As a city which is the hub for several motorways, a centre for motor vehicle manufacture and site of the iconic Spaghetti Junction, Birmingham is undoubtedly associated in the public mind with the growth of road transport and modernist urbanisation in the 60s and 70s.
So the news revealed by Transport Network that Birmingham City Council’s public realm strategy will include plans for major pedestrianisation schemes, seemed to signal a step change in local transport policy.
The Council’s plans are supported by proposals for significant investment from a variety of funding sources with around £50m earmarked for public realm improvements. The distinctive thing about this strategy however, is not just that pedestrians are elevated up the road user hierarchy, but that to do so the Council is shifting priority to pedestrian flow and putting connectivity for people on foot at its heart.
Making our towns and city centres walking-friendly is not just about creating safe and attractive streets, but ensuring there are clear, logical routes which link key locations and transport hubs. London has one of the highest walking rates in England, but the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012 provided an impetus to help people get around easily and comfortably on foot to relieve the anticipated pressures on public transport.
The Legible London map scheme introduced what now total 1300 signs providing a wayfinding system with information on walking distances, public transport connections and landmarks.
The point is that walking routes which follow desire lines, don’t require endless waits at pedestrians crossings, that are accessible and safe, offer an advantage against other modes of transport. The short walk which takes you directly into the shopping centre or to the park, costs nothing and is actually pleasant becomes the preferred choice.
From his comments to Transport Network, Birmingham City Council’s director for planning and regeneration, Waheed Nazir, clearly acknowledges the economic imperative behind the plans and recognises that public realm investment can deliver a financial dividend, but there are wider potential benefits.
At over 25% of its population, Birmingham has the third highest rates of obesity in England estimated to cost the city £2.6bn pounds a year in NHS, social care and other costs to the local economy. The evidence for the health benefits of being physically active, even for just 20 minutes a day, is overwhelming, so encouraging and enabling people to walk more can only impact positively public health.
Birmingham City Council’s plans could be more radical than they first seem, but will hopefully set a paradigm for other towns and cities in the UK.