Opinion: Opinion: Close the A38 tunnels

Filed under: Be Bold, Birmingham / Opinions

Be Bold, Birmingham! is a series of blogs where Better Streets for Birmingham member Paul Manzotti suggests some big changes he’d like to see in the city.

Does anything encapsulate the hold that the car has over our city more than the A38? From the gargantuan Gravelly Hill Interchange, 7 lanes of tarmac thunder towards the city centre, flyovers tower over the Children’s Hospital and the Mailbox, whilst it cuts off the Jewellery Quarter from the city centre, before ending up as the 8-lane monster that is Bristol Street.

The Queensway Tunnel. Copyright Tim Ellis

It is a genuine blight on the whole city centre, and to what end? To provide those of us in South Birmingham with a route to the M6? When we could be using either the Middleway or the motorway ring road (the M42, M5 and M6) instead?

Has the time come to free our city from the congestion and pollution it brings?

History of the route

It’s only relatively recently that these roads became part of the A38, instead originally constituting part of the infamous A4400, or Birmingham Inner Ring Road.

The A4400 is probably Herbert Manzoni’s most visible legacy to Birmingham, though sadly it’s almost universally acknowledged as one of the great urban disasters. Swathes of Birmingham’s Victorian architecture were demolished for its construction, and it marked the coronation of the car as King of Birmingham.

Construction work on the Inner Ring Road (Steelhouse Lane section) Copyright Birmingham Mail

Eventually nicknamed the Concrete Collar, it made expanding the city centre impossible. It was also horrendous for pedestrians, with dark subways the only crossing mechanism.

Its detrimental effect on the city centre was acknowledged at the turn of this century by the demolition of the sections around Moor Street Station, removing about a third of the ring road.

Unfinished business

With this good start having stalled in 2003, the soon-to-be-announced implementation of the Birmingham Transport Plan is the perfect time for the council to announce that it will complete the job to free up the City Centre.

It fits in with the previously-announced proposal to adopt a Ghent-style zonal system, splitting the city centre into a number of non-permeable zones, where vehicles have to go out to the ring road to travel to other zones. Having the A38 continue to bulldoze its way through the city centre seems incongruous with that proposal.

This idea has unofficially surfaced before, with the original release of the Birmingham Transport Plan in 2021. However, WMCA Mayor, Andy Street, shot it down saying that it would affect trade between the north and south of the city. I’d like to see the stats to back up his assertion, as it sounds implausible. Regardless, we don’t expect travelling from Essex to Berkshire to involve going through London, it’s what the M25 was built for (hat tip to @boots_bike for the comparison).

The introduction of the City Centre Clean Air Zone provides a fantastic opportunity to investigate the usage of the road, due to the ANPR cameras that ring the zone. It should be possible to calculate how many vehicles use the A38 purely as a through-road. I’ve heard whispers that it is in the 65-70% region. 

Other cities have successfully made similar moves

Lest you think I’m suggesting anything special here, there are plenty of examples of other cities that have freed themselves from their concrete-derived car-dependency, amongst them:

This shows that it first requires the political will to make the change; roads are not immutable objects, immune to change.

The benefits of closing the tunnels

Whilst this post is entitled “Close the Tunnels”, I am proposing the removal of the entire A38 inside the ring road, tunnels and all. “Close the Tunnels” is just a snappier phrase than “Close the A38 inside the ring road”.

So, what benefits would this bring?

Reconnect the Jewellery Quarter to the City Centre

Great Charles Street Queensway. Copyright Elliott Brown

One of the biggest benefits of this proposal is the reconnection of the Jewellery Quarter to the city centre. The 8-lane Great Charles Street Queensway is an impenetrable barrier between them. With its capacity requirements reduced to carrying local traffic only, two lanes could suffice. Space would be available for a tram line, possibly shared by buses, a protected cycle lane, with room left over for some greenery.

Breaking down this barrier would allow people to freely move between the areas, increasing walking and cycling, improving the entire environment. 

Demolish the Lancaster Circus Queensway flyover.

Lancaster Circus flyover. Copyright Elliot Brown

With no through-traffic, the monstrosity towering over Lancaster Circus and the Children’s Hospital would be redundant. Demolishing it would only improve the area. With no through-traffic to funnel onto the A38, the existing roads around Lancaster Circus could well be reduced in width, again freeing up space for a tram line, protected cycle lane, and greenery.

Imagine not having one of the biggest sources of air pollution running right past the Children’s Hospital.

Demolish the Mailbox flyover and Holloway Circus

Suffolk Street flyover. Copyright Stephen Piggot Photography

Another flyover that dominates the surrounding area, its low height adding a claustrophobic feel to the pedestrian experience around the Mailbox. Demolition would improve the pedestrian experience walking to and from the Mailbox. The space could be repurposed for small hospitality concessions, further improving the area.

With reduced levels of traffic, Holloway Circus could be demolished, levelled off and turned into a traffic-lighted crossroads. There’s also the option of putting a modal filter at the bottom of Holloway Head, further reducing traffic levels.

With the main tunnel closed, a two-lane road would provide a bus route to and from Paradise Circus and Broad Street, with space for a tram line and protected cycle lane.

Reclaim Bristol Street

Bristol Street. Copyright Birmingham Mail (taken by Graham Young)

Currently seven lanes of tarmac, the removal of through-traffic would allow a significant remodelling of Bristol Street. Carrying only traffic for New Street Station and The Mailbox, a two-lane road would suffice. 

Installing modal filters on all junctions on the eastern side of the road would allow the A38 cycle lane to be extended up to Lancaster Circus, with an offshoot down Smallbrook Queensway. There would be space for the hospitality establishments to have pavement dining, as well as significant greenery.

Additionally, without the need for such long-lasting sequences for the traffic lights on the Middleway, it should be possible to reduce the ridiculously long delays that pedestrians and cyclists suffer when wanting to cross the Middleway.

Build a tram line from Longbridge to Perry Barr

As mentioned previously, remodelling the A38 would provide space for a tram line to be built along Great Charles Street, Paradise Circus, Suffolk Street and Bristol Street. Eventually, this could be expanded to Perry Barr in one direction, and Longbridge in the other.

Put the A38(M) on a lane diet, and build a boulevard

Whilst I suspect traffic will initially use the ring road to get to the A38(M), the inverse of Induced Demand should see traffic levels drop eventually. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for South- Birmingham-bound traffic to use the motorway. This should be monitored, as if there’s any possibility of reducing the number of lanes on this stretch of road, it should be taken. I can envisage a pretty tree-lined boulevard taking its place, which would be a massive improvement for the area.

Be Bold, Birmingham!

Closing and remodelling the A38 inside the Middleway would transform a significant portion of the city. It’s precisely the bold step that the council seems to be wanting to make and would loudly proclaim that the days of this city’s car-dependency are coming to an end.

With the benefits it would provide, the question to ask is, why shouldn’t we do it?

Be Bold, Birmingham!

Paul Manzotti

Worrying about my wife's daily cycle commute and the health of my born-and-bred-in-a-city children, I may have become slightly obsessed with creating a network of protected cycle lanes in Birmingham! Which includes LTNs.

In my defence, they can solve so many problems our country suffers from currently.