Could Birmingham's Clean Air Zone be better?

By Dene Stevens,
lady cycles on canal path, Birmingham

Birmingham has the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution in the UK outside of London. Photo credit © Jonathan Bewley

Birmingham City Council’s proposal for a Clean Air Zone is out for consultation and is generating plenty of interest.

Under the proposal about 50% of vehicles would be liable to incur a charge, and so encourage many people to think again about how they travel to and from the city centre. This is an important next step in expanding the city's core – the part where it’s most enjoyable and pleasant to walk and to spend time, largely because people on foot greatly outnumber cars.

Birmingham’s planned Clean Air Zone is more ambitious than those of most other UK cities because it combines inclusion of some private vehicles with a meaningful level of proposed charges and has a promise to invest in alternatives to the car. It represents Birmingham taking a unique lead in sustainable transport, which is very welcome.

This has come about partly because Birmingham now has little choice. Within the UK it has the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution outside of London. Meanwhile, nearly all other European cities with a population of more than one-million have a larger tram or urban rail system where the tracks and platforms don’t have to be shared with long-distance trains, so can therefore offer a turn-up-and-go service much more easily. Many also have some form of traffic restraint.

Birmingham would benefit from a Clean Air Zone

The City Council’s review of complementary measures for the Clean Air Zone focused on options that would cut most levels of nitrogen dioxide and be economically and socially acceptable. What the review did not take into account was the extra benefits that certain options would bring. For example, enabling more cycling through the introduction of protected bike lanes on more main roads and having 20mph on side streets would add value by addressing other challenges such as tackling obesity and physical inactivity and freeing up local NHS budgets and services. Sustrans supports the planned Clean Air Zone and believes that the review of measures should take these collateral benefits into account.

Measures will be needed to tackle the impact of traffic displacement, especially because those most likely to suffer are some communities just beyond the ring road that already face deprivation in other ways. The most effective long-term way to tackle this is to invest in alternative travel choices. A reduction in motor traffic passing through these areas will not only improve the air, it will also make the streets safer, quieter and more welcoming. This cannot be achieved just through a switch to electric vehicles.

Our Bike Life Birmingham report showed that more people riding bikes improves air quality; over 16 tonnes of nitrogen oxide and 1,797 kg of particulates are avoided annually across the city by people with access to a car choosing to cycle to places instead. This is just from the current low level of cycling. Meanwhile, 70% of Birmingham residents agree that more space for people on bikes or on foot, as opposed to additional space for cars, is the best way to reduce air pollution so we know there is widespread support for change.

Birmingham City Council should develop its cycling proposals more rapidly and commit to using any Clean Air Zones income to support these - in particular to fast forward the creation of a much-needed safe route along the A456 Hagley Road and extension of the new protected bike lane along the A34 Walsall Road to the Alexander Stadium and onward to Walsall.

The upcoming West Midlands public bike share scheme will open up another choice for people that have driven to locations just within the ring road. Some of whom could now take the train to town then use a bike share to get to locations that are too far to walk from New Street or Snow Hill stations.

The potential rewards for central Birmingham of less dependence on cars are many. Besides quieter and safer space and easier ways to exercise, there should be:

  • Less congestion on city centre streets because of fewer moving and parked cars. In Copenhagen the 9% of people who drive to work occupy 66% of the street space. With about 50% of people driving to work, it’s no wonder Birmingham’s roads are congested. Those who continue to drive in the city centre will see much less traffic congestion there.
  • Better travel choices. The increased demand for alternatives will eventually be met by better provision. In Birmingham, 23% of households have no car, and many individuals living in homes that do have a car have limited use of it. All these people will benefit from better choices for reaching the increasing jobs and cultural events of the city centre.
  • Cleaner streets. The full costs of bad air quality are sometimes not seen or understood until after improvements are made – take the case of crime and lead in petrol. Who knows what extra unforeseen benefits await from cutting nitrogen oxides?

Especially for individuals, change always brings its difficulties and for many, finding alternatives to driving to the city centre will be an unwelcome challenge. Many lives have been planned around being able to drive everywhere, and until recently Birmingham enabled or even encouraged that. It will take years for lives to be built around different travel choices, but this can be achieved and there are many benefits to be had.

How to support the plans for Birmingham's proposed Clean Air Zone

The proposed Clean Air Zone could be much more ambitious. We support the Clean Air Zone as it is proposed and welcome extensions of it. The design and new infrastructure should be future-proofed to facilitate easy expansion of the zone across the ring road and beyond.

If you agree with the plans, don’t just assume they will go ahead. Opponents are often more likely to respond to consultations than supporters, so make sure your voice is heard, and call for a more ambitious scheme if you prefer. The consultation closed on 17 August 2018.

Read our response to the consultation