It was John Prescott who described Birmingham as a “motorway city” a few years ago.
Talking about his visits to China, the former Deputy Prime Minister said he had warned the Chinese “not to make the same mistakes as us in building cities like Leeds and Birmingham around the car.”
While his comments were hardly warmly received in the city, it’s hard to deny there was an element of truth to them.
If we could go back in time, it seems unlikely that city planners would make exactly the same choices all over again.
Bringing motorways like the A38M and M6 into the city, and building main roads such as the A38 and A441 to run through the heart of the city, may have seemed cutting edge once upon a time. The result, with hindsight, is that Birmingham can look like a city dominated by the motor car.
So it’s understandable, perhaps, that policy makers today are keen to play down the role of the car, as they plan the transport network of the future, and instead encourage the use of other forms of transportation.
That’s the context in which the Vision for Birmingham strategy, which we report on this week, should be seen.
There’s plenty about improving rail, bus, light rail and pedestrian links, but very little about cars other than a general aspiration of reducing car use.
It’s laudable that the council is attempting to promote other forms of transport, and it’s certainly essential that the city take full advantage of exciting developments such as the refurbishment of New Street station and the extension of the Metro light rail scheme.
But cars aren’t going away.
Many thousands of people drive to work and back in the city every day, and the question they need answering is how gridlock on the roads is going to be improved.
Perhaps we should declare an interest here, although it’s an interest that puts us in the same camp as many employers across the city.
The Birmingham Post is based at the Fort Dunlop building in Erdington and while it has excellent road connections – being right next to the M6 – there’s very little public transport nearby. Even the nearby Fort Shopping Park doesn’t have buses directly to the city centre in working hours, and passengers have to go via Erdington High Street.
Of course, we’re just one business.
But we’re one of many affected by the lack of reliable cross-city public transport in much of Birmingham.
Given that it’s not possible to go back in time and redesign the city, the car is here to stay. So Birmingham City Council needs to take that into account when it draws up transport strategies.
Indeed, measures to improve other forms of transport should be evaluated on the basis of what they will do to provide existing car users with a real, viable alternative because many motorists would be delighted to be offered that choice.