With around 250 decision makers, transport planners, activists and enthusiasts, Birmingham Transport Summit was a day to celebrate what is good about transport in the city and look to the future of what Birmingham’s transport offering will look like.
The morning began with community visits to explore what transport challenges people living in the city face on a daily basis, what works for then and what really doesn’t. Then it was back to Aston University for lunch and the start of an afternoon of talks.
Councillor Waseem Zaffar, Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment, welcomed delegates to the summit and talked briefly about the challenges Birmingham faces, the population growth and the brave choices made by the current administration, like the Clean Air Zone.
Birmingham’s Transport Journey from 1800 – present day
Councillor Zaffar then passed over to Phil Edwards, Assistant Director – Transport and Connectivity, Birmingham City Council who talked about Birmingham, a city on a journey. Phil started by talking about Birmingham in the 1800’s where the population was around 74,000 people, the canal network was in full working order and the birth of the railways. Moving through to the 20th Century with the age of the tram and then the car, followed by the tram being replaced by buses and the birth of the concrete collar. Fast-forward to 2001 and the pedestrianisation of New St and the re-emergence of the Metro. He then described Birmingham in 2003 with the re-opening of the new look Bullring, The Mailbox and a population of 1 million. Looking at 2019, we see Birmingham as the place most Londoners choose if they move from the city, the introduction of 20mph zones, dedicated cycleways and the preparation for the Clean Air Zone. By 2031, Phil envisioned further intensive development for the city, with a population of over 1.25 million, rapid transit Sprint, the Camp Hill line in operation. Passenger trains would return to the Sutton Park Line and expansions to the Midlands Metro and Midlands Rail Hub would see improved connectivity between Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham. Interestingly, Phil also talked about the regeneration of East Birmingham, not just in terms of transport, but also housing too, both of which will bring skills and vitality to an area often forgotten.
Phil’s presentation also included a number of emerging principles which talked about “the delivery of a public transport system fit for a global city” and a quote that received a lot of positive responses, both from people in the audience and on Twitter: “We will create a city centre where public transport, walking and cycling are prioritised in an environment free from traffic and pollution, restricting road space to access & servicing by removing through trips, including downgrading the A38.” Ultimately, Phil’s presentation ended on a positive note, suggesting that this is just the start and a request for the audience to actively engage and get involved.
Inspiration and lessons from Enjoy Waltham Forest
Jon Little, Director at Bespoke Transport Consulting was up next to talk about their Waltham Forest Mini-Holland project. One of the eighteen outer London boroughs, Waltham Forest has a population of about 280,000 people, with a young average age and a diverse community with significant numbers of people with Eastern European and Asian heritage. As part of the of the London Mayor’s Transport Strategy, they won a successful with a bid for £27 million to create a world-class commuter route which made room for cycling and complementary measures.
Engaging the audience with dry humour, Jon talked about how they knew that if they wanted people to enjoy the scheme, they needed to connect and involve people from the outset. One of the preliminary activities they undertook was to ask business and customers wanted from their areas and discovered that it was quite different; businesses thought parking was a priority, but customers didn’t consider this a priority.
A trial began, which saw areas of the High Street walled off to vehicles, improvements to cycling and whilst there was a visible negative reaction, this was countered by a lot of positive comments, with residents asking them to “finish the job”. Forty-three streets were filtered and the outcome saw more people taking up active travel, with an average increase of 41 minutes increased walking/cycling than before.
Barriers to behaviour change
Next was a panel discussion looking at barriers to behaviour change for citizens and radical solutions, chaired by Steve Rose, Deputy Chief Executive of the Active Wellbeing Society. The panel included Polly Billington, Director, UK100; Joy Anibaba from the Joyful Bellas and Fellas Community Cycle Club; Dr Ewan Hamnett; Zeddie Lawal, Head Of Community at Free Radical, Beatfreaks; and the previous speaker, Jon Little.
