For many years, Digbeth High Street has been an urban motorway, delivering cars into the very centre of Birmingham. While the area around New Street and the Bullring has become a commercial centre, with a welcoming environment, Digbeth High Street has stagnated with most people choosing to avoid the fumes. This is set to changed with the delivery of the Metro Eastside extension, which will eventually extend from the centre of Birmingham to the airport. The proposals for Digbeth High Street will turn over half of the high street to segregated tram lines, and restrict private motor traffic with bus lanes. But while the plans present significant improvements for public transport, they do very little for people cycling along Digbeth High Street.
Currently, anyone cycling along Digbeth High Street would be using a mix of bus lanes, which are enforced with cameras and so do not have many cars driving in them, and then general traffic lanes with buses, taxis and private cars all mixed together. The general traffic lanes will be very intimidating, but even for the bus lanes, the experience will still be unpleasant, due to the high volume of buses and black cabs along this route. Experienced and confident cycle users might find the bus lanes acceptable, but it is off-putting for less experienced cycle users and even experienced cycle users would generally not choose to cycle there with children. In addition to the regular buses and black cabs, though, there will also be Sprint rapid transit buses using Digbeth High Street, and these long, articulated, buses create more issues with overtaking cycle users. The increased public transport links and steep reduction in air pollution will help Digbeth High Street to become vibrant and busy again, but the environment for people cycling here may well feel worse.
The consultation is on the Birmingham BeHeard website - Digbeth High Street Consultation - and closes on Thursday 9th April 2020 (extended due to the impact of Covid 19).
We have prepared some brief bullet points which you might like to use in your response to the consultation, and after that we have some more detailed discussion of the plans.
- Cycling infrastructure needs to be designed for all ages and abilities. Can you imagine someone cycling with an 8 year old child in a bus lane on Digbeth High Street surrounded by Sprint buses and black cabs?
- The entire width of Digbeth High Street is being re-built. There is minimal cost to future-proofing the designs with high quality segregated cycle infrastructure. We need to get it right now, rather than regretting the design in 10 years time.
- Planting shrubs and grass is less important than keeping children on bikes out of bus lanes. If any highway users need to sacrifice their space for plants, then it ought to be motor traffic with the side roads made one-way to give space for trees.
- Digbeth High Street will become a major destination which many people will want to travel to. Families who want to cycle must not feel excluded from that major destination.
- Bradford Street is steeper than Digbeth High Street, and will be carrying a much higher volume of private motor traffic. In addition it will not have the same destinations as the High Street. Cycle lanes on Bradford Street will be useful, but are not a substitute for high quality cycle infrastructure on Digbeth High Street.
- Sprint rapid transit bus drivers should not be asked to navigate around cycle users. Bus lanes that will have high volumes of Sprint rapid transit buses should have high quality cycle infrastructure provided alongside so that cycle users choose to use the cycle infrastructure rather than the Sprint bus lane. On a busy road like Digbeth High Street, Sprint buses and cycle users should have separate spaces.
Is Digbeth High Street too narrow for a cycle track?:
Digbeth High Street is a wide urban motorway, with 6 lanes for most of its length. The narrowest part is outside the Custard Factory, where two bus stops are positioned opposite each other. It is the positioning of these two bus stops that presents the biggest obstacle to the construction of a high-quality cycle track along this road. Although the Custard Factory would benefit from having easy and convenient public transport stops immediately outside, it would gain more benefit from a higher flow of cycle traffic including families and new cycle users, rather than only those cycle users brave enough to ride in front of a Sprint bus. One of the bus stops should be relocated to next to Floodgate Street (see that section below) to provide the space for a cycle track.
Can we have vegetation on Digbeth High Street and a cycle track?
Although we are calling for a cycle track to be prioritised over planting shrubberies on Digbeth High Street, trees could be planted alongside the cycle track. People can cycle under the canopy of smaller trees, whereas buses and trams can't. With well planned designs, trees could be incorporated in the spaces alongside a cycle track and still provide a softening of Digbeth High Street. We are not against including green features, but we think cycle tracks should come first.
Sprint Rapid Transit Buses:
As part of the improvements to public transport in the West Midlands, Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) proposes rolling out 7 Sprint lines, including a route from Birmingham Airport, through the city centre, to Perry Barr for the Commonwealth Games in 2022. Sprint buses are halfway between a tram and a regular bus, with multiple doors for passengers to get on and off quickly and easily, and able to seat around 100 people. Rather than having two layers, Sprint buses will be articulated. This will make them more accessible to people with mobility needs, but will significantly increase their length and bus drivers will need extra training to drive Sprint buses, as the experience will be different to driving a regular bus. In London, the 'bendy buses' were used for several years on the busiest routes, and at their height, were involved in 20% of the collisions that London buses had, despite being only 5% of the bus fleet. It is difficult to separate out the extra collisions they had due to the busy nature of their routes, but it does seem clear that Sprint buses are more likely to be involved in a collision with someone walking or cycling than a regular bus.
It is important to improve the capacity and reliability of public transport in the West Midlands, and at less than a quarter of the cost of building a tram line, Sprint rapid transit buses will be beneficial. But measures should be taken to provide segregated space for cycle users alongside bus lanes used by Sprint. Bus lanes are more attractive to cycle users than general motor traffic lanes, and it is not possible to remove cycle users by banning them, but if there are a lot of cycle users in a bus lane used by Sprint, it will slow them down. Sprint buses have fewer stops than ordinary buses and will attempt to travel more quickly along their route, and they need to take much more care when overtaking cycle users. When the Birmingham achieves a cycle modal share of 10%, there will be many people cycling in bus lanes, slowing down the Sprint buses. It is short-sighted to rebuild roads now that will force large volumes of cycle users and Sprint buses into the same space - we can already predict the issues this will cause.
