Here's how we build a car free Birmingham

Spaghetti Junction: not a great precedent for a car free city. Image: Keystone/Getty.

Recently I took part in a workshop at on how we might create a car-free Birmingham. There were lots of enthusiastic people with lots of ideas, and I’m really glad I went.

But – I don’t think we made any progress towards reducing car use in the city.

We ended the session in groups, designing what a car-free Birmingham might look like in four different central areas. The resulting proposals were remarkably similar. Designing for a world with fewer cars, we could:

  • Build multi-faith centres, museums, parks, and small independent shops in self-contained communities with a village feel;
  • Favour co-operatively owned buildings with plenty of social and affordable housing to avoid gentrification;
  • Place public transport interchanges on the edges of urban villages;
  • Take schools and health services out of large colleges and hospitals and bring them closer to the people.

All these things feel nice. I get it. I want to feel nice too. I want great local shops, a friendly and safe community, spontaneous bake sales, and world-class free public services that are convenient for me.

But above all that I want a system that’s sustainable – and an urban system that cannot pay its own bills is not sustainable.

Every plan I saw threw away efficiencies of scale instead of enhancing them. Almost every vision of the future seemed to look backwards to a past where we couldn’t afford cars, rather than forward to a future where we are wealthier because we choose to use cars less. There was lots of imagination but very little realism. 

The joys of Birmingham. Image: author provided. 

So what would a miserable realist like me do? I’m glad you asked.

Making the case for fewer cars

The first thing we need to do is accept that we live in a democracy and that we have to win the argument for reducing car use. We know enough about cities to do that. We must start from the beginning.

We know that a good job matters more than anything else when people are deciding where and how to live. And we’re not sure how to create good jobs, but big cities seem to help. They do this in part by gathering people closer together so that new ideas are developed, taken up, and improved upon more quickly and by more people. Economists call these benefits “agglomeration effects”.

England’s mid-size cities (Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, etc.) underperform their equivalents in America and Europe. Cities like Manchester and Birmingham should be producing about 30 per cent more value. As a result, they require huge subsidies from London to provide basic services for their citizens. In 2014, £30bn was spent in the West Midlands – but only £20bn of tax was raised there.

A big reason that English cities underperform is that their effective size is much smaller than their actual size. They are built at low densities, and their transport infrastructure is so poor that people from one part of the city avoid travelling to another part of the city at peak times. London, Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh are both our richest cities – and our least car-dependent cities.

One way to increase the effective size of a city is to improve transport of all types. You can do this by building roads and driving cars on them – but only as long as you expand outwards. Houston and Los Angeles are very wealthy but also absolutely enormous. The UK’s clear desire to protect urban greenbelts makes this a non-starter; even if we could expand our cities outwards there’s pretty good evidence that the same money gives greater returns if you invest in public transport, cycling, and walking instead of roads.

Another way to increase the effective size of a city is to increase the density that people live at.  But you can’t do this if cars are your main form of transport, because cars require so much space to drive and park on. You can't use that land for homes, parks, or workplaces. You have to use it for roads.

So – the best way to create big cities that create good jobs is to rely less on cars as a means of transport. That way we can live at higher densities and move more easily between different parts of our cities. The higher quality of life, the lower pollution, and the benefits to the planet are just bonuses.

This argument is important to winning the debate about cars. It’s even more important for testing our proposed alternatives. If the car-free future we design doesn’t achieve efficiencies of scale and agglomeration benefits, then we should reject it.

So what should we do?


Reducing car use in Birmingham in the next five years

There are a huge number of easy, cheap, and proven fixes that could happen very quickly. We have failed to implement them for decades. We should stop dreaming, and start doing. Here’s where I’d start.

Enforce current road laws. Parking on double-yellow lines and driving over the speed-limit is illegal. The fines generated from policing these laws pay for themselves, so this will cost nothing.

Charge more for parking. Parking at attractions like Cannon Hill Park and the Botanical Gardens is free; and you can park all day in the city-centre for just £3.80 in a Birmingham City Council owned car park.

This is too cheap. If raising the price for parking means the car park isn’t used, then the city should grant planning permission for homes on it, and sell it. It is outrageous that wealthier residents of a city receive effective subsidies on parking, while the poorest pay a huge amount for bus fares.

Apply a congestion charge. Use the money to invest in public transport, cycling, and walking infrastructure.

Regulate buses across the West Midlands. We know that this delivers better services, increases patronage, and reduces the subsidy required per journey.

Make the Swift Card work with pay as you go on buses, trams, and trains. You shouldn’t need to plan your day before you make your first journey on public transport. You don’t have to when you drive.

With the new powers offered by devolution, Birmingham City Council could start doing these five things now and expect them all to be achieved within five years. There’s no excuse except a lack of ambition and the city’s addiction to the car. If the city can’t get its act together, I’m not sure why London should keep paying its bills.

And while we’re at it – other English cities might want to think about doing the same.

Tom Forth runs a software company called imactivate and is an associate at ODILeeds. He tweets as @thomasforth

This post first appeared on his blog. If you agree – or disagree – then Tom and others want your help designing smart cities at the Highways Hack in Leeds on 21-22 October.

 
 
 
 

Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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