How a Belgian port city inspired Birmingham's car-free ambitions

(The Guardian, 20 Jan 2020) Ghent’s transformation produced shorter journeys, cleaner air and a cycling explosion.

Birmingham – once, proudly, the UK’s “motorway city” – has announced plans to entice people out of cars and on to bikes and buses. If officials get their way, the city will be split into zones, and, rather than driving direct, motorists will have to use the ring road for all zone-to-zone journeys.

Those travelling by foot and bicycle in the new Brum won’t be inconvenienced: their journeys will be simple and – with fewer cars – safer. With cars out of the way, bus journeys will become swifter and more reliable.

The Birmingham transport plan, launched last week, was influenced by Ghent’s zone-centred traffic circulation plan of 2017. This medieval Belgian city – a quarter of the size of Birmingham – demonstrated that it was possible to switch attitudes overnight. Streets were blocked to motorists one Sunday evening and – to the disappointment of the waiting media –there was no wailing, no gnashing of teeth, no gridlock.

Motorists have since found that, while their journeys are longer in distance, they take less time because there are fewer fellow travellers on the roads. Motor vehicles used to make up 55% of trips in Ghent – that number has now fallen to 27%.

Retailers and restaurants that had warned of Armageddon discovered that takings did not plummet.

“Actually the economic situation has improved,” says the Green politician who led what had been controversial changes. Filip Watteeuw, deputy mayor of Ghent, points out there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested”.

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The Guardian, 20 Jan 2020: How a Belgian port city inspired Birmingham's car-free ambitions