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.

 
 
 
 

Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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