Silver Street restrictions take effect

This article was published in 2003, in Newsletter 50.

Restrictions on private motor traffic in Silver Street started in early August. There is some re-paving work going on near the river bridge, but rising bollards are now working.

The restrictions at a glance.

It is too early to judge the overall effect. Traffic is at its seasonal low in late summer and highest in the autumn. We also know from the experience in Bridge Street that however many signs are put up, people take a long time to get used to changes like these.

The chosen option now in operation is a tidal flow system. The street is closed to general motor traffic during the middle of the day and at the dead of night (a concession to us, though it was in the evening that we wanted it restricted). All traffic is allowed inbound, but not outbound, in the morning from 6 am to 10 am and outbound between 4 pm and midnight. Buses (there are few, mainly the four-per-hour sightseeing buses which operate outbound only), taxis (there are lots) and cycles continue to be permitted in both directions at any time.

The system is enforced by rising bollards on each side of the road near the Queens Road end, so this means that the street is still two-way at all times but traffic can’t get all the way through when the closure is in effect. Bikes have bypasses on either side of the bollards, an arrangement that is very similar to Bridge Street and Emmanuel Road.

There are strategically placed signs in Trumpington Street, as well as in Silver Street, which change according to the time of day. When traffic is restricted they show ‘no through road’ and at other times are blank or show weight restrictions. At the bollards themselves ‘no entry except authorised vehicles’ signs turn blank when the appropriate bollard is lowered to let all traffic through at 6 am or 4 pm.

What people do

As I write this, the reversible signs aren’t working. The ‘no through road’ and ‘no entry’ signs are staying put even when the bollard is lowered. Not that this stops anyone driving over the lowered bollards.

When the bollards were in operation I saw many drivers coming along Silver Street then having to return. Hopefully this will reduce as people get used to the situation. However, at present there is a lot of congestion at the bollards. Cars tend to arrive in groups resulting in two knots of turning and reversing traffic either side of the bollards, mixed up with the bikes and taxis that are allowed to go through. One reversing car nearly hit a bike in the few minutes I was watching, and several cyclists rode up onto the pavement to avoid the mêlée or a blocked cycleway. I saw only one driver who actually drove past the no entry signs and expected the bollard to go down.

Scrum in Silver Street. Reversing cars mix with bikes at the bollards. In time, we hope this will become less common, but at present there is clearly a serious hazard.

Clearly, traffic is much reduced, though levels in Silver Street fell after 4 pm on the afternoon I was there (which was probably atypical, being a damp Saturday). Before 4 pm every outbound car used Silver Street twice through having to double back, while after 4 pm there definitely wasn’t twice the number of cars. When the traffic is allowed through in one direction, turning traffic unable to go in the other direction gets mixed up with it. I didn’t see anyone go through the open gap in the wrong direction, but I fully expect this to become a regular dodge once people realise there is nothing to stop them.

Despite the reduced traffic during restricted hours, however, pedestrians still cram onto the exceptionally narrow pavements in the city centre end of the street. There is still too much traffic (going both ways) for pedestrians to feel comfortable taking over space on the road. The layout of the road hasn’t been changed either, which sends signals to everyone using it. But people still inevitably and necessarily step off the kerb into the road to pass each other. Cyclist Phil Gibbard contacted us recently to say he’d nearly been felled when someone did that immediately in front of him without looking. ‘One of them was a policeman!’ he said.

What does seem to have been the most immediate and highly positive effect of the restrictions is the reduction in large vehicles. Nevertheless, I still saw a tour bus mount the pavement to within inches of the buildings to pass another vehicle.

Knock-on effects

There have been the inevitable grumbles in the local press. The ‘it was never a problem before’ kind of letter from a disgruntled driver was no surprise. Clearly he never had to step off the pavement to make room for another pedestrian, nor had bike wheels squeezed against the kerb by a passing coach.

One specific problem is that foreign coaches with doors on the ‘wrong’ side let their passengers out into the traffic on Queens Road, their new parking spot. The common-sense answer which we suggested, for these coaches to approach from the other direction, met with some criticism that they would have to cross the path of the oncoming traffic, including bikes.

Elsewhere, the cycle crossing at Gonville Place has been reconstructed, removing the central island to make room for an extra traffic lane which is supposed to help with the knock-on effects of traffic displaced from Silver Street.

Reversible signs show ‘No Through Road’ when the street is restricted in that direction.

In conclusion

It is hard to draw many conclusions so far as the real test is yet to come and people still have to get used to the system. However, it is already clear that pedestrians have hardly benefited from the scheme at all because the continued two-way street arrangement, even though it carries less traffic, means there is still no more space for people on foot.

Because the County Council was not prepared to back a proper closure, the scheme is quite complicated. The traffic engineers have produced a remarkably simple way of implementing a complicated restriction, but it does mean that more traffic will be in the street than should be and scope for rearranging space is very limited.

The half-hearted restrictions also mean that there is still a problem for cyclists getting out of the end of the contraflow lane in Pembroke Street. The crash-prone junction at the Royal Cambridge Hotel will carry more traffic. Will councillors continue to duck responsibility for the safety of cyclists by putting traffic capacity first at these mini roundabouts?

When the Silver Street restrictions were first discussed, restrictions in Regent Street were also mooted but were put aside. Will we now see them revived? While we tentatively supported the restrictions, the impact on cyclists in Downing Street could have been quite damaging, and many of us think that the problem for cyclists in Regent Street is from buses, which would not have been restricted.

David Earl