A major pinch point for pedestrians and cycle users just to the south of Birmingham city centre is the two junctions where Priory Road crosses Bristol Road and Pershore Road. On Sat 17th Jan, I attended a meeting at the junctions organised by Gisela Stuart MP in response to calls from local residents to have the junctions improved to make them safer for all users. This article lays out the solution I envisage for these junctions, arguing for high-quality segregation at both junctions, based on design ideas from TfL. The solution to these junctions will not be cheap, and we need to get them right now, so that we don't need to dig them up again in 10 years time.
The Bristol Road corridor was one of several corridors in Birmingham to receive LSTF (Local Sustainable Transport Funding) as part of Centro's Smart Network, Smarter Choices scheme, which was supposed to be used to encourage more walking, cycling and public transport use to encourage economic growth without increasing carbon emissions. The project combined soft measures, such as giving information about walking and cycling routes and cycle training, with hard measures, such as upgrading crossings and improving the cycle network. Much of the work on this route was completed by 2014, and Push Bikes gave a cautious welcome to some of the measures, but were concerned about the poor quality of the surface of the new shared-use pavements and the challenges posed by the Priory Road / Bristol Road junction. Some small changes were made to the out-ward bound cycle lane, but the cost of doing more was prohibitively higher than the LSTF money could cover.
The junctions, however, remain dangerous. A quick search of Crash Map shows about 40 RTCs (Road Traffic Collisions) at or next two these two junctions from 2005 to 2013, including a pedestrian fatality at the Bristol Road / Priory Road junction in October 2013. The closest supermarket to this area is an Aldi, situated in a new development of apartments opposite the Edgbaston Cricket Ground, while to the west of Bristol Road, there is the Priory Hospital, the Martineau Gardens and the Elmhurst School for Dance. The housing around here has a high concentration of apartment buildings, both low and high rise, and recently new student accommodation has been built in the area. Despite this high concentration of residents and destinations, neither junction has dedicated green phases for pedestrians, let alone for cycle users.
At the meeting on Saturday, I asked many of the residents present about their experiences with the junctions. All of them, without fail, spoke about the dangers of the junctions. There were families with school-age children, who worry each day about their children crossing at these junctions on their way to and from school. The university students and the elderly local residents spoke about the difficulties of going to the local shops and supermarket, and several residents said that they will get in their cars rather than walk the 500 meters to the shops because of the dangers. The children of one elderly resident will drive to visit them specifically to take them to the shop, rather than letting them walk across the junctions.
A long-standing Push Bikes member, Roy Watson, told me that he takes a diversion down Sir Harry’s Road, rather than cycle down Priory Road to reach Cannon Hill Park. I regularly use the junction myself, travelling between Selly Oak and Birmingham City Centre, and the Bristol Road / Priory Road junction is the one point on that cycle trip where I feel at risk. When cycling towards the city centre, I normally dismount and push across the east side of the junction.
It is clear that these two junctions are suppressing demand for walking and cycling trips in the local area, impacting on the quality of life of local residents and the money spent at local businesses. If the junctions were to have dedicated green phases for pedestrians, it is likely that there would be a substantial increase in pedestrian traffic in the area. This would reduce the number of short-distance local car trips as well as promoting physical activity in the local population.
The wider transport picture
The main challenge for Birmingham City Council in dealing with these junctions is that they are at full capacity due to the heavy load of through motor traffic that travels up and down them. With the changes taking place along the A435 (Alcester Road) with 20mph speed limits being introduced in locations such as Kings Heath and Moseley high streets, it is likely that more HGV traffic will be using Bristol Road and Pershore Road to access Birmingham city centre. Birmingham City Council is under pressure to maximise the capacity of these junctions to reduce congestion.
The alternatives to driving down Pershore Road and Bristol Road appear limited to many residents. The commuter train services are already packed full everyday, and commuters argue that if they take the bus, they are simply sitting in the same stationary traffic as when they drive their cars (which is a chicken and egg problem though). The upgrades to the canal towpath, and the River Rea cycle route, offer year-round cycle routes, but these are not attractive options in the dark evenings of winter. Cycling down Bristol Road, however, offers either a bumpy, inconsistent shared use path, or mixing with the same motor traffic as they would otherwise be stuck in - all without the protection of a steel box when they reach the junction with Priory Road.