Each of the group introduced themselves and talked a little about what they do, with Joy talking about the inclusive and supportive environment created by the community cycling club and the support they’ve had from the council, talking about the free bicycles Birmingham City Council gave out to some residents. Dr Ewan Hamnett talked about the rise of type two diabetes and climate change and the impact this would have on people, and the need to turn the hierarchy of society on its head and make the environment and health the focus. Polly Billington, from UK100, a network of highly ambitious local government leaders, warned about the need to stop telling people what to do and start facilitating things which involve working with people who just want to get around safely. She talked about the need to ‘mainstream’ the message, without pitting people against each other (eg bus users vs cyclists), but also accept there will be resistance, even if you get people on board.
Jon Little talked about getting what we design for and putting a mirror up to people to ask why they think they’re more important than things like air quality etc. He recognised that whilst this might not be politically great, people would seemingly rather have children die from the effects of inactivity rather than let them cycle. Zeddie Lawal from Beatfreaks talked about the importance of really engaging with young people and making sure they’re truly consulted and not just engaging with primary school children. The idea of asking young people and the elderly and infirm whether they want to be driven everywhere, or whether they’d prefer other more active methods of travel was also proposed.
Chair of the panel, Steve Rose of the Active Wellbeing Society talked about a conversation he had earlier in the day with a young boy who knew that walking and cycling weren’t considered on equal footing within the transport dialogue, and Steve wondered what could be done to change this. Dr Ewan Hamnett was the first to respond, talking about how we engage people outside of this room, and the Vision Zero project to aim for no fatalities or serious injuries involving road traffic. Jon thought the answer was simple, but required planning for people to be able to get to a shop and home without needing to use cars. Polly Billington spoke about the need to include everyone from the ages of eight to 80. Even though Birmingham might currently be a young city, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will always be the case. She also said residents needed to hold things to account, and that air quality doesn’t respect local authority boarders, so infrastructure shouldn’t either, and should be integrated. Joy Anibaba picked up on the idea of getting more people outside of the room involved, and the need for more volunteers to encourage schemes like the community cycle clubs. Zeddie Lawal spoke about the need to ensure there is more communication between residents and the council. The session was brought to a close with a sobering reminder that air quality has real consequences. Steve Rose told a story about a mum with an asthmatic child, who realised the effect the city’s air population on their child when they holidayed in Wales and the child reported how much easier it was to breathe there.
Transport Supports development and inclusive growth
Newly appointed chief executive for Birmingham Airport, Nick Barton, spoke next. He talked about how Birmingham was a growing airport, and how they’re a good indicator of economic growth. That said, people visiting friends and family is a really important value, and that whilst only 17% of visitors passed through the airport for business reasons, it was important they enjoyed their experience as it might encourage them to return for a holiday.
Nick said the airport was looking at how to grow sustainably as possible, and commended the airport for being one of the best connected in the UK, both by road and rail. However, this needs to be better, to work all of the time. Rail was considered to be fundamental to their transport considerations and they would love to get all passengers to use it, but currently usage is only just over 20% and considered to be very important for overseas visitors. The airport is also trying to discourage people from being dropped off at the airport as it generates four trips, rather than two if passengers parked at one of the car parks. Nick also said that whilst they need to focus on economic benefits and they fully recognise the costs of growing and will do what they can to minimise the impact.
Nick was then joined by three other speakers, including Laura Shoaf, Managing Director at Transport for West Midlands and David Reid, Vice President for Sales and Growth at Jacobs, for a panel looking at inclusive growth. The panel was chaired by Phil Edwards, Assistant Director – Transport and Connectivity, Birmingham City Council. Each of the panelists were given time to speak about the topic for a few minutes, before a Q&A. David Reid spoke about how inclusive growth is about giving everyone the change to grow, not just economics, and that whilst Birmingham has an incredible opportunity, it should use it positively and not further the inequality that already exists. Laura Shoaf echoed this, talking about the need to ensure economic growth is shared fairly across society and that whilst people see it in the city centre, she questioned whether people also saw it outside of this area. Nick Barton talked about how airports have been guilty in the past of being in a bubble, but now they are conscious of needing to bring the community with them in order to grow.
