Area by Area Ideas to Foster an Active Travel Revolution
Updated: Jun 5
At a time when we are far more conscious of the space between us we are also beginning to realise how much of that space is wasted conveying and storing private vehicles in our cities.
Compact, densely populated settlements have been around for at least five thousands years and cars for little over a hundred. Private vehicles are incompatible with how cities work, which is why urban planners of the second half of the 20th century spent so much time having to demolish things to make space for them, space that had never needed to be created before. More and more cars meant more and more roads and more and more roads meant, well, less and less of everything else.
As I have discussed previously, the wounds of this period run deep in Birmingham but how this came about is best summarised by philosopher and journalist Andre Gorz's essay 'The social ideology of the motorcar'. The piece should be compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to understand how we have arrived where we are and I would encourage anyone reading this to take the time to read it too.
It will come as a surprise that his forensic explanation of our descent into car dependence, so familiar to us in 2020, was written in 1973. His contention that 'the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes' should ring true for anyone for whom several hours of their work day goes towards paying for the privilege of driving 5 miles in 45 minutes in traffic just to get themselves to work in the first place.
The popularity of the car was engineered by oil magnates keen to ensure global reliance on their product and even today think tanks funded by oil companies like the IEA and the TPA promote road building while attacking public transport infrastructure projects that will encourage modal shift away from private vehicles.
Car dependence has not only changed our cities, our habits and our health for the worse, it persists in the idiomatic language we use to discuss progress. In reality 'driving' change does not involve driving and the 'roadmap' to recovery after COVID19 should more appropriately be called a cycle network.
The need to change our thinking around our use of space has crystallised during the pandemic now that public transport, the panacea of urban mobility and efficient, sustainable journeys, has seen its capacity temporarily limited. A return to cars represents another step towards a dystopian future dominated by congested road, suburban sprawl and ecological collapse.
Cycling and walking initiates have stepped in to fill the gap and save us, with Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo formulating some of the most radical and welcome plans to create a '15 minute city' in which everything you need to live comfortably is accessible within a 15 minute walk. Active transport has the potential to completely revitalise our high streets, encouraging footfall to local shops and businesses instead of car journeys to out of town retail parks. Walking, cycling or potentially scooting to your local high street for 15 minute trips for supplies several times a week can replace hours spent social distance queuing in a Sainsbury's car park.
The knock on benefits of more cycling and walking initiatives are extensive. Fewer cars on the roads allow for a whole host of improvements.
Reducing the amount of traffic means we can devote more space to people, making it easier to shut roads entirely for special events, weekly markets that showcase local produce and support local businesses, street parties and locally organised activities, creating closer knit communities and encouraging footfall in areas that are presently hostile and dominated by traffic.
Pedestrian improvements in the city centre especially will enable large seasonal events like the German Christmas Market* to go ahead, allowing it to be spread out across far more of the city, facilitating social distancing as well as pushing the footfall the market generates to other areas of the city and benefitting businesses that might otherwise have seen patrons stolen away by the popularity of the market. (Yes, I know it's May but if you hate it read this.)
Inspired by the efforts of city leaders and councils around the world, here are some ideas for how we can foster an active transport revolution in Birmingham, build back better and finally put car dependence into reverse.
Birmingham City Council's Urban Centres Framework outlines improvements to high streets around Birmingham and Selly Oak is perhaps most in need of urgent intervention.
Birmingham has the youngest population in Europe and needs to retain graduates to support its growing economy and skilled jobs market. The city needs to impress its graduates perhaps most of all to encourage them to live and work here after they finish their studies.
Young people are increasingly wanting to live in cities to enjoy all the vibrancy that they have to offer and are happy to pay a little more in rent if it means they can live centrally and have cafes, bars, restaurants and cultural activities on their doorstep. Being so close to the action means that car ownership is unnecessary and expensive so many are increasingly ditching cars in favour of public transport. Car parking spaces do not attract people under 25s, exciting cities do.
Part of the motivation for this is that young people are far more environmentally conscious and so the way we consume is quite different from our parents’ generation. Consumption by under 25s can be broadly characterised in two ways in opposition to previous generations: quality vs quantity and experiences vs possessions. They are far more likely to think about the provenance of what they buy and what they eat, making choices based on ethical production and sustainability. That focus on sustainability even informs travel habits. More pertinently though, ‘Generation Rent’ have long accepted that lack of ownership is not a barrier to happiness and consequently under 25s would rather live in a small city centre flat close to things that they can do rather than in a large suburban house full of things that they own.
