Back for the UN’s big climate summit in Glasgow, Rod Oram finds his hometown of Birmingham rapidly transforming its old car ways towards carbon neutrality.

Comment: Birmingham, the historic centre of the British car industry, is trying to tame the traffic clogging the city. To do so, it’s investing heavily in every mode of clean transport and many forms of urban design to help it become a carbon neutral city by 2041.

While these are challenges faced by every urban area in the world, Birmingham offers a crucial message for New Zealand’s low density, car-dependent towns and cities, particularly Auckland. Their modest, incremental spending on largely transport-as-usual will fail. Only big, fast investment in ambitious changes in infrastructure and modes will significantly decarbonise their transport and help make them climate-compatible cities. Even better, the price tag for mode shifts is affordable.

Birmingham and Auckland have similar populations, 1.3 million vs 1.6 million, while the West Midlands conurbation is home to almost 3 million. But their historic urban forms are quite different. Birmingham’s is higher density and already well-served by suburban trains and buses compared with Auckland.

Still, Birmingham, sitting at the heart of the UK motorway network, is car centric. Most famously, its 50-year old Gravelly Hill junction, 10km from the city centre, is a five-level, 12ha, tangle of 22km of elevated motorways and roads over two railway lines, two rivers and three canals.

It carries more than 200,000 vehicles a day. Even years before it was built, a local journalist dubbed it the first “Spaghetti Junction.”

Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction

The UK government is spending prodigious sums to try to reduce such traffic nationally. For example, it’s carving out a new high speed, high capacity rail line, HS2, from London to a completely new station in Birmingham, and then in later stages to northern England.

Building a new rail route through a densely populated country is costly. The budget has ballooned from £33 billion in 2012 ($65bn) to at least £108bn by official estimates. But the likely cost is much more – US$235m ($340m) per kilometre of track, according to calculations based on data from the Transit Costs Project at New York University. 

To tackle their local problems, Birmingham City councillors adopted on Tuesday a 10-year, £1.7bn ($3.3bn) transport plan they call “transformative.” It shows how much can be achieved for affordable sums. Its origins go back to 2019 when successive School Strikes 4 Climate – Birmingham has the youngest demographic of any European city – prompted the council to declare a climate emergency, and initiate a large suite of policies and plans for its Road to Zero (R20) programme.

Transport is just one of them, building on investments long underway such as extending the city’s newish tramlines. The biggest challenge though is the heart of the city. The central core has been increasingly pedestrianised over recent decades. But this attractive part of the city is tightly constrained by a bewildering inner-city network of multi-lane roads, underpasses and flyovers that largely cut off the centre from the rest.

The complete solution to this mess will take decades of investment to remake the form of the city. But behaviour and mode change can make an early and big contribution. A start was made in June by creating a Clean Air Zone in the city centre, with a daily tariff of £8 for cars and £50 for trucks and coaches. So far vehicle volumes have only fallen 5 percent to some 95,000 vehicles a day. But the emission volumes have fallen further because clean vehicles, which are free, now account for a higher proportion of vehicles.

While such shifts in transport technologies and modes are pitched to the public as ways to improve city life, there is also a big emphasis on cleaning up the conurbation’s unhealthy air under the wider West Midlands Air project.

Waseem Zaffar, the city’s lead councillor on transport, speaks from experience. His father, a taxi driver, died suddenly at 54 in 2009. His son was a union rep for taxi drivers before he was elected to the council.

“I often talk to [the city’s taxi drivers] about the impact of sitting behind the wheel for long hours and the damage that pollution has on health. This plan is about reversing their health inequalities too.” He is the Labour councillor for Lozells, one of the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

One-quarter of the city’s car trips are less than one mile. “We’re one of the original motor cities,” Zaffar said in an interview with The Guardian. To effect change, the wider central city will be divided into seven zones with all through traffic barred from them and diverted to the existing inner ring road.

The transport plan says the “allocation of road space will change away from prioritising private cars to support the delivery of public transport and active travel networks fit for a global city.” The city has, for example, 200 hydrogen-fuelled buses arriving in time for hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

“Introducing the blue cycling lanes was probably the most popular thing the council has done in a long time,” Zaffar said.

Birmingham’s bigger ambitions to become a liveable city draw in part on its industrial heritage. Even before the advent of the steam age in the late 18th Century, its innovators and entrepreneurs had begun building a deeper, broader engineering and manufacturing economy than any other British city. The West Midlands still has some 100 miles of canals, more than Venice. They are increasingly a feature of its urban regeneration.

Many of the city’s Victorian industrialists, such as the Cadbury family of chocolate fame, were generous philanthropists. Parks were among many of their gifts to the city’s life, education and culture. More than 8,000 acres of parks and green space, for example, make Birmingham one of the UK’s greenest cities, although many older and poorer inner-city neighbourhoods remain short-changed and bleak.

This natural, though human-managed, environment makes Birmingham one of the leaders in the global Biophilic Cities movement. Its members are bringing nature back into their cities in ways delightful, beneficial and scientific. Wellington is the only New Zealand member so far, though all our urban areas have abundant natural advantages that would qualify them as biophilic cities, if they chose to put that great advantage at the heart of their development.

Birmingham celebrates its history in many ways, of which just one is a gilded statue of three steam engine pioneers who were close collaborators – James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch – examining plans for a massive new stationery engine. Brummies call it variously “The Golden Boys” or “The Carpet Salesmen.”

