Opinion: Opinion – How University of Birmingham can lead the fight for change

Filed under: Be Bold, Birmingham / Cycle Lane Proposal / LTNs / 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.

The University of Birmingham is the city’s premier seat of learning. It should lead the fight against the climate emergency. With more than 8,000 staff and 38,000 students, it should also lead the transition to active travel. It has world-leading researchers on the health issues of air pollution. It does not need to look far for reasons to reduce vehicle usage.

Yet the reality is a long way from that. Parking in one of the 3000+ on-site spaces costs less than a pound a day. Plans for a large multi-storey car park are in the offing. Ones built for the Sports Centre and staff parking lock in tens of thousands of extra journeys a year.

All in an area second only to the city centre for transport infrastructure.

It results in high levels of congestion on the roads around the University and QE hospital. This reduces productivity, reduces air quality, and damages health.

The question is: what can the University do to reduce car usage?

Aim for the stars

I aim high with my solutions. I don’t expect to get there in one go. But if a series of small steps is the way forward, make them map out the path towards perfection.

A car-free university

In that spirit, the university should aim to become car-free. It may never get to that point. But the steps taken towards it will produce a better future.

Public transport serves the area well, with the train station and a good number of bus routes. Yes, current service levels can be poor, but that’s a short-term staffing issue. It also has one of the two protected cycle lanes in the city.

Here are the steps that could achieve that goal. Yes, many of them are not in the University’s power to provide. The University must lobby the Council and West Midlands Combined Authority.

Remove student vehicles

Many students live in Selly Oak. They are close to the university and transport infrastructure to the city centre. There are student discounts available on public transport. There is little need to have a car (disabled students being an obvious exception). While this may initially put some off coming to the University, others will be attracted by the dedication to environmental causes. It might allow some students to not buy a car in the first place, saving a considerable amount each year. Whilst banning student cars would be impossible, there is an alternative solution.

Resident-only paid parking permits in all surrounding areas

Bring in paid parking permits in the surrounding neighbourhoods. This will control the number of cars on the streets. It will also generate revenue to spend on active travel measures.

By making students ineligible for the permits, term-time cars will not be an option. Exceptions for special circumstances would be available.

Monthly bike scheme plans

The West Midlands Cycle Scheme charges by the minute. Lobby for cheaper monthly and term-time options. Do the same for e-scooters. People with longer-term commitments to the scheme are more likely to use it.

On-street bike hangers

Encourage students to bring their bikes to university with secure on-street bike hangers. Student house break-ins are too common, these would at least secure their bikes.

Electric car clubs

Less on-street parking leaves space for electric car clubs, for journeys that need a car. This may, in turn, allow some residents to sell their cars, further reducing numbers on the streets.

Reduce Staff vehicles

Whilst many staff live within a few miles of the university, some come from further afield. Some come from areas with poor public transport. Different strategies can cover both demographics.

Expand use of park & ride schemes

There are park and ride schemes in the West Midlands. These use tram stops in the Black Country, and train stations all over the region. Whilst staff can get an interest-free loan for season tickets, encourage take-up with subsidies for train passes. A natural one for staff to use is Longbridge Station, but it is currently under-used, as it’s one of the few with parking charges. Could charges be lowered to encourage usage?

Increase secure bike storage provision

Asking staff and students to cycle requires more secure, weather-proof bike storage. Current provision is patchy, and the personal bike boxes don’t fit larger bikes.

Give out free high-quality locks and install Sheffield stands to increase bike parking.

Include cargo bikes in the Bike to Work scheme

Bike to Work is a fantastic scheme. Allowing people to save 30-40% of the cost of a bike, it makes bikes more affordable. But the university caps it at £3000, well under the price of most cargo bikes. As cargo bikes allow parents to take their kids to school en route to work, this is a missed opportunity.

Increase parking charges

A pound a day is too cheap. BCU charge £7.50 a day, which seems more reasonable. This isn’t a punitive fee. We know driving has large costs that we have so far chosen to socialise. Drivers should pay more of the cost of their decision to drive. The fee could be tied to income, so low paid nightshift workers could pay less than the Vice-Chancellor.

Impose a distance limit to parking permits

Permits are available to all staff, no matter how close they live to campus. Bar anyone closer than 5 miles from getting a permit (with obvious exceptions for disabled staff). Student permits are not permitted for anyone nearer than 10 miles from campus. The QE hospital parking permit scheme already does something similar.

Remove all parking spaces from campus

We know we need carrots and sticks to change travel habits. Removing parking spaces from the campus will make driving less appealing. It will also create space for more secure bike storage. Disabled parking would be available.

Pedestrianise the campus

With no parking spaces on campus, there is no need to allow cars to drive through it. Pedestrianise as many routes across the campus as possible. As pretty as they are, cobbles are horrible for wheelchair users and cyclists. Replace them with more accessible surfaces. Make the South Gate for pedestrians and cyclists only.

Taken together, these will make the campus a much more pleasant place.

Remove all on-street parking

Ban all on-street parking on Pritchatts Road. It is a serious source of danger to cyclists. This would also create space for a protected cycle lane. Make Farquhar Road resident parking only, if on-street parking is needed.

Scrap the plan for a multi-storey car park on the Health Innovation campus

The Health Innovation Campus is a fantastic investment for the area. Seeing a large multi-story car park in phase 3 of the plans is disappointing. Given its proximity to the train station and bus routes, it is hard to justify. HSBC provide no parking at their Birmingham-based UK HQ. A Health Innovation Campus should follow their lead.

