Polishing the Turd

The Birmingham Mail recently reported a collision in which three cars completely destroyed each other on a bike lane, and a woman was left "fighting for her life". The bike lane in question is on the A38 Bristol Road just south of Selly Oak, and it's brand new. In fact it's so new that the signs announcing its creation were flattened in the collision. You can see one of them in the photo, next to all that remains of a tree that was destroyed by the impact. I should add that previously the tree was growing vertically, because it helps set the scene.

This being a British cycle lane, naturally it disappears just before the toucan (cycle) crossing and reappears on the other side, since British cycling infrastructure never connects with itself. The lane divider is in fact underneath the car with no doors and the engine in the passenger compartment, but since it stops there the only indicator of where it would be is a marker that was painted on the road for the benefit of the person who painted the lane divider. I've marked with a big red circle:

Wrecked car on cycle lane

If you had been on a bike at the time and location of the collision, Birmingham City Council would have expected you to be between that line and the kerb. As you can see, the cycle lane wouldn't have provided much protection. This was no minor collision. Just consider the energy required to destroy three cars and a steel railing, and snap a tree in two and break its root system. What effect would that collision have had on a vulnerable road user, such as a cyclist? We know it resulted in someone inside one of the cars being seriously injured. The state of the tree should tell you what would happen, but whilst I will spare you the photos I have, I feel it needs to be spelt out. Anything that can apply sufficient force to snap a tree in two will also snap a human body in two.

This collision came as no surprise to me, because I know the road very well. I find driving on it a frightening experience. I obey speed limits, but more often than not I'm the slowest driver between Selly Oak and Bournville. Examples of my own experience are as follows:

  • At the point where this collision occurred I was standing next the opposite carriageway waiting for an early morning bus when a car screamed past just a couple of metres away from me travelling at about 80mph. Ironically I was catching the bus because I was flying to the Netherlands to see for myself how the Dutch design their infrastructure.
  • Whilst driving I was once overtaken by a four axle tipper truck on the downhill section, which then swerved in front of me so the driver could undertake a car in the right-hand lane, only narrowly missing my front off-side wing. The driver then hit the brakes hard for the safety cameras (which I assume like all other safety cameras in Birmingham have been turned off in order to save money), before accelerating heavily past the point where the collision described above occurred.
  • At the top of the hill in the 30mph limit, I was once overtaken by a bus travelling at about 50mph.
  • I've witnessed two buses engaged in a road race between Selly Oak and Bournville; I had to take evasive manoeuvres to avoid my car being crushed by one of them.
  • Whilst taking the photos of the crash site another bus passed me at well over the speed limit, driving in the cycle lane.
  • Whilst checking the available width for a cycle path a week after the collision, I saw a car driver pull out of the right-hand lane and accelerate heavily towards the Bournville Lane junction, using both the left-hand lane and the cycle lane.
  • At night I can hear screaming engines for one or two hours at a time, as so-called car-cruisers enjoy the race track Birmingham City Council has built for them.

Additionally, the junction designs are abysmal and the road is extremely poorly maintained. I have on many occasions highlighted that this road is dangerous and that the cycling provision is hopelessly inadequate, including to Birmingham City Council officers. I have recently advised cyclists on birminghamcyclist.com not to use the new cycle lane.

Ride your bike dismountedAnd what does Birmingham City Council think acceptable in the way of cycling infrastructure on this road? They started by painting some white lines on the footway and erecting a large number of shared-use and split-use signs (some of which have random "CYCLISTS DISMOUNT" signs underneath them). To this they added a 1.15 metre advisory lane in each direction on the carriageway. Since that rendered the adjacent lane sub-standard, buses and trucks would travel in it "wall-to-wall", passing cyclists with centimetres to spare. I refused to use it when on my bike, but whilst driving I've had a few near-misses with cyclists who have pulled out from a side road into the insufficiently wide cycle lane. The photo below (a still from a video) shows this original cycle lane (on the northbound carriageway). Note that I have pulled over to the right to give the cyclist space, briefly occupying both lanes to prevent high-speed undertaking, a common problem on this section of the Bristol Road. Unfortunately if the right-hand lane is occupied, a cycle lane like this tempts drivers to stay in lane, which at 40mph leaves the cyclist far too little space.

