The mayor of the West Midlands has released a map of his £15bn transport plan and it’s so, so beautiful

A detail from the new map. Image: Andy Street for West Midlands campaign.

There are mayoral elections coming up in several of England’’s biggest cities, in which the website you are reading is going to be a hugely, hugely influential player. No one gets elected in this town without the coveted CityMetric endorsement. 

That, at least, is the conclusion that Andy Street seems to have come to, based on the fact he’s just released a fantasy tube map of the West Midlands. During the Tory mayor’s first term, the Midlands Metro tram network has expanded very slightly – but let’s be honest here, three years is not enough to build a proper public transport network, even if you have the money or the power which England’s mayors do not. 

And so Street is teasing the voters with glimpes of the unattainable, in the form of a map of what the region could look like in 2040 if they’re sensible enough to re-elect him. The whole lot, he told a press conference on Tuesday, would cost £15bn. Here’s the map.

Click to expand.

So – what have we learned? Some thoughts.

This map shows several new metro lines

I’m not saying how many because, for reasons we’ll come to, it depends on how you define both “metro” and “new”.

The Midland line – from Birmingham up towards Wolverhampton – already exists, although this map shows it extended slightly on the far side of the latter towards the i54 business park. The Black Country line, better known as the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Midland Metro extension, received funding last year; although why this map shows it with a branch running apparently non stop down the Midland line to Birmingham is not exactly clear.

The other lines are, I think, new. The MacArthur line (in red; named for trade unionist Mary MacArthur) is, I think, the proposed eastside metro extension, but extended westwards to Bearwood and beyond. The green Chamberlain line – named, one assumes, for Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham mayor in the 1870s – from Minworth down to Longbridge isn’t something I recall seeing before. Neither is the Lee Woods line (in black, for mathematician Mary Lee Woods – this map does love its Marys, doesn’t it?) from Sutton Coldfield to Solihull.

Then there’s the Zepheniah line, named for local poet Benhamin Zehaniah, and running north-south from Walsall to the Maypole. As for  the Elizabeth line, a yellow loop around the city centre, it’s good that the authorities have resisted naming it “the Circle line” because a) that’ll annoy people when you inevitably decide it’d be better if it wasn’t a circle, and b) obviously what we need is more things named after the Queen.

At any rate: that’s a pretty extensive network. No idea if funding it is even remotely plausible, but dreaming big is good.

The plan involves 21 new railway stations, too

These include the planned re-opening of the Camp Hill line and the Walsall to Wolverhampton route, already under way; and a re-opened Sutton Park line, a freight route on the north side of the city through Aldridge. There’d be new stations in Birmingham and Coventry, too. Cool.

The Camp Hill line is the one via Kings Heath. The choice of orange for overground services is probably not a coincidence.

This is a fairly broad interpretation of “metro”

That purple line, heading east and then south from central Birmingham? That’s the proposed HS2 line to London. HS2 is many many things, but one it is definitely not is a part of the West Midlands metro network. It’s there, one assumes, to highlight Street’s support for investment in the region.

At the other end of the scale, the map also shows “automated pods” (in pink) linking Tile Hill station to the University of Warwick, and an “automated people mover” (in grey) linking Birmingham International to the HS2 Interchange and the NEC. Again: great to see a city experimenting, but it’s a bit Emirates Airline to put them on a tube map equivalent.

Coventry is a mess

The “Godiva line” – named for the 11th century Countess of Mercia, famous for riding naked through the streets of Coventry because of oppressive taxes something something – isn’t a line at all. Look at it.

No idea at all what’s going on there. Answers on a post-card.

Cars still matter

Lot of “park & ride” symbols shown on this map. This makes sense, if the plan is to get people in a car-based city off the road, but it still looks a bit odd to those of us used to London.

Street is still downplaying the whole Tory thing

His chosen colour, as with his 2017 campaign material, is green, not blue. Whatever could it mean?

Your move Labour. Best start by picking a candidate, I guess.

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


Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.