Although most of us are now staying at home to avoid spreading Covid 19, Birmingham City Council still is planning for the future, including a consultation on its 2020 transport plan, building on the 2015 'Birmingham Mobility Action Plan'. Last summer, Birmingham City Council declared a Climate Emergency, so this transport plan aims to be part of the council's response to the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Due to the impact of Covid19, the closing date of the consultation was put back to Thursday April 9th 2020, and can be found on the Birmingham BeHeard website - Birmingham Transport Plan consultation.
The Transport Plan talks about the need to cut air pollution and break the dominance of private motor traffic on our streets. This change is something that can be difficult to imagine, but we are in a situation now where our air is cleaner than it has been for a long time, and our streets are quieter. The situation that we find ourselves in is awful, but we should also take the opportunity to consider the possibilities for change that it has shown us. Forcing those who can to work from home and stopping the 'school run' traffic frees up road space for public transport and essential services. As we come out of the other side of this crisis, we need to think about what changes we can take from this experience and implement in our future working lives. In the future, we want to see our streets bustling and full of life again, but we do not want to see a return to the air pollution and the congestion that is caused by so much driving to and from work and school. Shifting people out of cars and on to bikes or buses can keep cars off our streets, but it will take serious measures to do that. We would not wish for another pandemic to bring about another lockdown - instead we need to think about what other actions we can take that will have a comparable impact on private motor traffic.
The Birmingham Transport Plan has the ambition needed, but only for the city centre. It proposes the proven idea of 'traffic cells', where private motor traffic can not rat-run through local streets, giving a strong advantage to walking, cycling and public transport. This is something we strongly support, but it is disappointing that it is limited to the city centre. The Transport Plan states that the dominance of cars on streets in residential neighbourhoods will be ended, but it offers no serious proposals as to how that will be achieved. The key delivery components (pg 30) have nothing that will stop cars continuing to be used for journeys under 1 mile, expect for the school run. The Transport Plan needs more teeth. We are under 10 years away from the climate emergency deadline, and transportation makes up as much as 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions. If we can not take strong action to restrict car use, we will not reach our emissions reduction targets. Although many petrol cars might be replaced with electric cars, there is a high embedded energy cost to doing so - electric cars will not get us out of this difficult situation. 'Traffic cells' must be rolled out across the whole city.
Here are some key talking points for your response to the Transport Plan consultation:
- In the short-term, local residents need a clear and accessible process to get rat-runs blocked from their local roads, to take back control of their streets.
- In the medium-term, traffic cells need to be rolled out across the whole of Birmingham, not only within the Middleway.
- There should be convenient and safe connections for active travel between traffic cells, as well as attractive segregated cycle infrastructure on busy roads.
- Active travel should be the main priority in the traffic plan, given the benefits for health (laid out in the pg 28 fact file) and climate change.
- 'Cycle and ride' should be prioritised over 'park and ride' schemes to improve cycle - public transport integration.
More detailed discussion:
Giving residents more power to cut rat-runs
At the moment, local residents have to show that rat-running motor traffic is a danger to people living on the street in order to have a hope of getting measures introduced to cut rat-runs. This generally requires a history of collisions that have been reported to the police so that they appear on the council's records. No consideration has historically been taken of the numerous near-misses that residents experience nor the impact that heavy motor traffic flows have on quality of life for residents or the air quality. Bollards are an effective, cheap, intervention, and can be fitted with locks if access for emergency vehicles is a concern, and one-way systems, with contra-flow cycling, are another change that can eliminate rat-runs.
Transport planning attitudes need to shift away from viewing the whole road network as there to facilitate motor traffic flow regardless of the impact on local residents. This old style of thinking prevents us from cutting greenhouse gas emissions and encourages more driving. Local residents should be given the ability to campaign for and achieve prompt and effective changes to their own street, to be able to take back control of their local area. Changes to local streets need to have buy-in from local residents, so that they feel that the changes will benefit them, rather than imposed from outside.
If Birmingham City Council took immediate action to facilitate local residents in cutting rat-runs, then local residents could start to take actions to cut down traffic volumes straight away.
Rolling out traffic cells beyond the Middleway
The proposal to use traffic cells within the Middleway to greatly reduce flows of private motor traffic is very welcome and long over-due. This will have a significant impact on the feel of the city centre and encourage more active travel. But at the moment the Transport Plan does not recommend their use beyond the Middleway. Traffic cells form the core of Dutch urban planning, and deliver residential neighbourhoods that are quiet and pleasant places to live, where children feel safe playing in the street and riding their bikes around. The principles of traffic cells have been implemented with great success in several parts of London, revitalising local shops and now enjoy high levels of support from local residents. In Manchester, traffic cells form the core of their Bee-Line project to transform the city.
The Birmingham Transport Plan should include a proposal to roll-out traffic cells beyond the Middleway based on plans developed with local residents. We suggest an immediate proposal of giving local residents powers to ask for changes to their street as a way to get public buy-in for rolling out traffic cells across the whole of Birmingham as traffic cells will take a longer planning process, and the street closures will ultimately form a core part of the traffic cells programme. Implementing traffic cells would give a clear advantage to active travel, and reduce the volume of short distance car journeys that clog up main road junctions creating more congestion.
An important feature of planning traffic cells is to ensure that there are safe and convenient connections between the traffic cells for active travel. In Manchester, a lot of the public engagement involves identifying where the connections should be, so that people can make the active travel journeys that they need and don't default to getting in their cars to drive a few miles. Making the crossings convenient will involve making sure they don't prioritise private motor cars. Traffic lights should prioritise active travel and public transport. Buses can be fitted with transponders to indicate their approach, whilst cyclists and pedestrians can be detected with sensors and / or buttons. The response time should be under 10 seconds, and multi-stage crossings avoided, as per DfT advice.
