Tuesday 18 February 2014

Merchant City: Part 2

A converted rickshaw, sans advertising hoarding
In the last post, I discussed the area around Glassford Street. In this post, I'll move eastwards along Wilson Street to cover two streets: Hutcheson Street and Brunswick Street (and surrounds), which covers the western part of Merchant City. This is were the Merchant City "proper" starts, signalled by the change in road surface - from tarmac to paving stones. Clearly inspired by the Shared Space school of urban design, there is visual uniformity between the road and the pavement, which lends it a more open, people-friendly ambience. Mind you, they haven't entirely bought into the philosophy as there is still a subtle but pronounced kerb, with some of the slinky steel bollards to reinforce this when required - a compromise to help visually impaired people to navigate the streets as normal. The stones look attractive, although they have only been laid in the last couple of years - time will tell how long they'll survive. Some cycling advocates dislike this sort of treatment but I believe that it can be made to work, given the right setting - specifically where the volume of motor traffic is low.

The focus of this area is the Old Sheriff Court, a large public building with a neo-classical façade, which was refurbished and modernized in recent years - it features a number of shops including high-end designers  "Bang & Olufsen" and a enormous restaurant/bar called "Citation". In front of the building, Wilson Street widens into what could be described as a piazza, except primarily devoted to motor vehicles - a little street furniture here could make the pedestrian element a bit clearer (see below). With that said, there is still a slightly stiff, empty feel to this area, not helped by the large derelict patches to the south east and the unattractiveness of the southern part of both streets, combined with some void retail space - Merchant City suffered along with the rest of Glasgow from the economic depression of the last 5-6 years. Finally, they've also still not managed to rid the area of parked cars - given that attracting tourists to the area is part of the main goals, this is an issue in need of address.

Note: All map images courtesy of Google Maps.

Courtesy of Google Maps
Hutcheson St and Brunswick St

Hutcheson Street 


Looking south from Ingram Street along Hutcheson Street - Garth Street is on the right

Hutcheson Street runs from Ingram Street in the north to Trongate, although motor vehicles aren't permitted travel along its full length due to the one-way system, which runs southbound from Ingram Street to Wilson Street. Below that junction, something slightly odd happens, which I'll discuss in due course. Firstly, let's examine the north half of the street.


Looking north towards Ingram Street

The north side of Hutcheson Street is obstensibly the "smart" end, with groups of shops and bars along its newly-paved, tree-lined extent - the roadway has been narrowed to allow for wide footpaths but there's no real accommodation for bikes. The top end of the street brings us close to the Italian Centre, where the likes of Versace and Armani have boutiques (if you like that sort of thing... don't think they do much in the way of cycle-wear). As with a lot of Glasgow, there's a distinct lack of bike parking, suppressed demand for which is evidenced by the example below:

 Anyone have a saw handy?

Garth Street is a short side road that connects from Glassford Street. It is also one-way, which limits its usefulness to rat-running cars (more on that later), and which helps keep the street quiet for guests, diners and drinkers at the famous Rab Ha's on the corner. There are still rather a lot of void properties here though, which contributes to the "empty" feel, mind you, some of the buildings have been in the process of being renovated for several years - perhaps it'll take a a few years to bed in properly.

Looking west along Garth Street towards the City Halls on Glassford Street

As stated previously, the impressive Old Sheriff Court building has been redeveloped into a retail, office and residential space; space still not full, yet. In a quirky bit of design, the building features a strange pair of open pathways which run directly through the interior, intersecting in the middle (you might say) saltire-like, thus allowing pedestrians (and bikes?) to pass through the building to the other street. It puts me in mind of the Rijksmuseum's bike path, albeit slightly more modest!