The first question from the floor was about sustainable transport to and from the airport. Nick replied that whilst they primarily look at customers, they’re also aware they have 7000 staff but the airport is geographically sparse and requires access 24/7 for three shift patterns, cycling and walking journeys are limited, though they do have plans to encourage this. Nick again praised the airport’s connectivity with rail and said that in his short time in this role, he had already used the train more to commute than in his last three CEO roles combined. The next two questions looked at cultural shifts and the way roads are designed, as well as the issues over the cost of public transport. Laura Shoaf said Transport for West Midlands would love to set the fares, as they understand some people do consider this a barrier, but they can only do this for the Metro. There has been a high patronage of public transport in the Black Country when fares were reduced and this is something they’re keen to explore further. David Reid pointed that it is difficult to affect the price of fares because of regulation, but even the lowest of fairs can be too much for some and that is can be more than just connectivity and more about subsidising costs. Laura talked about how WMCA have put their limited resources where they can and have recently introduced half price fares for 16 – 19 year olds.
Due to time, questions were bunched together, with topics including provisions for disabled passengers, whether we should deregulate buses, the sustainability of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution, and whether there will ever be an integrated transport service which feels safe. Nick Barton talked about how heavily regulated the requirements for disabled passengers were, but that the airport would go above and beyond regardless.
David Reid commented that technology is advanced enough to offer some real solutions for improving access for disabled passengers but requires more co-creation and research. Phil Edwards from Birmingham City Council talked about how vehicles which were non-compliant with the Clean Air Zone, including buses, will be charged and that they are working on emissions from trains at New St Station but they it does need more investment which is unlikely to come from central government. Laura picked up on the safety question and talked about the innovative work of the Safer Travel Partnership, which does not happen everywhere. She also said that integrated public transport is the goal and the need to get car drivers to think about the true cost of ownership. Nick Barton talked about how seven districts own half the airport, with profits going to the WMCA, and that we shouldn’t undersell what we’ve got in this city.
Another set of questions looked at whether we could have a congestion charge in the city, whether Transport for West Midlands would commit to reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and whether the airport planned to reopen the loop from the East Midlands to Hampton-in-Arden. David Reid talked about the possibility to use technology to combine with things like congestion charges to work more smartly, like looking at time of the day people travel, which might allow us to challenge which journeys we want to discourage. Laura said there are a number of ways they’re looking at reducing the reliance on fossil fuels, namely congestion and idling cars. She said that they’re prioritising public transport, but that they have to keep things moving. They are also working with bus companies to shift to more environmentally friendly bus fleets. Nick Barton said that although he did not know about the train line, he would ask his senior management team.
Keynote from Shadow Transport Secretary
The final keynote of the day came from Andy McDonald MP, Shadow Transport Secretary for the Labour party. He talked about how air pollution was a major issue but the current government was failing to take the issue seriously. He felt central government were pushing the issue to local authorities without including the appropriate funding. He also said the current transport structures don’t work and wanted to see transport in the Midlands and North to match that of the South. Labour felt that more municipal buses would be better and Labour had pledged to support local authorities moving to this system.
Buses in Birmingham Transport
Councillor Waseem Zaffar was up next to present a brief look at the recent Birmingham Bus Survey, which saw over 6,500 responses. 4057 responses were from people who used the bus, 2943 of which used it frequently and 2457 didn’t use the bus. Whilst there was a whole host of reasons why people don’t use the buses, frequency was a common response, and the team intended to drill down on the data to discover more outcomes.
The final session of the day was a panel looking at the buses in Birmingham. Chaired by Alex Burrows, Director of Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, University of Birmingham, the panel included Councillor Kath Hartley, Birmingham Councillor (Ladywood Ward) and chair of the WMCA Transport Delivery Committee; Councillor Brian Parbutt, Nottingham City Councillor and Council representative to Nottingham City Transport Ltd; Ali Bell, Head of External Communications – UK Bus, National Express; Matt Rodda, Labour MP for Reading East; and Lynda Waltho, Regional Director, Confederation of Passenger Transport.