Cyclist on the first Bristol Road cycle lane

Bus using Bristol Road Cycle laneVery recently the cycle lane was removed and replaced with another cycle lane just 1.4 metres wide (to the centre of the white line; not the usable width). Also parking in the cycle lane has been banned. However, since large motor vehicles now travel with their near-side wheels in the cycle lane (even though the next lane divider has been moved across a little), cyclists haven't really gained anything. So the council has spent a significant sum of money making what are at best marginal improvements to something that was abysmally bad. This is known as "polishing the turd".

Bristol Road cycle lane

The money to polish the turd came from the government's Local Sustainable Transport fund, and the lane was painted almost into the third year of Birmingham's Cycle Revolution. Birmingham commenced it's cycling revolution by producing a cycling design guide, which is actually quite good, but the council has yet to approve and publish it. That design guide stipulates an absolute minimum width for an advisory cycle lane of 1.8 metres, so not publishing the guide allows Birmingham to continue creating complete garbage like the Bristol Road cycle lane. Of course an advisory cycle lane is totally and utterly inappropriate on a 40mph dual-carriageway on which speeding is routine. The council must know that speeding here is routine, because on the approach to this point there are two safety cameras. Moreover, it should be obvious to the proverbial moron in a hurry what is the likely corollary of having a long, straight, downhill section of dual-carriageway. The Dutch would never use an advisory lane in this way. They use them to narrow a quiet road to one running lane for motor traffic, very possibly with one of the advisory lanes being a contraflow cycle lane. That Birmingham City Council have built this lane, encouraging cyclists into danger, is nothing short of utterly disgraceful. Those involved with its creation and approval should be ashamed of themselves.

Pavement parking on the Bristol Road in Selly OakWhen this lane went out to consultation I opposed it, pointing out that there was plenty of room to do the job properly. The road is 40 metres wide. It's so wide it used to have a tram line on what is now the central reservation. It's so wide that at the Selly Oak end there is room for a car to park on the pavement next to a bus shelter without blocking the pavement (and there is a similar width available on the opposite side). But always the city council just wring their hands and say that the trees are a problem. Actually even with the trees as they are now (and unfelled by passing motor cars), there is space for a usable cycle path, a path that would be wider than the painted advisory lane, but it would require the council to lay some bitmac. Near the junction where the collision occurred there is 4.5 metres between the trees either side of the footway. On the other side of Bournville Lane there is 3.5 metres between the hedge and the trees, and the entire width between the hedge and the kerb is more than five metres. Since the footway is pretty much only used by people catching the bus, it is not heavily used by pedestrians, so a 2 metre cycle path could be created here easily, with a similar path on the opposite side. In blaming the trees, Birmingham City Council is just trying to find excuses for not getting on with the job.

Clearly no space for cycling here

I invited various councillors and officers who were at October's transport scrutiny committee to comment on the new lane and the collision that occurred on it, including the chair of the committee Victoria Quinn, the cabinet Member for Sustainability Lisa Trickett, and Claire Spencer, who spoke at some length about the possibility of providing a means of reporting near-misses. That is something I would not only support, but called for many years ago. However, of the councillors and officers, only Tim Huxtable replied. He represents Bournville. Tim Huxtable aside, once again we see the council sticking its fingers in its ears and going "nah nah nah nah", expecting problems just to sort themselves out. They are happy to carry on spending years and years talking about the problems, rather than rolling up their sleeves getting them solved. At the scrutiny committee, one councillor, John O'Shea asked why Birmingham was still talking about road safety when other councils were getting on with addressing it. Good question. It's no good just talking about road safety, you have to make changes. It's no good just collecting reports of near misses, you have to correct whatever is causing them. It's no good just saying "wouldn't it be nice if everyone stopped driving and cycled", you have to make the changes that make that practical. Birmingham hasn't, so we see major road collisions on bike lanes and steadily increasing congestion. Let's just remind ourselves what Leicester has done with one of its trunk roads:

A47 in Leicester

And this is what the Germans have built in Hanover:

Herrenhäuser Straße, Hanover

Herrenhäuser Straße looks remarkably similar to the A38 Bristol Road, but one of the two carriageways is a tram line (and we know how much Birmingham City Council loves trams), and there is a segregated cycle path on one side. Cycle parking has been provided near the tram stop to facilitate multi-modal journeys. And there's space left over for trees. Continental countries don't have more space, they just use what they have more effectively, and as a result people have and use more transport options. That means they don't climb into their cars to make every journey, even though they own more cars per head of population than we do.

