The fewer cars there are in a city, the better that city is for people. They are bad for health and the environment, as well as being one of the most space inefficient modes of transport. It’s no surprise then that cities around the world are planning for what a car-free future might look like, and Birmingham is the latest to offer a proposal.
As expected, it’s proving controversial. The plan would limit private vehicle use in the city centre and ban through-journeys, instead directing traffic onto the ring road. One major argument against the proposal is that it would increase congestion by forcing all traffic onto the same routes. This at first sounds reasonable, until you realise that it’s the reverse of the flawed argument used to justify road expansions. If the number of people choosing to drive was constant, increasing road capacity would reduce congestion. But when roads become less congested, more people choose to drive, and soon enough you’re exactly where you started.
In the first few months of Birmingham’s plan it’s likely traffic will get worse, but when people realise this they will adapt. If the city makes the necessary investments in public transport and cycle infrastructure, this will result in more people choosing to travel by bus, tram, bike, or foot. The benefits of this go far beyond just reducing carbon emissions. Air quality will improve, reducing the 900 premature deaths each year linked to air pollution in Birmingham alone. Removing cars also makes cities safer and allows necessary traffic, like buses and ambulances to travel faster. Cities have also found increased spending at local businesses in areas where pedestrians and cyclists are prioritised. This could be invaluable as brick-and-mortar businesses continue to lose out to online companies.
In the next decade cities like Amsterdam and Oslo, that have already taken steps to reduce reliance on the car, must become the new normal. There will be resistance, and it won’t come cheap, but it’s the bare minimum of what’s required to future-proof our cities.