The rise of Uber, Airbnb and WeWork rather than their more traditional counterparts is testament to the growing market for on demand shared usage rather than private ownership.
As the first experience of the city for many young people, Selly Oak should be high on the list of priorities for walking and cycling improvements. According the to University of Birmingham, only 3% of students bring a car to university. UoB aims to reduce this number to almost 0%, creating a prime opportunity to remove cars from many of Selly Oak’s predominantly student inhabited streets and only allow parking for loading (moving in and out) and those who absolutely need it.
Down grade the High Street to one lane in each direction, widen pavements, create a tree lined boulevard and remove on street parking with the exception of disabled spaces and loading bays which will be located on the road southern side or on side streets.
Extend the A38 cycle highway along the road’s northern side where there are fewer junctions with smaller roads, linking it to the Lapal Canal Trust’s canal side development and the under construction Selly Oak Triangle cycle route.
Create a scenic and safe cycling and walking network around Selly Oak’s heart, removing on street parking and introducing cycle parking outside houses, modal filtering and a one way system on key streets between Raddlebarn Road and the high street to minimise through traffic and improve the street scene. Much of Selly Oak east of the railway station and north of Raddlebarn Road can be designated a low traffic neighbourhood.
Bring historic buildings near the railway bridge back into use creating a new civic centre to Selly Oak, including a new public realm connecting the high street with the canal and further connections to the Battery Park redevelopment.
Preserve the remaining historic but unlisted buildings along the high street to maintain its character and history.
Restrict access to Tesco petrol station to the new A38 to reduce the chances of collision at the complicated junction with the high street.
Redevelop Selly Oak Station - the station saw passenger number upwards of 3.2 million last year making it the 8th busiest rail station in the West Midlands. As University Station is currently undergoing a rebuild with similar passenger figures there is a need to redevelop the Selly Oak station to create more space and a better passenger experience. The rebuild should also be treated as an opportunity to create arrival squares that better link with the high street and the junction of Heeley Road and Dartmouth Road as well as landscaping, cycle parking and a feature pedestrian footbridge over the canal to better connect with Selly Wharf and the proposed student accommodation at the Selly Oak Triangle site.
The Jewellery Quarter
The JQ is a cultural gem and unique in the world. It is also an area of the city whose historic and characterful architecture has been far more successfully and more completely preserved than many other neighbourhoods that were decimated in the 1960s by misguided car centric planning and a disregard for Birmingham’s history.
More recently it has become a fashionable and popular area to live and many residential developments have been built and continue to be proposed whose S106 contributions could pay for improvements immediately. Many of the JQ's original industries remain in the area, mainly through tenacity, loyalty and luck rather than council design. Many are under increasing pressure from encroaching development but it is vital that measures are put in place to protect them. The jewellers are what make the area unique and it would be a dereliction of civic duty to allow or encourage a 200 year old unbroken chain of master craftspeople working and living there to leave. Any improvements to the areas must take into account the needs of manufacturing businesses as well as the growing hospitality scene and community of residents.
Various bodies and organisations (JQ Bid, JQ Townscape Heritage, JQNF, JQ Heritage Forum) represent the various interest of those in the JQ and I hope that they can work together on proposals for improvements to the area. The idea below are predominately located in areas where manufacturing and workshops are no longer located as a complete catalogue of them will need to creating to ensure that they are consulted for improvements to areas where they operate.
Create a segregated cycle highway along Newhall Street - until Great Charles Street is downgraded to allow better permeability between the city core and the Jewellery Quarter Newhall Street remains the main pedestrian and vehicular link between the two. A tree lined boulevard can be created on one of the city’s main routes with on street parking removed from both sides of the road to allow for a segregated cycle lane. The lane would go south to join Colmore Row where it would enter a shared use area defined by Birmingham City Council’s public realm improvement plans for around New Street and Victoria Square. Travelling north the route will travel the full length of the road veering west along Graham Street, with an area of cycle parking to support the AE Harris development site and then north again creating a loop around Frederick Street/Vittoria Street as shown in the indicative images below. Further implements on Brook Street can bring the route safely to St Paul’s Square.
Upper Ludgate Hill - narrowing of the carriageway and pavement widening to increase the size of the existing spill out areas will ensure more space for passing pedestrians too, loading bays can be moved to Water Street and additional trees planted.