Permeability doesn't come much more filtered than this


South  - A One-way(ish) Street

There's a northbound one-way system from about halfway up from Trongate to the Wilson Street junction. This provides a handy moment to introduce our next species of cycle infrastructure: the Contraflow.  Using this route, cycles can legally ride against the flow of traffic or, if you will, the wrong way down a one-way street. The contraflow is a cornerstone of implementing filtered permeability properly, as it enforces the single direction of motor vehicles to "smooth traffic low", whilst at the same time allowing bikes to ride closer to normal desire lines - in other words, the way you actually want to go, rather than the way you are directed.  If left unimplemented, pent-up demand for such a scheme will manifest itself in so-called Salmoning behaviour- illegally riding against traffic. This is apparently quite an issue in Edinburgh (particularly around Fountainhead).
Hutcheson Street from Wilson Street looking south - note the island in the middle with a stop sign on the right and the blue cycle route sign on the left - I'll refer to this as a "bike gate"
Aside from the cycle route sign and the low kerb in the middle separating the two lanes at the top of the junction, the path itself is not marked out, presumably on the assumption of low traffic volumes, but as you can see from the picture below, there are a number of parking bays on both sides of the road, specifically on the path bikes are directed into, forcing cycle traffic to veer into the middle of the road to avoid the door zone - this might confuse oncoming drivers who don't expect to encounter bikes on what they presume to be a solely one-way street.
A cycle path ... right into a parked car!
Now, look closely at the picture above, specifically in the middle distance on the right - that's the rear of the Glasshouse NCP car park we saw before in the previous post. The glass section jutting out is a stairwell - in other words, you can enter and exit the car park from there. Now, given that there's a perfectly serviceable, secure car park with hundreds of spaces, is there any real justification for this much on-street parking? Granted, there are a some residential properties around here, but a number of them have either private parking garages or internal courtyards. In many cases, the people that live in these city apartments won't even own a car, or will be wealthy enough to be able to afford long term space rentals within the conveniently located car park. It's also perhaps worth mentioning that round the corner on Wilson Street, there are spaces set aside for a car sharing club - which ought to cater for the vehicular demands of city-centre dwelling urban professional types, nes pas?

Heading south along the "path", things get even stranger. About halfway down the street (roughly where the glass staircase is in the picture above) there's yet another bike-gate:

Yet more parking where your bike should be heading
It is not at all obvious but beyond this gate, despite being much narrower, the road reverts to a two-way carriageway - You can see evidence of this at the junction with Trongate:

 note the give way line is only on the left of the centre-line i.e. two-way
I can only assume that this is intended to allow vehicles loading at the back of the Glasshouse to enter and exit via Trongate - why this is necessary, I can't say. Perhaps they don't want HGVs and suchlike on the nice stonework); perhaps its the narrow nature of the road, but then this could be solved by removing the parking bays to provide turning space. Regardless of the reasons for this odd design choice, after this point the (still un-marked) bike contraflow becomes a ... proflow (?) and merges with the normal southbound lane. Now, the problem here is that motor vehicles travelling northbound assume the street is all one-way and will use both lanes accordingly. This assumption is backed up by the orientation of the parked cars in the opposite bays i.e. facing north (I'm pretty certain this goes against advice regarding parking against traffic flow). If there are vehicles illegally parked on the double-yellow lines outside "The Oriental" bar (as there frequently are), northbound vehicles steer into the right-hand (southbound) lane to pass This can lead to some tight encounters with southbound bikes, as per this youtube video (courtesy of freeyourinnertube).

I'll discuss the further implications of this arrangement at the bottom of the article, but it's perhaps notable that the southern, slightly unloved part of Hutcheson Street hasn't received the full "Shared Space" treatment the northern half has - it may well be that if/when they revisit the area, planners might want to review this two-way/one-way hybrid and (hopefully) rationalize the on-street parking to provide more room for bikes. They should also consider explicitly marking out a bike lane, either with paint or with physical separation.


Brunswick Street

Moving eastwards along Wilson Street, we encounter the junction with Brunswick Street. Very much a the complement of Hutcheson Street, Brunswick Street nevertheless has some notable features. As with the previous, there's a distinct "north/south" split, with the northern extent being smart and gentrified, and the southern extent being left a bit scrappy and bedraggled.


Again, this part of the street complements the equivalent stretch on Hutcheson Street, with a subtle flattened kerb outlined with silver bollards and pedestrian-friendly seating. Regrettably, there's also a distinct lack of cycle parking... again. The one-way system is orientated northwards, taking you to the junction with Ingram Street, but also (crucially) close to Cochran Street and the approaches to George Square. As we'll see, there are therefore at least two routes to George Square via this part of Merchant City. As with Hutcheson Street, there's been a deliberate attempt to narrow the roadway, which allows for a wide pedestrian footpath on either side of the street - having said that, there is still room for two traffic lanes (albeit with no parking on either side). This despite the presence of a long-established hotel and café halfway up the street - again, is parking always necessary to keep local businesses afloat?



Double parking
This extent of the street is slightly seedy dead-end, with the main sight being the back ends of a couple semi-derelict 60s-era carbuncle is mixed with more agreeable early 20th century warehouses. When I was there, parked (and double-parked) cars dominated. The roadway is wide here, but so much of that precious city centre space is devoted to cars. It's perhaps noteable that the bays on the northbound carriageway are at right angles to the road, presumably to cram in more vehicles. Another thing to note is the recent demolition of the Goldbergs building, which previously dominated this street (and cast it into
shade).  One of Glasgow's biggest department stores in its day, it has long been left derelict and has tarnished the area for several years. It's removal opens up the possibility of doing some exciting things with the space. I sincerely hope that the council and the owners of the land will be bold and ambitious with its redevelopment - opening up some green space around this part of the city would be really welcome in my view and would help tie Merchant City together into a true cultural quarter.

