The U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has warned that Birmingham’s plans to create a people-first city with fewer cars could “kill the city center.”
The city council unveiled proposals last week to restrict journeys into the city center by motor vehicle, with motorists instead being directed on to an inner ring road. Car journeys into the center would still be possible but would involve driving longer distances.
Currently, 25% of all car journeys in Birmingham are one mile or less. To discourage such use—and reduce congestion and improve air quality—the Labour-controlled council plans to introduce a motor-traffic circulation plan similar to the one that the Belgian city of Ghent implemented in 2017 and which cut car use dramatically. Motorists have since found that, while their journeys are longer in distance, they take less time because there are fewer fellow travelers on the roads.
Motor vehicles used to make up 55% of trips in Ghent—that number has now fallen to 27%.
“Growth in Birmingham’s population will result in 1.2 million additional daily trips across our highways network by 2031,” says Birmingham city council’s head of transport planning Mel Jones.
“Accommodating all these trips by private car is simply not sustainable.”
However, Shapps appears not to be impressed with such arguments. In an interview with the Birmingham Mail, the electric-car-owning MP suggested that electric cars—which are the same shape and size as petrol-powered cars—ought to be prioritized.
Having a “low emitting or zero-carbon car, an electric car, for example, would help to ensure people started to think about buying those types of car,” said Shapps, calling the idea of restricting a city center to cars “a little bit extreme.”
Shapps added: “What you don’t want to do is stop people coming in (to the center).”
Birmingham’s traffic circulation plan states that its goal is to “move people not [motor] vehicles,” and that there has to be a preference for “mass transit and active modes of travel.”
However, the man in charge of the U.K’s transport policy seems to favor car trips over other modes.
“It’s great to think people will walk and cycle it, or use the buses and trams, and obviously that’s the first preference, to use public transport,” said Shapps.
“But let’s face it: if you live 20 miles out, and you can go on about this as much as you like, but it’s not always feasible.”
Having to use modes other than the private motor car “might put people off” traveling to the city center, claimed Shapps.
“People might think ‘I was going to make that trip, stop off and go to these shops, but now I’m not going to bother as I have to go round the ring road and dart in and dart out on my way to visit my friend on the other side of the city.”
A great deal of Ghent’s traffic congestion was found to have been caused by an excess of short car journeys, as planners had accurately modeled.
“We had people complaining that a drive of 300 meters became a car journey of two kilometers,” remembers Filip Watteeuw, deputy mayor of Ghent.
“We had to explain that we don’t want people to use a car for 300 meters: they should walk.”
Before the roll-out of Ghent’s 2017 traffic circulation plan, the city’s retailers and restaurants had warned that if motoring were restricted, then takings would plummet.
“Actually the economic situation has improved,” says Watteeuw, pointing out there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested.”
Last year, an academic report funded by the U.K. government reported that use of electric cars has the potential to increase car use and therefore would lead to more congestion.
Shifting the focus: energy demand in a net-zero carbon UK, released on July 5, was produced by the Center for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), a consortium of 40 academics at 13 U.K. institutions.
“Relying mainly on electrification of vehicles to reach carbon targets can have the consequence of increasing traffic congestion because of the lower cost and lower taxation of electric fuel,” stated the report.
The draft Birmingham Transport Plan will go out for public consultation from January 28 to March 27.