Lower Ludgate Hill - The southern end of Ludgate Hill is a ridiculously wide one way street with on street parking on either side. This road could be significantly narrowed, pavements widened and trees planted while retaining existing on street parking if needed. The foot bridge over Great Charles street is one of the few connections between the JQ and the city core so ameliorating the street scene here will create a more pleasant sense of arrival after traversing the awful bridge.
Create spill out space around St Pauls Square - the one way system around St Pauls is presently a rat run, with cars using it as a cut through. On the roadside closest to the square there is also not a footway so existing car parking can be retained on the east and west side of the square while including adequate provision for loading bays and disabled parking bays. On the outside of the square, fronting the buildings, on street parking should be removed and replaced with wider pavements creating spill out areas for businesses. The square is the heart of the JQ and should be a bustling and vibrant place for pedestrians. These widened footways should be maintained in east and west directions to join Newhall Street and Livery Street respectively. Victorian lamposts should be retained to add character.
Continue phased improvements to St Pauls Square - these could include replacing car parking outside St Paul’s Church with ample cycle parking for people on bikes arriving via the Newhall Street cycle highway and removing the tarmac on the carriageway around the square to reveal the original cobbled paving. This will have the benefit of further enhancing the historic visual appeal of the square as well as slowing cars down. The Square is badly lit at night and the branches of trees could be covered in the same lighting that currently only adorns one or two of the trees to ensure safety for people walking or cycling at night.
On the other side of the Snow Hill Viaduct are a collection of heritage buildings that suffer from their proximity to the busy road. Despite years of neglect these are still some of the finest buildings in the area, including our very own terracotta Flatiron Building. The collection of commercial uses makes the area a fledgling local centre within the city centre that needs help so that it can flourish. Numerous surface level car parks in the area present development opportunities that could see the area become a thriving neighbourhood in the near future if the right interventions are taken.
The possible redevelopment of Snow Hill Station, the presence of a tram stop and the existing residential developments nearby (MODA, Snow Hill Wharf, Hallmark) all indicate the growing importance of the area in the years to come.
Create a segregated cycle highway along the B4100 - On street parking can be removed to make space for the route up Constitution Hill leading to Key Hill cemetery and beyond the city centre. This will increase access to Snow Hill Station’s third entrance and dedicated access should be maintained to St Chad’s tram stop with any future proposals for the triangular site on Lionel Street enabling people on bikes to avoid the dangerous junction with Great Charles Street. Cycle routes can then be extended towards the Gun Quarter, better linking the growing student community there with the Jewellery Quarter.
Revitalise the setting for heritage assets - Widened pavements and the removal of on street parking will make Constitution Hill feel like a real high street, offering a boost to businesses based there and creating a new destination in this part of the city. The construction of a new hotel in the area also necessitates creating improvements to the street scene for incoming visitors. Traffic doesn't put people off driving, because if it did no one would drive. Not having anywhere to park puts people off driving but doesn't stop them travelling, it just encourages them to do so by other, inevitably more sustainable, modes. Removing on street parking across the city centre is necessary. Creating space for people rather than parking doesn't discourage visitors, it makes the destination more attractive and encourages more visitors.
Creating a Green Corridor along Hampton Street - More radical improvements can prepare for phased pedestrianisation of Hampton Street, culminating in a pocket park as development takes off in the area. Loading bays can be moved to side streets to minimise obstructions on Constitution Hill. The road also maximises views of the city centre looking southwards towards the MODA development, 3 Snow Hill, Snow Hill Station and future development on the Lionel Street triangle.
Livery Street Square - Closure of the end of Livery street to traffic can take place pending the redevelopment of the petrol station, perhaps creating a pocket park to compliment the refurbishment of 'the Gothic' on the other side of the road. The square will also form a key junction on the cycling network and spur development on Northwood Street and the large industrial site on the opposite side of the road.
Corporation Street/Steelhouse Lane
The few surviving buildings from Chamberlain’s vision for a grand boulevard through the city centre can be seen toward the North Eastern end of Corporation Street. The Victoria Law Courts and the Methodist Central Hall (MCH) are two of the city’s grandest buildings and yet the area is noticeably quiet and unloved. A number of independent businesses occupy the far end of Corporation Street but many have been forced out of the units on the ground floor of the MCH due to attempts to renovate the building that have so far fallen through. The road is dominated by parked cars, with narrow footways and unsightly guardrails to prevent pedestrians absentmindedly wandering into the road. The bustling city centre seems to stop where Colmore Row meets Steelhouse Lane.
