Why Birmingham Needs Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

An LTN in Kings Heath

In 1979 I was born and lived on Wake Green Road, the B4217, in Moseley, a busy urban area about 3 miles South of Birmingham city centre. When I was about 11 my family moved a short distance to a house on the Alcester Road, the A435, at the top of the hill between Moseley and Kings Heath. I spent my childhood living on busy urban main roads. In the 90s I remember large queues of traffic backing up from the Moseley traffic lights to beyond my front door. But back then I also remember benefitting from some local quieter side roads where I could ride bikes, skateboard, and play.

In the previous couple of decades before I was born, Birmingham had developed into a city designed around cars. Inner and outer ring roads, with a motorway called the Aston Expressway channelling thousands of motor vehicles into the heart of the city centre.

As more people got around by cars, fewer got around by bike. By 1979 when I was born the graph below shows bike use had fallen off a cliff and I grew up in a society where very few people cycled for their day-to-day journeys because most people drove them.

Bicycle Usage GB 1949-2011

Source: House of Commons Library Road Cycling: statistics Standard Note: SN/SG/06224

When I passed my driving test in 1996, I did the same thing the majority did: started driving everywhere on a road network that was designed for that purpose. I didn't realise the damage that this habit was doing. As the number of cars and miles they were driven increased, so they began to fill side roads that allowed through-traffic; increasing congestion, pollution and danger for everyone and taking over streets that previously had been quiet enough for children to play on and neighbours to socialise and talk.

This has created a vicious circle of fewer safe roads for cycling resulting in more car use for shorter journeys which further reduces the number of safe roads for cycling. There are far fewer quieter side roads now than there was in the 80s and 90s. This graph shows this increase in traffic:

Annual Traffic By Vehicle Type Birmingham

Source: DfT Road Traffic Statistics

It may seem intuitive to tackle the problems of more traffic by building more roads, removing anything that blocks traffic to try to ensure it keeps flowing smoothly. Birmingham and other cities around the world have shown that this does not work because of induced travel demand. A government paper describes this as:

Induced demand for road travel can be broadly defined as 'the increment in new vehicle traffic that would not have occurred without the improvement of the network capacity'.

The paper goes on to state:

Induced demand is likely to be higher for capacity improvements in urban areas or on highly congested routes.

I find this a bit too technical to get a good understanding of what it looks like in the real world. Jan Gehl, a Danish Architect and urban design consultant who has worked in cities around the world, has described it in a much more accessible way:

The other big thing that happened in the 1960s (at the same time as Modernist planning) was the car invasion - filling all the voids of our cities. And filling the interest of the politicians and the planners. Every city had a traffic department that counted cars but no city had a department for people and public spaces. No city had any knowledge of how their cities were being used by people - but they did know how traffic used the city. The influx of cars further confused the sense of scale - because to get traffic moving it needed a lot of room and when cars park they needed large spaces.

If you invite more cars, you get more cars. If you make more streets better for cars you get more traffic…

(I've missed off the ending of the second quote; I'll come back to it shortly.)

Is there a different, more equitable, safer and healthier way of using the roads in our city? That's the question that I and some of my neighbours asked back in 2018 that led us to campaign for change.

If we look back in time a few decades; in the 50s and 60s our European neighbours including in the Netherlands had also developed their cities around cars. In 1972, the same year the Aston Expressway in Birmingham was opened, a movement developed in the Netherlands called 'Stop de Kindermoord' which translated means 'Stop the Child Murder'. It was a grass-roots movement against the danger posed by cars to vulnerable road users. It took its name from the headline of an article written by journalist Vic Langenhoff whose 6-year-old daughter had been killed by a car whilst she was cycling to school.

The people demanded changes to reduce the danger posed by cars on their roads. These took the shape of protected cycle paths on main and bigger roads where bicycles and cars are separated from one another. On smaller side roads, where space does not allow full protected cycle paths, roads were turned into 'cycle streets' ('fietsstraat') where cars and bicycles mix; crucially, they mix in a vastly different way to Birmingham's side roads. On the cycle streets cars have access but not priority; cars are required to act as guests. Many of these cycle streets have through traffic filtered from them using bollards.

Bicycle Street in the Netherlands Filtered Permeability Using Bollards in the Netherlands

Source: Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

These filtered roads are a vital part of cycling infrastructure, especially for less confident and younger people, because they provide a network of safe cycling routes that are on most people's doorstep, that link up with the larger protected cycle paths. They also provide nicer, safer areas for people on foot, scooters, and mobility scooters, to stop and chat with neighbours, and for children to play independently.

