Here’s everything we learned spending an afternoon on route 11, Birmingham’s Outer Circle bus

Here we go! Image: Hamz/Wikimedia Commons.

For just over three years, Birmingham’s number 11 bus lost its coveted title as Europe’s longest urban bus route – and, what’s worse, to an obvious copy-cat.

In June 2013, Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) introduced the 360 City Circle, a 31.5 mile loop around Coventry. The idea was obviously inspired by the long-standing success of the Birmingham Outer Circle, a 27-mile loop that has been circling Coventry’s larger neighbour since 1926.

It didn’t take, though: in July 2016, TfWM announced that too few passengers were using the 360 to justify the necessary subsidy. And so, that route was broken up, and the number 11 regained its crown.

Indeed, it’s gone from strength to strength. While the 360 was getting fewer than 14,000 passengers a month, the 11 is reported to have more than 50,000 a day. Every 10 minutes or so, if you’re so minded, you can get on a bus somewhere in suburban Birmingham, and spend three hours traveling past 266 stops, 233 educational establishments, 69 leisure and community facilities, 40 pubs, 19 retail centres, six hospitals and a prison.

The route. Image: Centro, via Birmingham Museum & Gallery/Flickr.

I was so minded. So one recent Sunday, I boarded a bus somewhere in North Edgbaston, for no other reason than to get back to where I started. Here’s what I learned.

The Outer Circle is a road as well as a bus

The route follows the A4040, the Birmingham outer ring road. But that isn’t a specially built orbital route: it’s just a bunch of disconnected roads given the same number, so that you can, if you fancy, circumnavigate the city.

As a result, in a few places, the bus route suddenly doubles back on itself:

The route around Cotteridge. Image: National Express West Midlands.

The Outer Circle pretends to be two routes, but isn’t

Technically, there are two number 11s. The 11A circumnavigates the city, running from Harborne to Kings Heath to Acocks Green to Stechford to Erdington to Handsworth to Harborne again.

My bus, though, was an 11C, which does the same route, but the other way around. If you’re wondering why there’s no 11B, it’s because the letters stand for anti-clockwise and clockwise. You could have an 11B, meaning “backwards”, but that might get confusing.

Anyway: this is really just a single route with two slightly different labels, to get around the fact that destinations aren’t much use on a circular route. It reminds me of Glasgow’s insistence that its subway has an inner circle and an outer circle, rather than a single circle with two directions.

In western Birmingham there’s a station named after a bus route

Winson Green Outer Circle is a stop on the Midlands Metro tram route. Winson Green is the name of the area; Outer Circle is the name of the bus you can change for there.

I’m not certain this is unique, but it must at least be unusual. London stations don’t name themselves after their interchanges with road services, otherwise you’d end up with nightmarish formulations like ‘Plaistow 69 241 262 325 473’. I mean, imagine the roundels.

The lampposts are colour-coded, sort of

“You get to see all the lampposts colour-coded by area,” occasional CityMetric contributor David Barker told me.

This, it turns out, is a real thing. According to the Birmingham Mail in 2010:

THE humble grey lamppost is set to get a dazzling new lease of life in Birmingham, with communities being invited to pick their own colours.

The dull grey poles can now be replaced with red, greens, blues and blacks or even, at extra cost, a different colour.

The Irish Quarter in Digbeth could go for green, while Caribbean communities in Handsworth might favour a green, yellow and red motif.

Sadly all I spotted on my journey was that the ones in Handsworth are orange. Still, though, it’s a nice thought. If anyone out there has done a map, let me know.

Birmingham’s islands are very disappointing

Birmingham, its fans like to tell the world, has more canals than Venice. This is true (35 miles to 26 miles), though it rather ignores the fact that Birmingham is physically quite a lot bigger than Venice.

Despite this profusion of waterways, the various “islands” the number 11 passes are not nearly as nice as they sound. In the Brummie vocabulary, “island” means “traffic island” – or, to you and me, “roundabout”. Perry Barr Island is not nearly as scenic as its name suggests.

Bromford is a real place

This is quite a personal one, but I’ve never quite been able to believe in the existence of Bromford. It sounds like the sort of place a guy from Romford might make up as his hometown in an attempt to impress a woman posher than he is.

Bromford. Image: Google Maps.

But no, there it is. Huh.

This used to be a nice name, once

Look what I found in Stechford:

No comment.

Brummie roads have a lot of wasted space

Look at that central reservation:

There are loads of roads like that in Birmingham, with big, grassy gaps between the two carriageways. Some of them have trees on them. Some of them just have a big metal barrier.

Things like this seem like they should make the world more scenic. But often, so it feels to me, they just make everything feel a bit windswept.

The spaces were once, someone told me, used for trams. Couldn’t they do that again? Or at least, cycle paths? The current set up just feels like a bit of a waste of space. It’s not like you’re ever going to have a picnic in the middle of the Bristol Road is it?

The route 11 makes southern Birmingham feel like the posh bit

Many of the suburbs on the north side of the city appear, from the bus, to be fairly run down, ex-industrial districts. Those on the south – like Kings Heath, or chocolate-box-y Bourneville – are relatively plush residential areas.

Is this really how the economic geography of the city breaks down, I wondered? Or is it just a function of which route the bus happens to take?

The BBC’s Joey D’Urso suggested it’s a bit of both. On the one hand:

But on the other:

Worthy topic of further bus-based Birmingham research, perhaps.

Traffic is genuinely lower on a Sunday

All the stuff I’d read about the route suggested that it would take as much as three hours to do the whole circle. At the stop I’d got on at (City Road/Fountain Road, if you’re interested), the signs showed journey times up to the eastern suburbs – the furthest point of the route, presumably on the grounds that to go any further you’d be better off taking the bus from the stop across the road. This, they said, was 90 minutes away.

My bus though took just 2hrs21 to do the entire route. Huh. Turns, out roads really are quieter on a Sunday.

Bit disappointing, though. I was hoping for the full three hours.

Ah well, maybe next time. 11A, baby!

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.