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.