A couple of weeks ago I attended the Transport Summit at the council house in Birmingham. Whilst it wasn’t quite so full of middle-aged businessmen in suits as the High Speed Rail conference the week before, it still seemed a case of style over substance and trying to impress everyone with big flashy projects, rather than local transport improvements on the ground.
Councillor Gregory was first up and did make some of the right noises about low carbon transport, but there was an insistence that this was a “carrot not stick” approach. To me this misses the point, as he is not offering a carrot to cyclists, as there is a lack of safety for them on the roads of Birmingham, to public transport users whose buses get snarled up in the congested roads of the city without being given priority or to pedestrians for whom the pavements are often in a shocking state of repair, aren’t gritted and are often expected to cross busy roads without proper crossings or enforcement of speed limits to make it safer. Even though there is a pedestrian taskforce and I have heard good things of the meetings, there is little evidence of improvements on the ground.
Also notable was that he did not once mention cycling in the time he was speaking until a question was asked by John from Pushbikes at which stage he gave an answer that they had invested over a million pounds in cycling – really? I still remain convinced that he would rather bikes were kept off the agenda as much as possible, though.
There was much talk of the Camp Hill line and re-opening the stations that we have been campaigning for, which was encouraging in terms of the fact that we are listened to when public opinion is so strongly in favour, but short on substance of how quickly it can be done. With all the fervour about HS2 and “the opportunities” this brings (when it won’t open for another 16 years at least), I would really like some more urgency on getting rail sorted locally in the short term, not in another 10 years’ time. Unfortunately, he’d rather focus on glamorous projects like the “Gateway” project at New St, the new coach station (Mike Whitby called this the Selfridges of coach stations!) and HS2.
On buses, Councillor Gregory suggested that “the bus network works well”, which will be news to many people who suffer unreliable services and are unable to reach anywhere but the city centre with any ease. He instead blamed Birmingham’s climate and the fact that it rains here, which prevents people from walking to a bus stop apparently, for the fact that people still choose car over bus. Well, in my experience, it’s the waiting times and lack of reliable information at bus stops, anti-social behaviour on buses and fact that they get snarled up in traffic (making reliable journey times impossible) that puts most people off. Many people do use the bus, so obviously it’s not always that bad, but I’m not sure everyone would agree that perception matches Gregory’s claim that the safety record has improved dramatically and the operation to do this has been “highly successful”.
What he seemed to be most proud of was the PFI for the highway network, which he claims will bring in huge amounts of investment into this infrastructure, sort out all the problems with pavements and potholes. Generally, PFIs fall well short of what is promised, so we’ll have to wait and see on this one and I don’t see any point in commenting further at this stage.
There was also mention of a freight hub for distribution of good throughout the city and using canals for freight with waste carried along them too, as facilities are next to them. Promising projects, but there was not enough detail on those for BfoE to comment at this stage.
Len Gregory admitted that he would not be missed by many when he leaves his post during this speech and I for one will be looking for much more ambition from the next cabinet member for transport, to take Birmingham towards a low carbon transport future.