Physics-based models have been increasingly developed in recent years and applied to simulate the braiding process and evolution of channel units in braided rivers. However, limited attention is given to lowland braided rivers where the transport of suspended sediment plays a dominant role. In the present study, a numerical model based on the basic physics laws of hydrodynamics and sediment transport is used to simulate the evolution process of a braided river dominated by suspended load transport. The model employs a fractional method to simulate the transport of graded sediments and uses a multiple-bed-layer approach to represent the sediment sorting process. An idealized braided river has been produced, with the hydrodynamic, sediment transport and morphological processes being analysed. In particular, the formation process of local pool–bar units in the predicted river has been investigated. A sensitivity analysis has also been undertaken to investigate the effects of grid resolution and an upstream perturbation on the model prediction. A variety of methods are applied to analyse the geometrical and topographical properties of the modelled river. Self-organizing characteristics related to river geometry and topography are analysed by state-space plots, which indicate a close relationship with the periodical erosion and deposition cycles of braiding. Cross-sectional topography and slope frequency display similar geometries to natural rivers. Scaling characteristics are found by correlation analysis of bar parameters. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.