Putting in a dedicated pedestrian phase at these junctions will take time away from that currently dedicated to motor traffic, which will reduce the capacity of these junctions. Even if the pedestrian phase is ‘demand-only’ (with a push button to request it), the highest demand will be during rush hour, when there is also the biggest pressure on the junction capacity.
What is the solution?
In the long term, there has to be a sufficient move away from private car use to sustainable transport to reduce the level of demand on these junctions. While buses remain stuck in the same congestion as motor cars, it is unlikely that use of buses will increase. The introduction of a rapid transit bus Sprint line down Bristol Road, in segregated lanes, could provide an attractive alternative to private car use, and this may happen in the long run, but the cost will be tens of millions of pounds.
We know that there is suppressed local demand for walking, and we can hope that introducing dedicated pedestrian light phases will see a significant local shift from short distance car journeys to local walking trips. But while a lot of the pavement along Bristol Road is wide enough to accommodate shared use relatively comfortably, the pavements around these junctions are quite narrow. While it would be the cheapest option to implement, a shared-use pavement solution here would simply not be attractive to cycle commuters who would want to travel relatively unimpeded through these junctions at the time of peak pedestrian demand. If we really want to reduce the level of demand on these junctions, we need to be encouraging commuters to switch to cycling down Bristol Road, and that means increasing capacity for cycles.
My suggestion is that we need junction that gives simultaneous green lights to pedestrians and cycle users at the same time. The diagram below shows a solution that Brian Deegan, Principal Technical Specialist in Cycling for Transport for London, suggest could be possible in the UK under current DfT guidelines.
This junction allows cycles to cross the junction at the same time as pedestrians, using the same set of toucan lights, but in a separate space. Pedestrians cross the cycle path at a zebra style crossing while cycles are held at the junction, and then cross in front of the stopped motor traffic at the same time as the cycles cross the junction. This arrangement of an physical island providing physical separation between the cycle path and motor traffic lanes is common in the Netherlands, as I experienced on David Hembrow’s study tour last June, and provide a safe space for pedestrians to cross the carriageway. This sort of physical segregation is tried and tested in the Netherlands, and is a standard way to separate motor traffic and cycle traffic on major roads.
In the diagram, all arms of the junction would have a green pedestrian / cycle phase at the same time. The benefit of doing this is that cycle users would be able to cross two arms of the junction in the time that pedestrians take to cross one, and so would be able to perform a right turn in one phase of the traffic lights. This is almost as good as a fully Dutch style ‘simultaneous green’ junction, although not quite. For those interested, the Ranty Highwayman provides a very good discussion of the differences, as well showing his own take on what is possible under DfT regs in this post. And for everybody, below is a video of a simultaneous green junction that I experienced in the Netherlands on Hembrow’s study tour (you can see me crossing at 4:04).
Objections to this solution
Firstly, my suggested solution will be expensive, costing several million pounds. This, however, needs to be weighed against the economic benefits of this solution. Enabling active travel reduces long-term costs on the NHS and increases the productivity of employees through reliable travel times and fewer sick days. In addition, we need to remember that a single death has a long-term impact of over 1 million pounds to the British economy through lost economic activity and damage done to the family and friends of the deceased. This solution would save lives and encourage a substantial increase in active travel. We should also bear in mind that BCC is spending £14 million on 5 junctions on the ring road to also address congestion.
Secondly, this solution will require some encroachment of the public highway onto land surrounding the junction between Bristol Road and Priory Road. The south side of that junction would need to be expanded by a couple of meters. This would impinge onto private land, but the residential properties will see an increase in value as the surrounding highway realm is made more attractive to pedestrians and cycle users. This is a project that ought to be welcomed by local residents, and the slight expansion of the highway should be sold in those terms.
Thirdly, it might be suggested that allowing confident cycle users to mix with motor traffic while providing a shared use pavement for less confident cycle users would save space and be much cheaper. My problem with a two-tier cycle infrastructure solution would be two-fold: firstly, where there are heavy flows of pedestrian and cycle traffic, narrow shared-use pavements provide a poor experience for both groups; secondly, where confident cycle users ride in the general carriageway next to shared use paths, some drivers are confused as to why they aren't on the shared use paths. My solution provides a high quality experience for cyclists and pedestrians which reduces conflicts. We must also remember that the Birmingham Cycle Revolution is aiming to increase the cycle modal share to 10% by 2030, and that if we achieve that volume of cycle users, then a shared-use pavement at these junctions would have too low a capacity. We need a solution that is future-proof, so that we don't have to replace the junctions in ten years time.