Build back greener

Cllr Waseem Zaffar, Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment, reflects on 2020 and what the Council is doing to support a low-carbon recovery from Covid-19.

Time is running out. Climate change is upon us and more action is needed if we are to make the vital changes needed to make our city a greener, cleaner, healthier city.

This month, we achieved a major milestone, when our Climate Change Action Plan was approved for delivery. The Plan outlines several priority areas for us to focus on, if we are to achieve our target of net zero carbon by 2030. They include housing, waste, energy, environment, and of course transport.

Transport is the second biggest emitter of carbon emissions in our city, contributing to poor air quality and ultimately impacting on the health and life expectancy of our citizens. Prior to the pandemic, air pollution was the biggest public health emergency in Birmingham.

We have to do things differently to unlock the potential of transport. We have to fundamentally change the way people and goods move around the city if we want to tackle climate change.

At the beginning of last year, we published our draft Birmingham Transport Plan with the intention of adopting it by the end of the same year. It focused on four “Big Moves” that would work in harmony with one another to support the delivery of our transport vision for Birmingham:

  1. Reallocating road space away from single occupancy private cars to support the delivery of improved public transport, expanding the Metro network, bus priority measures and segregated cycle routes.
  2. Transforming and de-trafficking the city centre - through pedestrianised streets and public spaces integrated with public transport services and cycling infrastructure. Access to the city centre for private cars will be limited, with restrictions on through trips.
  3. Prioritising active travel (walking and cycling) in local neighbourhoods - supported by a 20mph limit on local roads, improved pedestrian crossings and school streets measures.
  4. Managing demand for car travel through parking availability and pricing and putting land currently occupied by car parking to more productive use.

Of course, in March 2020 everything changed, and the Council went into emergency planning mode. We took decisive action and decided to bring forward aspects of the Birmingham Transport Plan that would help with safe social distancing, encourage more people to walk and cycle short journeys, and maintain safe public transport for our key workers.

These plans were detailed in a new Emergency Transport Plan and the first set of measures were delivered through the Government’s first tranche of Emergency Active Travel Funding.

Funding guidelines meant we needed to deliver these schemes quickly, so from June – September 2020 we implemented £1.6 million of temporary emergency transport measures including: new pop-up cycle lanes which connect into the city centre and link-up with our existing cycling infrastructure, to key employment sites and other major destinations; pavement widening to allow social distancing in local centres; and the introduction of ‘modal filters’ to create low traffic neighbourhoods through our Places for People programme.

Modal filters restrict access in a road - while it remains open to pedestrians and cyclists, it stops vehicular traffic – and this has made low traffic neighbourhoods somewhat of a hot topic over the past few months. I welcome this feedback, and we are actively engaging with local communities about how we can improve the current Places for People schemes, as well as expanding the programme in other areas to support active travel.

Local businesses had an incredibly difficult year, and we’ve been assisting them with outdoor social distancing through the Reopening High Streets Safely Fund. Working with our Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) we have widened footways in the city centre and busy high streets, to help people  queue outside shops and pass one another safely.

When the hospitality sector was able to re-open, outdoor seating areas have proven to be a real asset in helping to serve customers safely. Together with our partners, we have turned existing on-street parking in the city centre into ‘parklets’ – outdoor seating areas accommodating up to 20 people each.

Through these schemes we’ve really seen what can be achieved if the dominance of private cars is reduced. Creating more pleasant local environments can help to increase footfall, and those who get to the shops by walking or cycling often visit more frequently and spend more overall.

To help maintain a safe environment for our children we also increased the number of Car Free School Streets in the city from 6 to 12. Roads outside participating schools are closed to motor traffic at the start and end of the school day to reduce congestion and improve air quality and safety.

We have already had reports of quieter streets with better air quality and parents finding that it is safer and more pleasant to walk, scoot or cycle with their children to school. I want us to work with communities at every stage of the process to back this trend and ensure that walking and cycling continues to be supported.

Most of the schemes have Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders associated with them, which means the consultation takes place after they are implemented. We launched the official review of these measures in November which will consider community feedback, data, technical assessments, and impact on equality. If you would like to leave feedback on a scheme near you, visit our engagement site Commonplace.

We’ve been able to get several other sustainable transport schemes off the ground in 2020 that will help us to reduce our carbon emissions including: the introduction of electric buses on key NX West Midlands route; electric scooters in our city centre (and now in the north and south west of the city); and e-cargo bikes for local organisations to help them make low carbon deliveries.

We announced plans to install 394 electric vehicle charging points across Birmingham over the next two years and unveiled plans for our hydrogen bus project which will see us roll-out 20 of the world’s first zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cell double decker buses. Finally, after we needed to delay its launch due to the pandemic, we set a new date for the introduction of a Clean Air Zone. Preparatory work for the launch on 1 June 2021 is well underway, and will be another milestone in improving air quality in the city.

We also produced the Birmingham Bus Statement which reinforces our commitment to bus travel as a major strand of our transport policy and describes how we are supporting this mode of travel in the short, medium and long term post-Covid. As a bus user myself, I know how important a reliable bus service is to our city and I am immensely grateful for the hard-working people who have kept this vital service running for our key workers throughout the pandemic.

So, what’s next? Towards the end of last year, the West Midlands Combined Authority announced that they had been allocated £13 million in the second tranche of funding from the Department for Transport Active Travel Fund. This is to be awarded to the seven local authorities in the region, including Birmingham.

We have already started consulting with residents and businesses on how they envisage the investment being used in their areas to further improve provision for cycling and walking. Once lockdown restrictions are eased, consultation will take place to explore where current schemes can be expanded and developed and where appropriate made more permanent.

Ensuring that safe and sustainable transport alternatives are an attractive and viable option to cars – particularly for journeys less than one mile – will be key to our low carbon recovery.

We will soon start to transition from a focus on the Emergency Transport Plan to the longer-term picture and progression of the Birmingham Transport Plan. Of course, we’ll keep you informed every step of the way.

Thanks for your support.

This blog was posted on 25 January 2021

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