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.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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