Birmingham unveils a radical Ghent-style plan to curb car addiction

Birmingham, the U.K.’s “motor city” of Spaghetti junction fame, wants to reduce car travels. The Birmingham Transport Plan, launched January 13, promises that the “allocations of road space will shift away from single occupancy private car.”

The goal is to “move people, not [motor] vehicle[s].” According to the draft masterplan, “mass transit and active modes must be preferred in the near future.”

25% of car trips in Birmingham are less than one mile. The Birmingham City Council will introduce a motor traffic circulation plan, similar to that of Ghent in 2017, to discourage such use and reduce congestion.

Officials divided the Belgian capital into six zones. They used signage and infrastructure to divert motorists to distribute roads, rather than allowing them to drive from one zone to another. A small, central area, which included much of the old town was also closed to cars. Although driving in the six outer “cells”, was still possible, car journeys were longer.

Both cyclists and pedestrians were exempted from the same restrictions and could easily travel into central Ghent. This ease-of-use and the fewer cars resulted in a huge jump in the number of cyclists in Flanders, which increased 60% between 2016-2018. The surprise came as a surprise to city planners who thought such a figure would be achieved by 2030, the end of their plan.

The plan for Birmingham is effective through 2031. It includes the creation a Clean Air Zone that restricts road use of vehicles powered by petrol or diesel. The plan incorporates the existing plans for a workplace charging a PS500 per space for parking. This scheme was used successfully in Nottingham to partially pay for the expansion of its PS580-million tram network.

Birmingham’s traffic cell plan would see motorists who want to travel between quadrants by car would be directed to the A4540 Middleway road.

Ghent’s traffic flow plan is based upon earlier plans that were used in Dutch cities during 1970s and 1980s. Groningen was the first to divide its city centre into four quadrants, despite much opposition from locals. Private motor traffic could not travel from one quadrant of the city to another via a ring road. A system of one-way streets, was installed literally overnight. Groningen’s bicycle-based transport system is now used for two thirds of all trips. No business owner would ever want to see cars dominate the city again.

Birmingham recently designed for active travel. The A38, which is a key road to the city, was upgraded last-year to include protected cycleways. This protection was partly repurposed in part from a tramline that was dug up in 1950s.

In a blog article published last year Cllr Waseem Zaffar said that walking, biking, and green public transport were the most popular ways to travel in Birmingham, which would reduce our dependence on private cars.

Cllr Zaffar stated in a preface to the new plan that he has not changed his views. The city must make changes if it wants gridlock to be avoided.

Zaffar states that “over-dependence on private vehicles is bad for our health and for our families as well as for our communities. It can also be bad for our businesses, as shown by the millions of dollars lost productivity due to congestion.”

He said that car use is “bad” for the future due to the significant damage vehicle emissions do and their impact on the climate.

Instead, he stressed that the city’s transport leadership, and that the more trips we make by cycling and walking, the better our air quality, and our health, and the less congestion.

Zaffar promised that buses, trams, and trains would be the backbone for a “new, go anywhere transport system”.

Although the Birmingham Transport Plan is still not a finalized deal, it will be open to public consultation at January’s end. There will likely be opposition to these plans from motorists and businesses that rely on motorists for their custom.

Many retailers in different countries believe that the majority of customers travel by car to get to their stores. This is largely false, according to study after study. Retailers often exaggerate the number of people who drive, while understating modes like walking, cycling, and using public transit. Trade is often increased by removing cars from shopping streets. A 2015 study on Queen Street West in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood showed that 50% of local business owners believed that 25% or more of their customers came by car. It was actually 4%. What about those who cycled or walked? 72%.

Similar results were obtained by closing down central Madrid to cars in 2018. An analysis of 20,000,000 anonymized transactions showed that this resulted in 9.5% increase in retail spending.

In 1973, officials in The Hague, Netherlands, faced fierce opposition when they announced plans for three major shopping streets to be fitted with cycleways. Local shopkeepers, supported by the Chamber of Commerce in the municipality, protested at the plan’s initial public meeting. They claimed that restricting motor traffic would lead to lower turnovers. Angrily protesting shopkeepers blocked an intersection with their vehicles, they refused to stop until they were offered compensation for any loss in takings. In 1978, the cycleways were opened. The cycleways were opened in 1978. None of the retailers had ever been entitled to compensation. In fact, their profits increased due to the construction of the cyclesways and the additional journeys they promoted.

Birmingham’s plans to create a clean environment zone and levy on workplace parking have been criticized. The traffic circulation plan will be also under attack. If officials are able to stand firm and prove that locals are not misinformed, then the city may become a much more liveable place.

Cllr Zaffar stated that Birmingham plans to “build an era in which the automobile will not be king.”


This article has been updated to include information about criticisms of traffic circulation plans in other cities.

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