The Dutch of course have also tamed their roads and provided for cyclists, though typically they pay more attention to important details, as shown by the two photos below:

Dutch teenagers riding alongside a main roadThese Dutch teenagers do not have to ride on the carriageway of this main road to get to and from school. Instead they, along with everyone else, ride on the segregated cycle path. There is no painted cycle lane, because none is necessary, and no footway, because very few people walk here (though they can use the cycle path, should they need to walk). Dutch teenagers have been given the ability to go about their lives without being chaperoned by an adult in a car.   Chicane on a major roadAt junctions on major roads the Dutch will apply a speed restriction, enforced as necessary with a chicane. Note that the design prevents undertaking and overtaking. Like the Bristol Road trees have been planted to create an avenue, but unlike the Bristol Road there are very high quality segregated cycle paths on either side of the road (the one you can see on the far left is the northbound cycle path). Both are wide, and they are cleverly designed to minimise pedalling effort.

Bournville School is on Griffins Brook Lane between Cob Lane and the Bristol Road. Would Birmingham councillors and officers be happy with British teenagers using the Bristol Road cycle lane to get to and from school (in the rush hour)? Would councillors and officers be happy to recommend that members of their own families use the Bristol Road cycle lane? Do they think British teenagers are more able to survive a car crash than their Dutch compatriots? Why is that when challenged about the safety of the schemes they have created, they resort to silence?

So what was the one reply I got from a city councillor? Tim Huxtable said he wanted to see improvements to the Merritts Brook Greenway. It's good that he recognises it has many issues, but even if those improvements were made it wouldn't get anyone from Selly Oak to Northfield, which is what the A38 Bristol Road does. The continental Europeans already know that for mass cycling, cycle routes must be both safe and direct. They know that cars should take the indirect route, because cars have a higher top speed so you need to tip the balance in favour of cycling. The Birmingham Conservative group think that routes should merely be safe. Money spent on cycling infrastructure that takes people on indirect, poorly implemented, and poorly maintained routes is money wasted, because few people will find it acceptable and useful. The corollary of this is the continuation of high levels of congestion and poor health.

On the subject of money, it's worth saying that a collision such as this will cost the economy a six or seven figure sum, so the council's unwillingness to bring our infrastructure into the twenty first century is an extremely expensive false economy. The DfT used to publish the figures in its annual report, Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain, but now they hide them in an Excel spreadsheet, from which I've taken the figures for 2014:

Accident/casualty type Cost per casualty Cost per accident
Fatal £1,836,054 £2,066,732
Serious £206,321 £235,791
Slight £15,905 £24,887
Average for all severities £54,849 £77,825
Damage only - £2,204

Building safe, modern infrastructure pays dividends, as well as being more civilised.

What You Can Do

It's really important that you challenge the low quality approach that Birmingham has adopted, because if you don't the city council will not change its ways. As a result we will continue to have a relatively high cyclist and pedestrian death rate (statistically, a middle-aged cyclist is seven times less likely to be killed or injured riding a bike in the Netherlands), and a high and rising obesity rate (which is already starting to cripple the health service). Cycling will remain largely the preserve of the fast and the brave. So challenge your councillors to do far better.

And until Britain learns the benefits of modern, civilised infrastructure, if you need to cycle between Selly Oak and Northfield, please try my suggestion (below). It's a bit longer, it's quite a bit slower, it's convoluted, it's illegal, and it's far from how things should be, but it's less likely to involve a detour via the Queen Elizabeth hospital (possibly ending your journey in the mortuary). If you prefer, there are quiet roads that parallel some of the footpath sections (I normally use these quiet roads). Of course given the choice between speeding along on the A38 racetrack and taking a detour on a bike, most people would opt for the former, so don't forget to explain to councillors why cycle journeys need to be direct if we are to encourage people to cycle rather than drive.