Transport accounts for 37% of all energy consumed in the UK. But it’s no surprise when you consider there are more than 32 million vehicles on the road. With energy prices on the rise and the long term sustainability of petrol now under serious threat, there is a pressing need to revolutionise transport in Birmingham. That could start with a genuine cycling revolution – improving health and wellbeing in the process – and greener and better connected regional public transport.

The problem

Projected population growth and continued industrialisation mean that the demand for oil will continue to increase at record rates, just as oil production begins to go into an exponential decline. This massive mismatch of supply and demand will inevitably push petrol prices upwards, exacerbating energy poverty in Birmingham.

More than 1.5 million vehicles passed through Birmingham in 2013. Such high volumes of traffic are bad news for the environment: for instance, up to 530 people could be dying every year from air pollution-related conditions. And the city also has one of the worst records in the country for road accidents. Four people are injured on the region’s streets every day. In the last three years there have been more than 1,500 accidents involving cyclists, including 12 fatal and almost 300 with serious injuries.

Whereas in progressive cities, such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, nearly 70% of journeys are already made by bike, Birmingham Council’s supposed “cycle revolution” sees just 10% of journeys being made by 2033. And despite a recent £81million investment in public transport in the region, just 15 of the 300 new buses it has funded will be more environmentally friendly hybrids. By the time 2033 rolls around who knows what the state of the energy market will be? This means much more ambition is required.

The solution

Reducing the amount of traffic on Birmingham’s roads is an obvious way of lowering air pollution levels and the number of traffic accidents. That means investing in cycle friendly routes that connect the whole of the region; not just canal tow paths and parks. It also means setting much more stringent targets for public transport providers to green their fleets.

Birmingham Council could drastically improve its cycling targets by making them as ambitious as those in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. And if people are going to switch from cars to bikes, they need the confidence to ride on Birmingham’s roads safely. That means greater investment in road safety measures, more cycle lanes, and wider use of 20mph speed limits across the city and its suburbs. In addition, there is an opportunity to better utilise urban space by reducing the number of car parks to discourage people from driving into the city centre.

There is a considerable challenge ahead for greening fleets and improving the overall transport infrastructure. It calls for greater political and social pressure on companies like Centro and National Express to invest in green, sustainable technologies. Fully electric motors could conceivably replace conventional diesel and even hybrid technologies. And biofuels, produced from waste materials, may help with the transition by providing a shorter term improvement in emissions of polluting carbon dioxide. Availability of electric charging points throughout Birmingham would also provide incentives for people to choose electric over conventional petroleum cars in the future; particularly as they become more affordable.

Many car drivers will inevitably resist these measures, so entrenched is the car in Western culture. It is up to us to stress the individual responsibility of citizens to change their behaviour, while articulating a healthier, greener, safer and less congested urban environment as the ultimate reward.

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