The Steelhouse Lane Conservation Area sits at a crossroads between the universities, what would traditionally be called the CBD and the city centre proper. It is included in the Snow Hill masterplan which outlines some potential improvements and a development framework for the area but sadly nothing has been implemented. The masterplan requires a refresh to reintroduce vitality to one of the city’s most picturesque streets.
Birmingham Childrens’ Hospital - As outlined in the plan, the intended relocation of the Children’s Hospital to a new site near the QE will facilitate larger scale efforts to revitalise this area of the city centre. Removing the decades of additions and restoring the original facade and gatehouse is integral to preserving this piece of the city’s history and putting it to other uses. Space that was formally occupied by extensions can be converted to sprawling public gardens.
St Mary’s Place - as recommended in the Snow Hill Masterplan, a new formal public square fronted by ground floor commercial activity towards the back of the hospital will honour the site of St Mary’s Church, long since demolished for the hospital expansion.
Implementation of a one way system along the new roads will improve traffic flow and allow for pedestrian improvements.
Extensive footway widening, tree planting, removal of on street parking, relocation of loading bays and pedestrian improvements will create a better street scene.
New development opportunities as shown can help better link the city core with the Gun Quarter and Eastside, creating new pedestrianised streets leading to underpasses for onward travel and created shared spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.
Commercial units along the ground floor of the Methodist Central Hall can be reanimated with bars, cafes and shops, drawing footfall from the university campus and Colmore area and growing the city centre outwards.
The Sutton Coldfield Masterplan was consulted on in late 2019 and proposed a number of improvements to the town centre that received mixed responses. As a respondent to the consultation I submitted the ideas below.
Pedestrianise the high street - Sutton Coldfield has a pleasant looking high street that currently suffers due to its narrow pavements and domination by cars. Removing traffic entirely between Brassington Avenue King Edward Square will create a large public space continuous with Holy Trinity Church and enable street markets and events to be held in the town centre. Access will be maintained for drop off and loading via a one way system around Midland Drive and Coleshill Street. To maintain the though route, two way traffic can be directed along Reddicroft and Railway Road with the option to also build a relief road between Railway Road and King Edwards Square. The additional road will not result in any net gain in traffic. Alternatively, pedestrianisation of the high street could only go as far as the junction with Railway Road, enabling through traffic to join the A5127 there.
Sutton Coldfield Gateway - To maximise accessibility to the town centre and facilitate onward travel from the town and its environs, Sutton Coldfield's new bus interchange should be sited next to a new second entrance to the railway station on Brassington Avenue. With new, longer trains on order by West Midlands Railway and the number of users of the station increasing year on year there is an opportunity to extend the railway platforms and build a new entrance.
The original station building can therefore be preserved in its current context while increasing its capacity, improving accessibility to the station from park street as well as accessibility to Gracechurch from the bus and rail station.
A new station entrance in this location would also encourage development of the presently derelict land on Brassington Avenue, promoting residential as well as office developments fronting the street and backing onto the railway line.
Sutton Park Cycle Link - Including a cycle route from the new interchange to Sutton park offers an opportunity to integrate an off road bike hire scheme at the station to encourage people to explore the park by bike. Including safe cycle parking in key locations at the park and the station will make cycling safer and easier for local residents and commuters too.
Sutton Park Line Station - With plans in the offing to reopen the Sutton Park Line, a second railway station might open in Sutton Coldfield in the near future. Ensuring that this possibility is included in the masterplan for the town is integral to maximising its benefits.
Lower Parade & Gracechurch - ensuring safer crossings along Brassington Avenue will improve walking and cycling connectivity between the newly pedestrianised high street, Gracechurch shopping centre and the rail/bus interchange. Creating spill out areas along Lower Parade will encourage more bars and cafes along the street.
I am not a transport or urban planner and no doubt there will be holes in the ideas above that I have not foreseen or complexities that I do not appreciate as a layman. However, twitter is a awash with ideas and calls for similarly people centric improvements around the world. People want to see real change in their local areas and to preserve the better air quality and safer streets that have been a strange by product of the global crisis.
There will be some claiming this is opportunistic, as if progress and the desire to create a better world born out of present troubles is a bad thing, rather than how improvements have always come about. It is crisis not comfort that fosters innovation. Birmingham must not only keep up but lead the development of how we reprioritise the space in our cities away from cars. It is time to adapt or fall behind. By throwing a few ideas out there I hope that I might encourage others to think more about the improvements they would like to see in their area and get in touch with councillors and local groups already working tirelessly behind the scenes on developed proposals. Now there is finally the political will for these changes it seems the ideal time to make our views heard and get involved.