Transport - A Tale of Two Cities.

16 August 2021

Birmingham plans for a future in which the car will no longer be king.

Birmingham is in the final stages of a consultation exercise to reduce motoring by making motor vehicle journeys longer and inconvenient.  Journeys by Bus, Bicycle and on foot will be made easier, pleasanter, quicker, and safer.

The city Centre will be split into a series of quarters or segments that are configured to force cars to use the city ring road (the A4540 Midleway) for travel between them.  Buses, Pedestrians, and Cycles will continue to have direct access between quarters or segments.

Some elements of the scheme have already been trialled, with temporary traffic changes in the Jewellery Quarter already in place. The public is now being asked whether these changes should be made permanent. Birmingham also plans to invest £1.2 billion in public transport over the next twenty years.

There is a precedent for this, the experience of Ghent in Belgium that implemented its zone-centred’ circulation plan in 2017.  This medieval city demonstrated that it was possible to switch attitudes overnight. Streets were blocked to motorists one Sunday evening and there was no gridlock.  Motorists got used to the restrictions and found that, while their journeys became longer, they were quicker because there were fewer cars on the road.

Ghent had discovered that much of its congestion was caused by an excess of short car journeys. Similarly, in Birmingham, 25% of car journeys are one mile or less (it would be interesting to know the figure for Guildford).

The Challenge in Birmingham

Growth in Birmingham’s population will result in 1.2 million additional daily trips across its highway network by 2031 it is estimated. Accommodating all these trips by private car is simply not sustainable, particularly as road widening is off the table, being expensive, and unpopular.  It also, in many cases, doesn’t work due to the phenomenon of ‘induced demand’ – “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity.”

The aim is to keep the city moving in a sustainable and efficient way.

Ghent Experience

(All figures were taken pre-pandemic in 2019)

Motor vehicles used to make up 55% of trips in Ghent – that number has now fallen to 27%.

Retailers and restaurants that had warned of major drops in business, the opposite appears to be the case with a 17% increase in restaurant and bar start-ups, and the increase in the number of empty shops has been arrested.

Ghent’s plan had imagined a cycling modal share of 35% by 2030, up from 22% in 2016. Instead, after an explosive rise in cycle use, the target was reached 13 years earlier than planned.

Ghent now has cleaner air: nitrogen oxide levels have dropped by 20% since 2017. It’s also a quieter city.  Before the circulation plan, all that could be heard was traffic, which has been replaced, in some locations, by birdsong.

It has been cheap to implement; Ghent’s plan cost just €4m (£3.4m) to implement. By comparison it costs an estimated £20m-£30m to build just one mile of motorway.

Change has its challenges

The main architect of Ghent’s traffic circulation plan is Filip Watteeuw, deputy mayor of Ghent .

Watteeuw delivered the Ghent changes over one night as he believed it was the easiest technically and politically. This was not an easy process, Watteeuw received death threats before the implementation of the plan!! 

Ghent council had residents complaining that a drive of 300 meters became a car journey of two kilometres, it had to be explained that it was desirable that people don’t use a car for 300 metres: they should walk.

Watteeuw emphasises that the Ghent experience is not to allow 'loud voices and vested interests' to scupper the plans.

Other changes in Birmingham

Birmingham plans to remove one of the most significant incentives to motoring: car parking.  It has a Car Parking Planning document in final stages of consultation aligned to its transport plan.

Businesses will be incentivised to remove parking spaces through the introduction of an annual £500 per space workplace parking levy, and the city will build 12,800 new homes on former car parks.  The plan highlights valuable land is in short supply and should be used in the most productive way possible.

Reduced pressure on kerb space by cutting parking provision will aid accessibility and performance by public transport in the city centre. Public transport and cycling provision will be prioritised over car parking provision.

Birmingham plans that the allocation of road space will change away from single occupancy private cars, as the focus will be on moving people not vehicles.

Freight deliveries will be restricted to out-of-hours, and there will be a blanket 20mph speed limit across the city’s local roads.


It must be stressed that Guildford doesn’t have the benefit of ring roads like Birmingham and Ghent.  The ideas and principles could have application to the Town Centre and Urban area, particularly making areas accessible only by limited routings, new parking policies etc.  It will be interesting to see how the debate evolves in Birmingham

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