As recently as the 1950s, Birmingham still called itself “the workshop of the world” – an epithet now held by Guangzhou, its sister city in China, among other industrial powerhouses.

At its peak a decade after World War Two, the UK car industry was the largest outside the US, with the wider Birmingham area its main manufacturing centre. Its subsequent decades of decline, bankruptcy and revival are even more tortuous and complex than Spaghetti Junction, that monument to the car age.

But to offer just a few strands of the local ­history and glimpses of the future:

– Longbridge, the massive car manufacturing complex in southwest Birmingham, which was the home to Austin and Morris, produced its last cars five years ago. They were assembled from car kits made in China and badged MG, a famous marque owned by SAIC, the largest Chinese car maker, since 2007. The only electric station wagon on the UK market so far is the MG5 made in China.

The extensive land of the old car plant is now in part a large shopping centre and housing development. It still has many acres of now bare land which could yet feature new technology innovation and manufacturing activities, its redevelopers hope.

– The Jaguar plant at Castle Bromwich, on the northwest side of the city, was established by William Morris, founder of the eponymous car marque, to make Spitfires during World War Two. It is now owned by Tata, the Indian industrial conglomerate. It’s being expensively retooled to produce only EVs, given Jaguar’s commitment to make no fossil fuelled cars after 2025.

– The Land Rover plant at Solihull on the southeast side of the city, which is also owned by Tata, is likewise being re-equipped to produce its first all-electric model in 2024. On current plans, some fossil fuel versions will last until 2036. The Jaguar Land Rover group is also building a big battery plant in the Midlands.

– Meanwhile, 120km southwest of Birmingham is Cowley, on the northern outskirts of Oxford. Morris moved his nascent car company here in 1912, and later this plant was the UK pioneer of Henry Ford-style production lines. The sportier versions of his cars, MGs, began in 1923 at Morris Garages, his retail premises on Long Wall Street, Oxford, running alongside the imposing 15th century boundary wall of Magdalen College.

Today, the Cowley plant is where BMW makes electric Minis, the modern evocation of the ground-breaking small car British Motor Corporation launched in 1959. It was designed by Alex Issigonis, who had also designed the equally famous Morris Minor in the late 1940s.

BMC was formed by the merger of Austin and Morris in 1952 by their namesake car pioneers. They hoped to scale up to meet booming post-war demand and to take on Detroit at home and abroad. Morris-badged Minis were made at Cowley, while Austin-badged ones were made at Longbridge.

Halfway between Longbridge and Cowley is Gaydon, a WWII aerodrome which in the early 1950s was the base for some of the UK’s first nuclear-armed bombers. When the RAF closed it down in the early 1960s, BMC’s successor, British Leyland, turned it into an advanced technology centre, incorporating some of the runways into its test track.

But British Leyland, which brought together much of the remains of the UK-owned car industry, failed in 1986, marking the nadir of the British car industry.

Today, the Gaydon complex and its test track is the headquarters of Jaguar Land Rover, with Aston Martin its near neighbour. The museum British Leyland founded is today the British Motor Museum.

Last Saturday, MG Car Club was holding a rally at the museum. I decided to visit, hoping a dip into history would give me a sense of the future. I did the modern car thing, using an app to book a hybrid car parked on street near my rental accommodation in the centre of Birmingham.

But the smart card I needed to access the car didn’t arrive by post in time. So I resorted to travelling by 19th century technology, updated. I used an app to find a train and book a ticket, and another app to pick up a bike hire at my departure train station a short walk away.

The train took me to Leamington Spa, then Google maps led me on a bike-friendly route through town and country for the 16km to the car museum at Gaydon. This included suburban streets, a long unpaved “green lane” flanked by hedgerows and ploughed fields, a stretch of the Fosse Way, a Roman road which is now a busy B road, and a country lane over the busy six-lane M40 running from Birmingham to Oxford. The old vehicle-jammed A41 it replaced is now a quieter B road past Gaydon and the museum.

Fosse Way
The M40 Motorway

The car park was full of immaculate MGs from the mid-1930s to current models, with their owners exchanging stories, technical tips and banter. To sound out the history and sensitivities of Chinese-made MGs, I talked with Peter Chalmers, who’d driven his Shanghai-made MG3 down from Scotland for the rally.

Peter Chalmers

Inside, the museum included cars that had gripped my young imagination in the 1950s and 60s, such as the three Mini-Coopers that had beaten Porsche 911s and other more famous and powerful cars to win the Monte Carlo Rally three times in the mid-1960s; and the gas turbine Rover BRM which was the highest placed British car in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1965.

Among historic production cars were, side by side, the so-called “Old No.1 MG” from 1925, the first production Land Rover from 1948 and the first Morris Mini from 1959.

Old No. 1, Land Rover and the Mini

Among familiar everyday cars on display were some surprises. One was a prototype small electric car British Leyland completed in 1970. Its low speed, meagre range and heavy lead acid batteries ensured it never went into production.

Crompton Leyland

It’s taken half a century for evolving technology, climate crisis and consumer awareness to make electric cars viable and essential. And even some diehard MG petrol-heads are thinking of becoming MG amp-heads.

But the real test for cities is to largely side-line cars by changing people’s travel modes and behaviour. That’s the great challenge the still-proud motor city of Birmingham committed itself to this week.

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