The end of this street should be closed off to provide space for relocating one of the bus stops outside the Custard Factory. The street is adequately served by other streets, and there are no destinations along Floodgate Street before Moore's Row that need regular motor vehicle access. It can be shut off without inconveniencing anyone. By relocating one bus stop outside the Custard Factory, space can be made to build a high quality cycle track past the narrowest part of Digbeth High Street.
In addition, closing Floodgate Street will enable the opening out and development of the River Rea in the future, with a wide open space next to it provided by the pedestrianised road. This should be viewed as a positive advantage for the area. Trees and shrubs could be planted along this section of Floodgate Street to provide a more pleasant atmosphere without blocking the construction of a high quality cycle route.
The proposals for Rea Street are good - closing the end of the street to all traffic except cycle users will provide good filtered permeability. Of all the side streets, this will be the most welcoming to cycle users, so it is strange that this solution is not replicated with some of the other side streets. The plans indicate a turning circle at the end of Rea Street, next to the coach station. That is not a good idea, as it will encourage taxis to drive up to the end, drop off and pick up, and then drive back. There is a car park entrance part way down the street, and that is where the turning circle should be provided. Then half of this section of Rea Street can be landscaped as a pedestrianised area with trees and shrubs, which would provide a more pleasant experience for the people using the coach station.
Heath Mill Lane:
Currently Heath Mill Lane carries a high volume of motor traffic, both private and buses and with the reduction from 6 lanes to 2 lanes on Digbeth High Street, that volume of motor traffic must be drastically reduced or bus journey times will suffer. The map with the proposed motor traffic movements shows that a potential rat-run from Heath Mill Land to Alcester Street or Chapel House Street will be countered through the strategic banning of turning movements. The only private motor traffic legally able to turn into Heath Mill Lane from High Street will be motor traffic that has gone down Gibb Street, while private motor traffic using Heath Mill Lane will be forced to turn left on to the High Street and head towards the ring road without accessing Alcester Road. These proposals will be very effective if the people driving cars obey the turn restrictions, but as we are finding out on the Bristol Road / Priory Road junction, there are many people who do not believe that traffic regulations apply to them. While TfWM can use cameras to enforce bus lanes, local authorities can not currently use static cameras to enforce turn bans. Without enforcement of that ban, rat-running motor traffic will be attracted to that section of the high street and both impact bus reliability and make the environment more hostile for people cycling there. Extra bus gates, or the power to enforce turn bans, are likely to be necessary in the future.
Digbeth High Street between Alcester Street and Chapel House Street:
This section of Digbeth High Street is open to all motor traffic heading towards the city centre, but the only significant destinations are the Custard Factory and the Connaught Square Project. The traffic movements diagram says that access to the Custard Factory (Zellig) car park is via Chapel House Street, with right turns from Digbeth High Street into the car park being banned. This is a sensible proposal (although with some enforcement issues as discussed above), but there are 3 ways to access Chapel House Street: from Digbeth High Street (via Stone Yard); from Bradford Street; and via Green Street and Alcester Road. Is it necessary for private motor traffic to be able to use this section of the High Street? With no restrictions along Chapel House Street, it is possible that this section will become attractive for private motor traffic to bypass congestion at the top of Bradford Street by cutting down Chapel House Street onto Bradford Street. Having a bus lane along this stretch would have minimal impact on people driving to the Custard Factory, but would reduce private motor traffic on that section, improving public transport time and eliminating the risk of private motor traffic rat-running along the banned right turn on to Heath Mill Lane (see discussion above).
Is a cycle track on Bradford Street a good alternative for cycle users?:
With all of the private motor traffic for the Bull Ring car park and Moor Street Station routed down Bradford Street, it is likely that Bradford Street will feel busier than it does now, even as overall private motor traffic levels in Birmingham city centre fall. As a main road, it is important that cycle users are provided segregated space away from motor traffic, so of course we support the plans to put cycle lanes on Bradford Street. But there are 5 crossroads and an extra 3 side roads coming off Bradford Street, and motor traffic will be using those to access the different locations in that area. A cycle track alongside the tram line in the middle of Digbeth High Street, in contrast, would have at most 3 points where motor traffic crossed over it, and in far lower volumes. From a design perspective, Digbeth High Street will be a safer route for cycle traffic because of the layout.
In designing cycle routes, slopes need to be factored in as something that has an impact on the routes that people chose to cycle. Digbeth High Street has a shallower gradient than Bradford Street and does not go up as high. When planning a cycle route across the city centre and out towards Bordesley, Digbeth High Street is likely to be more attractive a route than Bradford Street due to the difference in gradient. For some journeys, Bradford Street will be a preferred option, but for many journeys it won't.
In addition, Digbeth High Street already has many more destinations along it than Bradford Street does, and with the installation of the tram, there will be further development of Digbeth High Street. It may be that Bradford Street sees some developments as well, but it will never compete with Digbeth High Street as a destination. Cycle routes need to take people to the places they want to visit, and without safe and attractive cycle infrastructure along Digbeth High Street, its potential for cycle trips won't be realised. A route along Bradford Street is not a replacement for a route directly to the Custard Factory or for students to South and City College, for example.