The follow up to the inaugural Birmingham began with delivering the first of the previous meeting’s asks, that representatives from Transport for West Midlands be represented. And they were, in the form of Hannah Dayan, the cycling charter co-ordinator and Deborah Fox, head of demand management for Transport for West Midlands. Sadly councillors Olly Armstrong and Liz Clements had been called away to an emergency meeting (unsurprisingly given the week’s news), but had asked that the session focus on action, as they recognised that similar meetings have existed in the past and wanted to avoid having the same conversations on repeat, and instead enact some change.
Hannah Dayan started the evening with a whistle-stop history of the West Midlands Combined Authority and Transport for West Midlands, looking at its values and determination to strive to be better every day. She talked about her role within the cycling and walking development team, a relatively small team within Transport for West Midlands, but determined to do some good for active travel in the area. She admitted there were some concerns about cycling and walking being linked together in this way, but that they were careful not to dilute the two and understood the importance of working with groups.
One group highlighted as having a real impact and enthusiasm was the cycling charter steering group, which works with lots of partners including Canal and River Trust, sustrans etc. Hannah also talked about the need to be more fluid and engaged with lots of groups, and when questioned about how Birmingham compared to Manchester, admitted that Birmingham has a lot of catching up to do because of its history, compared to Manchester’s existing network, and (predecessor to TfWM) Centro’s previous focus on public transport. But Hannah believes that by staying hopeful and looking at new initiatives which show the value of what they’re asking for, that there is real chance, particularly as organisations are looking at more innovative and collaborative ways to fund new schemes. David Cox, Cycling UK’s retired chair of trustees, pointed out that Manchester having previously focussed on Oxford Road was now working on the comprehensive and co-produced walking and cycling Bee Lines project, using the same pot of money that the West Midlands Combined Authority had chosen to spend on the tram. And that whilst there are some improvements in Birmingham, other areas of the WMCA are not faring so well, with the Black Country having poor provision for cyclist and Coventry’s decision to remove bus lanes signals going backwards in terms of space for cyclists.
Cyclist Ian Wacogne talked about a recent meeting with the WMCA Mayor’s chief of staff, Andrew Browning, in which they talked about funding for transport, and that money for the tram had been pre-committed to. Ian admitted that whilst it is an expensive endeavour it is not something that he would want to see stopped, but instead he believed that the second tranche of transport funding ought to be top-sliced for cycling. It is through asking for what we as a green travel, and specifically cyclist community, and keeping the mayor to account that Ian believes we will see some improvements, and questioned the links and influence Transport for West Midlands has over organisations working with a wellbeing remit. Hannah mentioned that they are in talks with some organisations looking at housing and regeneration, but that as a small team there is only so many ways they can reach out to people. But they are try and they do get there. She also impressed upon the group the need to respond to consultations, something her team does, and of particular importance of women and families, as cycling in particular is seen to be a male-dominated arena and they need to show a wider societal impact.
Politics came up again as a question with co-founder of Impact Hub, the venue for the Green Travel Open Project Night, Immy Kaur asking about the countdown to the second election of the WMCA mayor and whether as a community, we are influential enough to have real impact, or whether it needs to be bigger, and more diverse. David Cox mentioned a hustings for the previous election organised by a cycling group which saw one of the larger attendances and that the 5000 people who signed the Protect Brum Cyclists petition showed that as a group there is a way to make an impact, particularly as the mayor joined the slow ride which accompanied handing in the petition. Hannah commented that whilst the numbers of people cycling to work are relatively small, media perception is what politicians see and that there needs to be more positivity around this, particularly by widening it out and showing the impact of liveable cities and on mental health.
Before moving on to Deborah Fox’s session, the final question was about the age-old problem of collaboration amongst the WMCA area, with another comparison to Manchester, which seems more tight knit than efforts in the West Midlands. The answer to this is complicated, and many agreed that by rotating the meetings it would be unlikely that people would regularly attend if they were having to go to other cities within the area, but that other areas are having meetings and there is a need to develop a plan which is co-productive.
And with that it was over to Deborah Fox, head of demand management for Transport for West Midlands. Deborah started her talk exploring her perceptions of starting a role in Birmingham and being confronted with the very real issue of congestion in the city, and how even four months on she can still takes the congestion. Recognising that a lot has gone into the plan around congestion, particularly with all the large-scale building works in the city, Deborah said that she knew the people in the room got it, but with congestion causing a significant amount of nitrogen dioxide, it’s about convincing the people out there in their cars to understand the problems. This is particularly important as the higher levels of congestion makes bus travel less attractive and pushes more people into cars, but Deborah believed there is a real opportunity with younger people who are used to using public transport.
And with all that talk it was time for action, with the group being tasked to think about issues and solutions for model residents in the WMCA area to use more green travel. Whilst the audience were split into several groups, there were a lot of common themes, particularly around awareness to pollution and whether it’s something that needs to be talked about more, and if schools could teach about air quality. The hope was that by educating school children it might encourage them to hold their parents to account, particularly around modes of transport to school but also around things like dangerous driving. There was also a lot of talk about trying to rebalance things so that it was made harder to drive and easier to walk, cycle or use public transport and some small initiatives like zig-zag lines on either side of school roads might be one option to consider. Deborah particularly commented on the idea of flexible working, which she thought was an interesting idea and wondered how many employers offered this and if this is something which could be encouraged.
To finish it was a look to the future, with 2019 looking like a great year for green travel in Birmingham. A number of strategies are due to be released, including the Clean Air Strategy, which will go beyond compliance, the Local Cycling & Walking Infrastructure Plan and the Birmingham Bus Survey. There are also a number of green travel related summits planned, including the Living Streets’ National Walking Summit, the first time it will be held outside of London. And of course the Birmingham Green Travel Open Project Night will be organised for a third session – date and time to be released shortly.