Ali Bell from National Express talked about the improved journey times and the high satisfaction amongst passengers, along with the success of the West Midlands Bus Alliance, which was working together to make positive changes. She felt this was a better option than deregulating as Birmingham City Council had left the alliance to get on and change things, rather than being too prescriptive. She also said that buses don’t get the attention they deserve nationally, but that they do in the West Midlands and that the mayor asks about them. Councillor Kath Hartley pointed out that four out of five public transport journeys are by bus in the West Midlands and that there are more people using buses than other modes of public transport, due to priority measures that have been put in place encouraging usage.
Nottingham City Council’s Brian Parbutt is chair of the bus company which is owned by their council and talked about how bus passenger users are typically likely to be poor and not have a strong voice politically, nor in the media as often journalists don’t use the bus. He praised Birmingham City Council’s Waseem Zaffar for focusing on the buses and said that buses need to be a bigger part of the transport story. MP for Reading East, Matt Rodda talked about the crisis in local transport and that current government is encouraging car culture. Funding for young people to use the bus would reduce the start of people being car drivers. He also talked about funding cuts since 2010, which has amounted to about a 45% reduction. Matt also felt that the success would also be integrating it with active travel so people could do things like walk to the shop and get the bus back, but that this would mean integrating public transport from the start.
Former black Country MP and current Regional Director for the Confederation of Passenger Transport, Lynda Waltho echoed the need to shout more about the buses, particularly given how loud the car lobby is and that within the media and MPs the focus is on trains and trams. She also talked about needing to work with what we’ve got by controlling the car, vans and lorries and they’re a big part of the problem. Bus usage is falling, but it needs the political will and to be practical about what to expect. Things in Birmingham are working up to a point, Lynda believes, and things can happen – she cited Councillor Waseem Zaffar taking on MPs in his own party over the Clean Air Zone and that the major bus companies in the area are on board because they were brought into the conversation early.
As with other panels, the conversations were grouped with the first set looking at free parking at hospitals, the marketing around bus users, getting local authorities to buy into buses by using the West Midlands pension fund to purchase shares, and the justification Highways England use to justify major road building. National Express’ Ali Bell said that the marketing might not be perfect but they were focusing more online than traditional billboards, with a lot of online marketing targeted to the under 24 year olds. Brian Parbutt from Nottingham Council talked about how he wrote the guidance on workplace parking and they weren’t allowed to include hospitals. He talked about major trusts in his area who charged drivers using levels of parking, with admin staff working office hours having less freedom than medical shift workers. Brian also talked about a free bus which starts at the Medi-Link park and ride scheme, and Nottingham’s workplace parking levy. He said it was easy for employers but that the problem was more that unrepentant car drivers would park elsewhere and that the real objective should be to want to discourage people wanting to park in the first place. MP Matt Rodda echoed this and talked about it being a wider issue that needed to disincentives car use. He also said there is evidence that suggests that young people who are heavy bus users delay when they learn to drive.
The next set of questions asked about making buses virtually free and how to improve Birmingham’s connectivity. Councillor Kath Hartley talked about seeing examples of free travel and that they have seen higher usage but a reduction in walking as a result. She believed the city needs to look at the parking policies but that this leaves to issues, and as the ward she represents is covered by the Clean Air Zone, they were having to look at things like residents parking, but ultimately it was about getting drivers to realise they have a responsibility for where they leave their car. Lynda Waltho thought the idea of getting councils to put their money where their mouth is by investing the pensions into shares in the bus company was a brave idea and something she would look into. She also talked about the frustration of buses having ticket machines which don’t talk to each other, which leads to a lot of confusion for passengers. Ali Bell from National Express talked about the free travel for pensioners, but said that a lot of the reasons people didn’t use this reflected the results of the Birmingham Bus Survey.
And with that the Birmingham Transport Summit came to an end. It had been a long and tiring afternoon, with lots of information and ideas presented. It will be interesting to see which ideas are picked up by decision makers and what will come of some of the ideas shared.