In terms of cycling infrastructure, there isn't much of note, other than somewhat narrow, dark and uninviting pathway to Trongate, although it does potentially allow someone on a bike to link up with the "Old Wynd" path, which leads to Parnie Street (to be discussed in a later post). Aside from the parked vehicles, the dead end nature of the street means that traffic is almost non-existent. Having said that, there's little to attract people to walk or cycle here.

Rubble - Trongate and Candleriggs in the background

Wilson Street

Panorama, looking east and south on Wilson Street - note the width of "piazza"
Wilson Street connects the western side of Merchant City to the east - a key crossing point and a funnel for pedestrian movement to Candleriggs and Merchant Square. The roadway narrows here, hence the double-yellow lines on the southern side of the street. This short section is one-way westbound, and it is here that I believe the planners have made a grave error with regard to cycle provision. There will be discussion of the implications in the section below.


 Having looked at the streets here, let's look at the implications for travel across this part of Merchant City, on the basis of how permeable and convenient it is to cycle, versus driving.

Now, I've been talking about filtered permeability as a "thing", a road engineering technique, a tactic if you will. But what is the strategy? What is the end goal when deploying it? Well, to my mind, the purpose of a well-implemented scheme incorporating a number of techniques including filtered permeability should try as much as possible to create segmented "cells" within urban areas which minimise or entirely remove through motor traffic within a cell, whilst allowing non-motorised traffic (pedestrians, bikes, wheelchair users, etc) unrestricted movement inside and between cells. Rat-running should be eliminated by design, either by blocking desired routes, or by ensuring that routes are circuitous enough to remove any potential advantage in using it. Conversely, active methods of travel should be the most direct and convenient, circumventing choke points and other obstacles such as traffic lights as much as feasibly possible.

How does this part of the Merchant City succeed? Well let's have a look. Below is a map outlining a driving route from Trongate to Ingram Street:

View Larger Map

As you can see, using the one-way system on Hutcheson Street allows cars to circumvent the bus-gate on Glassford Street. The main road alternative would be to go via Glasgow Cross and High Street:

View Larger Map

Now what about cycling the same route?

Spot the difference?
As you can see, it's the same - there is no advantage, in terms of the route taken, to cycling rather than driving here. If a contraflow existed on the north end of Hutcheson Street, a straighter route could be achieved and you could avoid the traffic lights at the junction of Glassford Street and Wilson Street. Obviously if you were heading further west towards Queen Street, you might consider going straight over to Virginia Street and heading for the little lane by Virginia Place - but for the purposes of this analysis, we'll stick to this couple of streets.

What about the reverse trip? Now here's a difference. By car, going through this part of the Merchant City offers no real benefit and we would just drive straight down Glassford Street and down Trongate*, but you have to navigate through three sets of traffic lights. By contrast, going via bike is much better:

A straight route down Hutcheson Street, via the two bike gates. As such, there's a clear advantage to cycling between these two points over driving.

(*) For some reason, Google doesn't recognise that Glassford Street is open to motor vehicles heading southbound, hence no embedded map.
If we alter the route to head eastwards towards Montrose Street (giving you the option of Cochran Street and George Square), we see a slightly different pattern. Again, by car:

View Larger Map

There's a definite improvement using this route, as it is direct, bypasses the bus-gate on Glassford Street as well as a number of traffic lights. This route is pretty much the definition of a rat-run.

By bike, if we utilise the narrow and slightly unfriendly lane to Brunswick Street, there is a bit of an improvement:

Other driving routes through the area do in fact work well to curtail through traffic. For instance, travelling via Garth Street, Wilson or the top of Hutcheson Street only allows one to return to Ingram Street or back to Glassford Street i.e. no real advantage conveyed beyond local access. Indeed, the one-way system on Wilson Street prevents travel between the two halves of the area (i.e. between cells). Unfortunately, the one-way systems that prevent rat-running cars, also impairs bike's progress. There's a missed opportunity to implement contraflows on the north end of Hutcheson Street and the eastern end of Wilson Street which would enable people on bikes access to a quiet but direct route eastward through the area, avoiding either Ingram Street or Trongate. Perhaps the possible disruption to the handful of parking bays on the north-side of the road prevented this option being considered.

In addition, rat-running could be pretty much eliminated if the Hutcheson Street was blocked off to through traffic, perhaps at southern-most bike-gate, with the section north of this (below the Wilson Street junction) reverting to two-way traffic again. This would mean access to this part of Merchant City would have to originate from Ingram Street or Glassford Street (southbound), whilst still allowing local access to the Glasshouse car park, as well as not disrupting southbound traffic flow along Glassford Street (more on that in another post). I still have hope that this might happen in due course, if that part of the street is renovated.

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