Plan to ban cars from Birmingham city centre branded 'unrealistic greenwash'
A plan to ban cars travelling through Birmingham city centre, re-purpose the A38 tunnels and establish 20mph as the default speed limit has been branded "unrealistic greenwash" as opposition politicians piled in to criticise it.
The Labour-led Birmingham City Council published its Transport Plan (BTP) this week outlining "radical" proposals to ensure cars "will no longer be king" in the city.
Councillor Waseem Zaffar, cabinet member for transport and environment, admitted the "bold" ideas would be controversial but stressed they were needed to tackle air pollution and a growing population over the next decade.
Within hours of the plan’s release those from the opposing council benches issued criticism.
- Scroll down for a summary of the Transport Plan's seven key points
Councillor Jon Hunt, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, conceded there were "some good ideas", particularly the new 20mph limit, but added the plan contained a "huge amount of unrealistic greenwash" – a term used to describe disinformation from an organisation trying to present an environmentally friendly public image.
He also described the plan to ban cars from the A38 tunnels as "ill-considered" and said: “Birmingham city council must decide whether it accepts a role for the electric car and other zero carbon systems in the future.
“Simply waging war on privately owned transport makes no sense in a large complex city.
“It must also explain how people using public transport will get around a hugely enlarged city centre area. Telling people to walk or cycle is not enough.”
The Conservatives were more scathing and warned of a "devastating impact" the tunnels proposal would have on workers and businesses.
Group leader Rob Alden said: “The transport plan set out by Labour for Birmingham shows yet again how out of touch they are with the needs of residents and businesses in this city.
“Their plans to close the tunnels will bring the city to a standstill, destroying jobs and pushing more congestion and pollution to the residential areas on the edge of the ring road.
“Their ‘go anywhere’ transport plan is likely to become a ‘go nowhere’ transport plan.
“Their plans lead to communities being cut off from each other and commuters stuck on a stationary ring road that acts as another concrete collar around the city.”
Shadow transport and environment chief Councillor Timothy Huxtable argued the BTP was a continuation of Labour’s alleged "war on motorists".
He said: “It punishes those who have no choice but to use their car and does no-where near enough to develop the world class public transport we need to give people a genuine alternative to getting around.”
The criticism was echoed by Councillor Meirion Jenkins , another Conserative, who described the plan as "especially strange since we live in a motor city".
He said: “These plans hurt motorists least able to insulate themselves from Labour’s anti-car zealots.”
But some spoke up in favour of the proposals.
Councillor Olly Armstrong, a Labour member of the authority’s transport scrutiny committee, said: “This plan is a good start and we need to start: our planet is fracturing.
“For this to work it has to have affordable, connected, safe public transport networks (including early and late times for shift workers), cycle routes and a change in how we create spaces to walk.
“We have the vision, now this Tory government need to release the funding to do it at a deep, transformative level.”
Seven key points of Birmingham Transport Plan
Here we run down some of the main points from the BTP which will likely change travel in the city forever.
Cars banned from driving ‘through’ the city centre
Cars will no longer be able to traverse Birmingham’s centre via the A38 and will instead have to go around it on the A4540 Middleway ring road which will be upgraded.
But car drivers will still be able to drive into the city centre which would be divided up into a number of "cells". While buses, cyclists and of course pedestrians will be able to move from cell to cell directly, cars will have to go back out on to the ring road.
Councillor Zaffar declared "the car will no longer be king" in Birmingham but admitted the city centre transformation would be the "most controversial" change in the plan.
Downgrading the A38 tunnels
So what about those iconic tunnels passing through the heart of the city? Well they will be "downgraded or re-purposed" although no final plans have been decided at this stage.
However one idea being considered is to convert them into a "public transport corridor" for buses, cyclists and possibly Hackney Carriages.
The plan describes the tunnels as a "restrictive barrier splitting the city centre and hampering growth", particularly where the Jewellery Quarter is concerned.
“In a city where we will have a fantastically walk-able and cycle-able network, do we really need a stonking great road running through the middle of it? That is the real fundamental question,” said Councillor Zaffar who vowed to invite suggestions from the public on what to do with the tunnels.
20mph speed limit will be ‘default’
Outside of the city centre the most significant change will be reducing Birmingham’s default speed limit from 30mph to 20mph. This would apply to residential streets which make up around 90 per cent of the city, and not the key A and B routes.
The council is hoping to work with the Government to make Birmingham a pilot for the proposal. Three residential areas have already been operating as 20mph zones for at least three years with analysis showing serious collisions have reduced.
The idea would be to only have signs at "gateway" entry points indicating that Birmingham is a 20mph city as well as signs to indicate when it changes up to 30mph, 40mph and so on.
After the old wet film devices were turned off in 2013 due to costs, around nine speed cameras have since been reinstated in Birmingham and Solihull.
The council and police want to increase the number of units throughout the city and indeed the wider West Midlands but are lobbying the Government to keep the revenue in order to sustain them.
Yet the BTP does not mention having more cameras. Mel Jones, the council’s head of transport and network strategy, confirmed they were implied in the plan but she argued the new 20mph limit would require a more long-term attitude shift similar to that around drink-driving and wearing seatbelts.
“The idea is you put speed in the mindset of the driver so it becomes as socially unacceptable as other types of behaviour,” she said.
Car-free school streets
This proposal is to restrict and manage parking outside of schools to encourage "active travel" such as walking and cycling.
It is likely to be a straightforward expansion of the council pilot launched at six schools last September. The scheme works by closing certain roads to traffic at the start and end of the school day. The idea is not only to improve air quality but also to make areas surrounding schools a lot safer.
Another proposal in the BTP is to register all schools with Modeshift STARS, a scheme which rewards them for taking steps to promote safer, greener and healthier ways of travelling such as walking buses.
Here’s where things start to get more vague. The BTP acknowledges how important and influential the cost and availability or parking is in the levels of car travel. It talks about using parking as a means to "manage demand for travel by car through availability, pricing and restrictions".
A separate document outlining the council’s future parking strategy also emerged last October which included proposals to remove all free on-street parking in the city centre, introduce more restrictions, discourage long stays through charging and the replacement of off-street car parks.
In short, expect the number of car parking spaces to drastically reduce, particularly in the city centre, and prices to go up to encourage more people to use public transport.
It is arguable that the move to eradicate parking in the city centre is already well under way including a decision to close and redevelop the Paradise Circus multi-storey behind the Library of Birmingham and countless new housing developments passed by the council with zero parking spaces.
“Cars will no longer be king in the city, public transport systems will become king.”
That was the main line repeated by Councillor Zaffar at a briefing on the BTP. Of course many schemes which will help achieve this are already well known, particularly the arrival of HS2 and the expansions of the Midland Metro system.
But buses are seen as the key to enabling the shift from cars, which poses a problem for the council as they no longer control them.
Councillor Zaffar said: “We are in a deregulated bus market so we don’t have the same powers as the Mayor of London, but what we do have is a very positive relationship with many of our partners, whether it is Transport for West Midlands, National Express, Diamond or the other operators in our city and it’s all about how we work together.”
The first "big move" of the plan is to "reallocate road space" away from cars, so expect to see more bus lanes and bus gates going forward.
More details are expected to emerge when the council’s Transport and Sustainability committee holds a two-hour public debate on buses on Wednesday involving the major city stakeholders.