Prioritising active travel in the Transport Plan
As the Travel Plan notes, active travel brings significant health benefits that private motor traffic and public transport does not. It notes (on page 28) that a third of Birmingham adults spend less than 30 minutes on physical activity in a week, and that switching to cycling to work reduces the risk of cancer by 45%, and heart disease by 46%. Whilst people who drive or take public transport to work can arrive feeling drained, those who cycle or walk arrive invigorated. In addition to the climate emergency that we are facing, ill health has a significant impact on the quality of life for Birmingham's residents as well as taking up local NHS resources for treatment. If a drug gave the health benefits that active travel does, everyone would be demanding it.
The Travel Plan repeatedly says that local journeys should be done by active travel, and suggests that linking active travel to public transport is key for longer journeys. It seems that the distance that can be covered easily and quickly on a cycle is consistently underestimated in the Travel Plan. Cycling should be seen as the first option for anyone living within 5 miles of the city centre and commuting to work - the section on supporting inclusive growth (on page 25) needs amending to include this. Public transport should be the second option, as it is still not as carbon efficient as cycling, and it does not deliver the health outcomes that cycling does. Without this being clearly stated, the potential of cycling to benefit Birmingham will continue to be ignored in favour of large shiny public transport projects.
Prioritise 'Cycle and Ride' over 'Park and Ride'
'Park and Ride' provision is suggested as a key component of reducing private motor traffic flow into the city centre, but car parking is a hugely inefficient use of space at these locations, and can result in commuter parking spilling out into the surrounding streets. Providing far higher volumes of cycle parking at these locations, as well as delivering safe cycle routes, can help people to use public transport without clogging up the roads around each of those stations. In countries such as the Netherlands and Japan, local train stations have many cycle parking spaces, with a capacity far higher than few thousand Park and Ride spaces in the West Midlands, and people cycle to their local train station. This is much more space efficient and far more pleasant for the people who live around the train station.
Cycles on public transport
Another part of integrating public transport and cycling is enabling people to use their cycle at both ends of the journey. Local trains in the West Midlands do have spaces for cycles, so that those who need to can take their bike on, although trains in countries like Germany and Denmark provide more space for cycles. Being able to take a cycle with you is important because it is rare that someone's journey has a destination immediately next to a train station. Some journeys are only possible if you can take your bike with you because of the distance between the train station and the final destination. Although tram and bus stops are more frequent than train stations, there are similar issues with reaching the destination at the other end.
Trams should be able to accommodate cycles just as easily as trains do, and the change could be implemented quickly. Sprint buses should also be able to accommodate cycles as well. Regular buses pose more of a challenge, but solutions should be explored to help people combine bus and cycle journeys. At rush hour, very few people take cycles on to trains already, because of the challenges of doing so. This is generally self-regulating and so there should not be any need to have special rules covering peak services.
Cross-city cycle routes and the city centre
The proposals to expand pedestrianised areas in the city centre are very good, and we are pleased that the proposals say that cycling infrastructure will be improved, but the experience of developments in the city centre is often that the needs of people travelling across the city centre by cycle aren't accommodated. It can be difficult to find a fast cycle route from, for example, the Jewellery Quarter to Digbeth, especially when the German Market is on. The list of delivery components on page 27 needs to be amended to include specific plans developed to assist cycle users in crossing the city in a way that does not put them in conflict with people walking in pedestrianised areas. Clearly laid out cycle routes help everybody to predict where cycles will go, make the journey faster and more comfortable for cycle users, and the street easier to understand for people with limited vision. We should not expect pedestrianised areas to cope with higher volumes of cycles passing through without designing in solutions.
Taxi and private hire vehicle licensing
It is good that the policies for licensing taxis and private hire vehicles are being looked at in order to support the Clean Air zone, but it is important that these are drawn up in a way that does not encourage the licensing of vehicles with other local authorities, to circumvent Birmingham's stricter regulations. A very large number of private hire vehicles operating within Birmingham are licensed by Wolverhampton, and if Birmingham's regulations can be by-passed by those vehicles, it will give them an undue competitive advantage. The policies should be designed to encourage vehicles to meet the requirements of the Clean Air zone in a way that will give an advantage to those vehicles that do comply, so that private hire vehicles licensed elsewhere have an economic incentive to comply as well.
Despite being currently illegal to use on public highway in the UK, electric scooters and skateboards are becoming a common sight on the new segregated cycle tracks and around Birmingham. In Paris, the electric scooters that are part of the cycle hire scheme are more popular than the actual bikes, and it is very common to see people moving around on them. However the small wheel size of these vehicles means that potholes and kerbs are more dangerous than for people cycling, and the risk of falling forwards on to your head is greater. Electric scooters do not provide the same health benefits of active travel that even cycling on an electric cycle does, but they still do involve more physical activity than driving or sitting on public transport. We should welcome them as an extra way of encouraging people out of cars, and their users as allies in calling for better cycle infrastructure.
Well designed cycle infrastructure will be very important to making the use of micro-mobility vehicles as safe as possible. Routes with no raised kerbs and with a smooth surface are attractive to people using cycles and scooters. People walking on pavements, especially people with impaired vision, will find an increase in electric scooter use uncomfortable, even if there is no increase in collisions. The same arguments for providing separate space for people cycling and walking applies to people walking and using scooters. There can be a substantial difference in speed and cycles and scooters are very quiet - shared use pavements, especially ones that are less than 3 meters wide, do not feel comfortable. It will not be possible to stem the increase in micro-mobility vehicles - the UK government will be playing catch-up in legislating to permit them - but we should design infrastructure that gives the new users a safe space to ride that is neither in with motor traffic or people walking.