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People-Friendly Places

In the West Midlands we’re rightly proud of our rich industrial heritage. Our region changed how the world moved – from the industrial steam engine, to bicycles, cars and even the jet engine – our highly skilled trades fostered exceptional levels of creativity and innovation and provided a sound economic base for prosperity.

Our economy now is more about people than things; we’re a fast-growing, young, and creative region and the next decade presents an exciting opportunity to pioneer, once again, in the way people move.

Global cities are fostering an important resurgence in cycling as transport. It’s important because we need to clean up our air and urgently decarbonise transport. It’s important because active travel provides a cheap and reliable mode of transport; supporting active travel is supporting social mobility and a more equitable transport system.

Visit the Netherlands and you’ll see that, come rain or shine, cycling is the primary form of transport for people. Whether they’re eight or eighty, it’s likely that their bicycle will be the first choice for most journeys. Over half of journeys in Utrecht are by bike while nationwide 75% of secondary school children cycle to school. And they’ll do all this using a bike originally designed in the West Midlands.

Change is hard. But in my job as the region’s first Cycling & Walking Commissioner, appointed by West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, showing the art of the possible to our communities in how we reshape our urban centres is going to be key. I’m a firm believer that people know what good looks like when they see it. I can’t imagine anybody arriving back from the Netherlands and saying: “I had a nice time but I wish there were more cars.”

In the next decade our towns and cities will start to become social hubs again, rather than through roads, and as we enable walking and cycling in local communities and reduce our car dependency, our communities can once again become places to stop and chat, fostering social interaction. Children might even be able to play in the streets again.

These changes seem bold, fundamental and challenging. Giving a view for the next decade feels simultaneously monumental and, when you look at the history of our cities, strangely insignificant.

Cities have been with us for thousands of years and have naturally been hubs for people to live, work and meet. They have overwhelmingly been places for people; hives of interaction between people, using the natural density to prosper socially and economically.

At some point, we lost sight of that and redesigned our cities around private motor vehicles. Some of our town and city centres are now through routes to get someplace else.

Sure, active travel can be political, but it is not party political. More than anything this is about providing people with the dignity of choice about how they get around. Many of our residents spend large portions of their income on buying, fuelling, taxing and maintaining their cars in the absence of genuine choice of transport.

Don’t get me wrong, cars are successful because they are brilliant in providing freedom. Even the Dutch agree with that – they own more cars per head than Brits. But with 41% of car journeys in the West Midlands under two miles – we are quite clearly using the wrong tool for the job in urban centres. Cars were a symbol of freedom, but that freedom quickly evaporates if everybody uses them for every journey, clogging our roads in the process.

To challenge the status quo, we need to be bold and we need to be supported by funding to do the right thing. The mood music from Government on transport is heading in the right direction and can enable authorities, of all political persuasions, to start to change the way we move for the next decade and beyond. Collaboration will be key and I stand ready to work with local leaders, officials and communities to embrace the opportunities that people-friendly cities will provide.

The Midlands has a long-standing history with transport and industry. An economy which once thrived on making things to help people move, now, more than ever, needs a rejuvenation not of mechanical engineering, but civil engineering, as we look for our city’s streets to adapt to the needs of 2022 and beyond.

And this change needs to happen now. If we need any more convincing, for every £1 spent on cycling infrastructure, returns of £5.50 are delivered, according to the Department for Transport’s own figures.

The West Midlands is a high-growth region with our population growing by one hundred people per day. If these people used the current make up of transport modes, we’ll have an extra eighty-seven cars on the road every single day. With the transition to electric cars making driving per mile cheaper, we risk increasing congestion by 51% by 2050, according to the Department for Transport. The cost of doing nothing is far greater than the political cost of bold and rapid change.

When it comes to space, bikes are best. Up to seven times more bicycles can travel in a 3.5 metre lane than cars during the same time frame. According to the Netherland Institute for Transport Analysis, a cyclist moving at 15km/h requires 5m2 in a city, whereas a single occupancy car travelling at 50 km/h requires 140m2 of space.

By focusing on people-friendly streets in this next decade, we can enjoy a happier, healthier and more prosperous region.


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