Protect the night-time economy and its workers from Clean Air Zone double payment – and do a Feasibility Study of Fare Free Public Transport

Musicians who work in Birmingham’s night-time economy are rightly complaining that the Clean Air Zone time period ends at midnight, which means they’d often have to pay double because gigs and packing-up run over. The Trades Council recently passed their resolution calling for the Council to  change the time period to start and end at 4am.

Of course the midnight time limit will penalise lots of workers and users of the night-time economy, not just musicians. Westside BID manager Mike Olley has come up with another solution to make the CAZ charges fairer – workers and visitors could use an online pre-booking system (like the one which is currently in use at the Council’s  tips) to book an extended time slot.

These are sensible, fair and practical proposals which the Council needs to take on board straight away. But it’s only a first step to tackling pollution. The city will still be full of cars. The real solution is their replacement by a much better –  and free to use – public transport system. This is not pie in the sky. Already dozens of towns and cities in Europe and even the United States have largely or fully fare free public transport – FFPT.

Below we reprint the recent article on FFPT on the CANWM (Climate Action Network West Midlands) Facebook page.

BIRMINGHAM’S CLEAN AIR ZONE (CAZ)

The city has a big air pollution problem. This is mainly caused by carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide (NOx)  and particulate matter emissions from buildings and surface transport. There are other sources such as the Tyseley incinerator. This is unacceptable and must be rapidly and radically reduced.

The Clean Air Zone, which comes into operation on June 1st, aims to tackle NOx and particulate matter within the A4540 ring road by excluding old and dirty-engine vehicles traveling within the city centre area. The strategy is deterrence, by charging vehicles for crossing the ring road boundary.

There are mitigation measures in place to financially compensate drivers of old or inefficient cars that do not have the economic means to upgrade their vehicles, however CANWM considers that these could be improved. For example, musicians performing in the city centre would need to pay the charge twice as they leave their venues after midnight, the cut-off point.

The CAZ was ordered by central government, but when it was subject to consultation by the city council, there was a majority in opposition. It was stated at the time by a leading councillor that the consultation was not a referendum, and that the CAZ would be going ahead anyway.

The introduction was delayed by the Covid crisis but is now going ahead next month. There is some evidence that the initial hostility to the CAZ has softened, but that is not now the central point; it is going to happen.

CURB ALL AIR POLLUTION

The CAZ aims to cut NOx and particulate matter pollution from surface transport in the city centre. It is a worthy aim of course, but the main question is why this scheme is not being extended to the whole of the city, and why it does not include measures to curb the carbon dioxide emissions? (28% of the city’s CO2 total come from surface transport).

The NOx and particulate matter pollution are irritants to human lungs, contributing towards respiratory problems and hundreds of excess deaths each year. However, the carbon dioxide emissions are the main cause of global warming and are deadly to human and other life on this planet. These also must be curbed.

The most effective way of dealing with both types of pollution is to remove most vehicles, essentially private cars, from the road across the whole of the city. Some should be retained for specialist use, such as for mobility for disabled people, but most need to go.

Electric vehicles produce no CO2 or NOx emissions at the point of use, but they do still contribute particulate matter from tyres and brakes. Moreover, there are large carbon emissions involved in their production, and if widely used they would require vast amounts of electricity. At present, using fossil-fuel-sourced electricity in large quantities could not be avoided. At best, these expensive vehicles provide a partial solution to the problem.

FARE FREE PUBLIC TRANSPORT

The only real answer to the city’s air pollution problems is to introduce a Fare Free Public Transport (FFPT) system. This would be the biggest incentive for people to dispense with car use, of whatever type or age. When FFPT has been introduced elsewhere, in Tallinn – Estonia and Aubagne – France for example, there has been a curbing of car use and an uptake of public transport. Over time, these schemes have more than paid for themselves, by causing savings elsewhere.

A major investment in public transport, to ensure that buses are frequent, safe, reliable, and free at the point of use, with its routes being extended and serving as much of the city as possible, is the best response to the city’s air pollution problems; for CANWM it is the way forward. The scheme would also apply to local trains and trams.

We should note that trams are more accessible for disabled people than buses and trains, yet the cost of installing new tram routes is extremely high and involves a lot of carbon-emitting cement wok. A compromise needs to be reached where buses and rail stations are upgraded to make them accessible, as well as free, for all.

CONCLUSION

The CAZ is at best a partial solution to the city’s pollution in a small part of it. Alongside increased provision for cyclists and walkers, and upgrading, extending, and electrifying our current bus system, a much better policy is to introduce a FFPT system, and one which is extended to the whole of the West Midlands Combined Authority area.

Such an investment would create many desperately needed jobs, as well as curbing pollution, congestion, delays, and accidents. Post-Covid, FFPT would be a much more social arrangement and would also be a powerful way of tempting people back onto public transport.

We call on the Birmingham City Council and Transport for the West Midlands to initiate feasibility studies with a view to introducing such a scheme.

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