Lobby for safe cycle routes

LTNs and protected cycle lanes produce safe cycling routes. Safe cycling routes encourage more people to cycle. We’ve seen that happen world-wide.

I accept that these aren’t in the university’s power to provide.  But they are part of the council’s Birmingham Transport Plan. The university must lobby the council to install the infrastructure needed.

Selly Oak LTN

Design for an LTN in Selly Oak, south of the High Street

With less parked cars on the roads south of Bristol Road, speeding is more likely. Reduce that by putting modal filters on them, removing through-traffic. These can be at either the Raddlebarn Road or the Bristol Road end.

Having them at the Bristol Road end would allow all parking on Raddlebarn to move to side roads. This would free up enough space for protected cycle lanes on either side of Raddlebarn Road. But it may cause congestion issues.

To stop all through traffic requires a filter at the Dawlish Road end of Coronation Road. There is a bus route on those two roads. Change the route to use either Bournbrook, Alton or Harrow Road.

A safe route to the university requires closing Bristol Road to through-traffic. This should have happened when they built the bypass. It was the intention. But businesses won a court case blocking it in 2006. With the climate emergency and Birmingham Transport Plan, revisit this decision.

CGI render of Selly Oak High Street closed to traffic. I believe there’s enough room for two bus lanes though. Copyright Cycling Uk

CGI render of Selly Oak High Street closed to traffic. I believe there’s enough room for two bus lanes though. Copyright Cycling Uk

The council should install a bus gate at the university end of Bristol Road. I would prefer an automated bollard to an ANPR camera gate. Physical enforcement is preferable to economic. Block the garage cut-through, too. Install a protected cycle lane along Bristol Road. Current plans have it starting at Grange Road, going up to Aston Webb Boulevard. That’s fine as a spur to the university. But the route from Northfield to town should be as direct as possible.

Stop through-traffic around the campus

A map of cycle lanes providing a protected route from the A38 to Somerset Road

To provide safe cycling routes, stop through-traffic in the university area. Install a bus gate north of the Edgbaston Park Road and Pritchatts Road junction. Put modal filters on the roads north of Somerset Road to turn that area into an LTN. A modal filter at the Edgbaston Park Road end of Somerset Road would stop all through-traffic. This would make it safer to walk and cycle from the Vale and canal to the university.

Protected cycle lanes

With less cars driving on the roads, and no cars parked on them, this frees up space for protected cycle lanes.

Bristol Road to Harborne Road

There is an opportunity to put a protected cycle lane around the boundary of the university. Branch off the A38 cycle lane up Edgbaston Park Road and along Pritchatts Road. The railway bridge on Pritchatts Road will need widening. Whilst expensive, making it only for cycles would reduce the cost. As an alternative, make that section of Pritchatts bus and cycles only. Removing all on-street parking will create space on the rest of Pritchatts Road for a lane.

A CGI render of a protected cycle lane on Pritchatts Road. Copyright Jon Freer

A CGI render of a protected cycle lane on Pritchatts Road. Copyright Jon Freer

A modal filter at its junction with Farquhar Road will make that junction safe. A modal filter before Somerset Road will remove all through-traffic from Pritchatts Road.

To extend it from there requires some creative thinking. Create a one-way triangle on Somerset Road, Richmond Park Hill, and Harrisons Road. This allows one lane for a cycle lane down Richmond Park Hill to Harborne Road. It also allows one to go down Somerset Road to Metchley Lane. Somerset Road from Metchley Lane to the roundabout would also have to be one-way.

There is currently a bus route using these roads, the 48. This could be re-routed down Metchley Lane to reach its terminus on Vincent Drive. It would no longer serve the University Medical Practice though, which might be an issue.

To Kings Heath and Moseley

A proposed protected cycling route from the University towards Kings Heath and Moseley.

There is currently no safe cycling route to the university from Kings Heath.

Dad’s Lane has too much pavement parking to have a lane installed now. But you could convert one lane of Pershore Road to a protected cycle lane. This requires modal filters on the side roads to the west of Pershore Road. Install traffic lights at the junction with Selly Wick Road to provide vehicular access to this LTN cell, whilst protecting traffic on the cycle lane. Put a protected cycle lane on Pebble Mill Road. Install traffic lights to allow cyclists to safely join the A38 lane. This will provide most of a safe route.

To Bearwood

A proposed safe cycling route  from the University towards Bearwood

This is a tricky one. Nursery Road would be ideal, as it meets Metchley Lane. The first 100m of it is too narrow for a cycle lane, with the amount of on-street parking there. But installing a modal filter at the High Street end would make it safer for cycling.

This would need all the other side roads on the side of the High Street to have modal filters on. Otherwise, rat-running would be a major issue.

After that, there looks to be enough space for a lane all the way up to Portland Road. Extending up Rotton Park Road to join City Road would be ideal. But this is another street where on-street parking currently makes that impossible. Most of the houses have driveways, so I’d ask if banning on-street parking could be possible.

In summary

These existential times we live in demand that our centres of intellectual excellence lead the fight for change. I hope I’ve provided a series of measures that the University could either put in place or lobby the Council for. Change is possible if the will is there. I call on the University to step up and lead, for the good of us all.

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.