Urban Planning: Birmingham, UK\'s Radical Makeover to Save the Planet and Create a More Livable City

ON 10/04/2021 AT 10:24 PM

The United Kingdom’s second-largest metropolitan area has hatched a plan to eliminate conventional car traffic, replace it with a modern carbon-free mass transit system, and more, to transform it into a more people-friendly city of the future.

Spaghetti Junction on the M6 in Birmingham, UK

Aerial view of Gravelly Hill Interchange, a motorway structure on the M6 also known as "Spaghetti Junction," in Birmingham, U.K. While the new traffic plan won't eliminate these interchanges, it will keep less traffic from exiting down from them into the central city. Photo: Highways Agency Photo

Birmingham, England has a population of 1.2 million. It is also expected to grow by over 12% -- 150,000 new residents – over the next twenty years.

It is also known, as Waseem Zaffar, the Birmingham City Council’s transport lead, said recently, as “one of the original motor cities” in the country.

It is a city which is literally designed for and “driven” by driving as one of its key distinguishing features. It also is somewhat unique in that it has a much higher-than-normal percentage of cars driving around with just one passenger in them – the drivers.

Birmingham is also cursed by having an estimated 25 percent of all car travel run one mile or less. That is short enough most people could just walk it. Yet they do not.

Zaffar and his team within the city are hoping to change the entire future nature of the city through several bold moves to restructure everything about urban mobility there.

Among the changes is a radical redesign of the city into seven traffic zones. Each of those zones will be configured with road routings so that wherever possible motorists will be kept from driving between zones directly; instead, cars and trucks will be routed to the A4540 ring road surrounding the city, as the primary means of moving from one part of the city to another.

Six of those traffic zones form a loop surrounding the city center zone. Within the city center, private cars will be completely banned as a means of easing congestion and minimizing pollution.

A second major change is to redesign as much of the city as possible, so it favors pedestrians over cars in ease of movement and transit. Related changes will cut the number of parking spaces for cars in the city, steeply raising prices for the fewer spaces which remain, and cracking down on those who illegally park on sidewalks or other areas intended for pedestrians.

Workplaces in the city will also be charged a “parking levy” for the burden they place on the city by requiring parking spaces to exist for their workers.

The new transport plan also notes that “allocation of road space will change away from prioritizing private cars to support the delivery of public transport and active travel networks fit for a global city.”

With the idea that, according to the new transport plan proposal, “Active travel will become the mode of choice for short travel.” Cycling will be encouraged as a major part of that through expansion of the city’s already popular protected lanes set aside for bicycles.

“Introducing the blue cycling lanes was probably the most popular thing the council has done in a long time,” said transport chief Zaffar in a recent interview.

“You couldn’t get me out of my car four years ago,” he continued. “I would take journeys of less than one mile by car; I hadn’t been on a bus since my university days, and I had never cycled until the summer of 2018”.

The new transport plan also includes purchasing and deploying a brand-new fleet of zero-emissions buses, to further encourage individuals to leave their cars at home.

Besides dealing with urban congestion, the plan Zaffar’s team has put together also has a major health benefit intent as well. With less cars on the road there will be less vehicle exhaust on the highway from cars running on gasoline and diesel. Zaffar notes that his father, who was a taxi driver and inhaled large amounts of pollution every day on the job, died at the relatively young age of 54 from exposure to that.

Besides the transport system changes, a second part of Birmingham’s transformation will be to leverage how new residents and companies alike will soon be drawn to a city which has shown such leadership. One can expect removal of some inner-city roadways, creation of new parks, and installment of museums, performing arts centers, and more to make this people-centric city even more exciting to live in for the future.

It is a happy paradox that the city which has been dreading taking on another 120,000 residents over the next two decades may actually grow even larger in numbers, precisely because of remaking how people move around it.