In the UK this type of infrastructure is provided by modal filters and low traffic neighbourhoods. There are lots of roads like this around the UK that have been quietly providing safer streets to enjoy for decades. Unfortunately, there are too few low traffic neighbourhoods to provide a cohesive network of safe cycling routes that link areas with protected cycle paths and public transport routes, that would otherwise curb the year-on-year increase in car use in our cities.

Filtering through traffic from side roads in the UK is not radical. It aligns with our road classification system:

  • A roads - major roads intended to provide large-scale transport links within or between areas.
  • B roads - roads intended to connect different areas, and to feed traffic between A roads and smaller roads on the network.
  • Classified unnumbered - smaller roads intended to connect together unclassified roads with A and B roads, and often linking a housing estate or a village to the rest of the network. Similar to 'minor roads' on an Ordnance Survey map and sometimes known unofficially as C roads.
  • Unclassified - local roads intended for local traffic. The vast majority (60%) of roads in the UK fall within this category.

Most of the roads in Birmingham are unclassified and not intended to allow cars to use them to travel to different areas. Using side roads in this way does not produce private enclaves; on the contrary, it reclaims and opens up safer more equitable neighbourhoods for people to enjoy in safety without the fear of being run over, and for people to travel through by any mode other than motor vehicles.

A and B roads are designed to handle traffic more safely. They have traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and refuges, parking restrictions, multiple lanes and turning lanes, barriers at major junctions to protect pedestrians. Side roads intended for local traffic tend to be narrower, have cars parked on them right up to corners impeding sight lines, far fewer safe crossing points and a mix of motor vehicles with pedestrians, children, cyclists, and delivery vehicles, creating far more hazards to a vulnerable public. This is supported by a study that found motor vehicles on minor roads create more pedestrian casualties than motor vehicles travelling the same distance on major roads. Speeding and dangerous driving enforcement resources, be it police or speed cameras, can also be more effectively targeted at A and B roads when the road classifications system is followed.

The Netherlands is not the only example of the benefits of restricting urban traffic on side roads (like our low traffic neighbourhoods) and reallocating road space to protected cycle paths. There are examples of this approach succeeding or being trialled in Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Canada, America, New Zealand; and probably many more I've missed off.

There are also other benefits to promoting active travel I haven't touched on in this post: the correlation between low cycling rates and obesity with the devastating health impacts of obesity in the UK, the mental health benefits of physical activity, stronger communities and less loneliness when people linger and socialise on quieter safer roads, increased independence for children that are allowed out by themselves due to reduced traffic danger, the economic benefits to local shops created by more people walking and cycling to them, the reduction of transport related CO2 emissions given Birmingham City Council's statement that the climate emergency is a real and significant threat; and again probably many more I've missed off.

I am aware that there is a very high-profile opposition to low traffic neighbourhoods and protected cycle paths in the UK at the moment. As a local volunteer campaigner, I have been publicly challenged and occasionally personally verbally attacked by neighbours, other members of the public and even an MP. I understand that change always comes with opposition and empathise with some of the concerns, especially my neighbours who live on categorised main roads that attribute changes to traffic levels to the recent low traffic neighbourhoods. On that point, I refer to older low traffic neighbourhoods in Birmingham that no longer cause issues, the trend of ever-increasing car use on our roads, and a recent Tweet by Chris Boardman, who is a far better communicator than me, in response to a Kings Heath resident complaining about displaced traffic:

I hear this a lot…

The problem is too many cars, which is exposed when you put them back where they were supposed to be (main roads) If we don't make space for traveling differently, how do we break the cycle?

There is no 'planning' that will magically fix this. It's hard.

Of the other concerns raised; there is much research and even more opinion that is variously cited and attacked by people on both sides of the debate. In my view the weight of evidence and examples from around the world demonstrate huge and varied benefits from low traffic neighbourhoods and cycle paths with no realistic alternative method of achieving the same positive outcomes.

To my neighbours and local politicians pushing for the schemes to be delayed for a rethink; I appreciate the vast majority will be suggesting this with good intentions. However, I ask them to consider the 50 years that have passed since the 'Stop the Child Murder' movement in the Netherlands, and I suggest our country has delayed making our roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists for long enough. Now is the time to improve the way we travel around Birmingham.

I would like to end this post on a message of optimism by revisiting the incomplete Jan Gehl quote above; the full quote is:

If you invite more cars, you get more cars. If you make more streets better for cars you get more traffic. If you make more bicycle infrastructure you get more bicycles. If you invite people to walk more and use public spaces more, you get more life in the city. You get what you invite.