routes that would be popular for cycle commuting, especially, if there were good quality cycle tracks along them. Cycle tracks alongside public transport routes are not in competition with them, but rather help with the management of demand for those public transport services - people taking shorter journeys, say from Selly Oak to the city centre, and who find carriages regularly packed at rush hour, will find cycling an attractive option, helping to reduce demand for short hops so the service can focus on ensuring longer distance trips are adequately provided for. We think that the majority of major roads in Birmingham will require good quality cycle routes along them, and so we think that there should be cycle routes provided alongside Sprint routes.

It is important to point out that there are more dangers for cycle users sharing bus lanes with longer Sprint buses than there is with regular length buses. The articulation in the middle and the extra length makes it more difficult for drivers to be sure that they have passed a cycle user safely before pulling back into the bus lane. While there are a lot of cycle users who appreciate the presence of bus lanes, it is not attractive for many others, and will not encourage many new people to take up cycling. Sprint buses will have a longer distance between stops, and so they will be travelling at higher average speeds than regular buses. The presence of someone on a cycle in a Sprint bus lane will have an effect on the average speed of the bus, as they have to slow down and manoeuvre safely to overtake. Sprint buses will be more efficient if there are cycle tracks along their route, encouraging cycle users to leave the bus lane; this would also be safer for cycle users, who would not have to worry about being overtaken by such long vehicles.

(5) Removal of parking spaces to provide space for Sprint bus lanes.

We support the removal of parking spaces in order to facilitate the building of a mass transit network. We do not think that parking spaces occupied by private motor vehicles are an efficient use of highway space, and while we acknowledge that access to parking is important for car owners, we note that a significant proportion of Birmingham's population live in households with no car. It is unfortunate if some residents are required to park their cars at a short distance from their house, but it is essential that Birmingham has a public transport system that is fit for purpose.

(6) Extension of bus lanes and use of bus priority gates.

We support the extension of bus lanes, including where that is at the expense of space for general motor traffic. As well as providing better travel times for buses, there are many current cycle users who appreciate being able to ride in bus lanes rather than with general motor traffic. In order to encourage more people to make the switch from private motor vehicles to public transport or cycling, those modes of transport must be prioritised over private motor traffic, so that there is an advantage to choosing to not drive.

In general, we think that bus lanes should be operational 24 hours a day, because cycle users benefit from them as much during quieter periods as during peak hours. Keeping the bus lanes operational the whole day will not impact on the driving experience for private motor vehicles, but will improve the experience for people using cycles.

Our specific comments on particular elements of the proposals:

A34 Route:

All of the bus lanes on this route should be operational 24 hours a day, so that cycle users get the benefit of that space away from private motor traffic outside of peak hours.

A34-03:

We do not understand why the bus lane signs do not include cycles as well as buses and taxis, especially with the introduction of a contra-flow bus lane on Ablewell Street. The bus lanes should include cycle users in their list of permitted users.

A34-08:

The target width for a uni-directional cycle track should be 2 metres minimum, and the cycle track should be continuous across drive-way mouths. In this section, the cycleway is only proposed to be 1.5 metres wide, which is too narrow, and the driveway to the electric substation is indicated as being laid out as if it were a side-road. These designs need amending so that they prioritise the cycle users and give them sufficient space.

In addition, the cycle track should be connected to the pavement at the end of Chapel Lane. The junction is rather intimidating, but at the moment the only way to get onto the cycle track is to cycle in the motor traffic across that junction. By connecting the cycle track to the pavement, it offers cycle users the option of using the pedestrian crossings if they do not feel confident enough to cycle with the motor traffic there.

A34-18:

It is good to see that pedestrians will be given more direct crossing points than they currently have. This will also help cycle users who want to cross the A34 here, but who do not want to cycle with the motor traffic. It would be a good idea to install toucan crossings here if the crossing lights are being replaced.

A34-23 & 24

The plans to turn the underpass here into a bus lane are good. The proposals will give a significant time boost to buses over private motor traffic at this junction. The narrowing of James Watt Queensway will help to encourage drivers to stick to the 20mph speed limit here.

Sutton Coldfield to Birmingham via Langley (SBL):

SBL-03:

The bus bypass for the junction will have a positive effect on journey times for public transport heading towards the city centre.

A45 Route:

A45-01:

There is a proposed bus stop for sprint behind the Clayton Hotel on a street that is currently pedestrianised. We suspect that this is a mistake, as there are no other proposals presented for the substantial work that would need to be done to that street to make it suitable for Sprint. If there are plans to change this street into a bus-route, perhaps because of the issue of turning circles for Sprint buses on the existing junction, then we will need to see those plans before saying if we approve or not.

A45-05:

The addition of a pedestrian crossing island at the mouth of Lawden Road will be welcome, as will be the widening of the footpath under the railway bridge, in order to provide enough width for a shared-use path.

A45-10:

The River Cole green route passes around / across (somehow) Heybarnes Circus. Any pedestrian crossings that are replaced here should be upgraded to toucan crossings to help people using the River Cole route. The crossings and the connecting paths should be made wide enough to meet the requirements for shared use routes.

A45-18:

At the junction of Hatchford Way and the A45, the bus gate is a good idea, but it might be better for pedestrians to have a zebra crossing for the bus lane, to minimise disruption for buses and pedestrians. As the bus lane by-passes the junction, there shouldn't be any need for the bus lane to have a light-controlled pedestrian crossing. It would also allow the pedestrian crossing to be straightened out a little bit.

A45-23:

At the mouth of Harvard Road, the proposals cut off a useful route for cycles along the service road. The plans should be amended to provide a cycle lane on each section of new pavement, to enable cycle users to continue straight along this service road. There should also be a length of cycle track installed to meet up with the cycle track linking to Old Lode Lane, and ideally that section of cycle track should be re-surfaced and upgraded. This is important to ensure links for cycle users are not severed by sections of pavement.

A45-25:

Currently, this section of pavement outside of JLR has a segregated cycle track painted on it. This should not be replaced with a shared use pavement, as that is a down-grading of the cycle facilities offered here. The cycle track should be included in the new plans, ideally at a minimum width of 3 metres as it is likely to be used bi-directionally. The pavement on the other side of the entrance to JLR is also being moved, and the changes there should include a good quality cycle track as well.

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