Monday, 4 July 2011

The Love Affair That Needs A Reality Check

Every love affair or long-term relationship needs a reality check every so often.
In Britain, we have our own very deep, very personal love affair. Ever since the internal combustion engine appeared into our lives, we've gazed lovingly at it, let it steal our hearts and decided it's forever.
The freedom the car brings to our lives is well-documented. It is a status symbol of a modern Western-World nation, even if motoring journalists conveniently forget the damage that traffic congestion brings.
I was reminded of this blinkered view on several levels during the past few days.
On Sunday it was my local town's carnival. The one day of the year when the High Street is closed to traffic. I rejoiced on Twitter.
Stourbridge is a lovely town. A town with unique and beautiful buildings, if you look above the usual shop fronts. A traditional feel, some may say, and a complete antidote to the bland, soul-less experience that is shopping at the local Merry Hill shopping centre, two miles up the road. Indeed, I now avoid Merry Hill if I possibly can because the experience depresses me. I'd much rather shop in Stourbridge.
But shopping in Stourbridge can also be a depressing experience.
Many of the "big names" have decanted to Merry Hill (even though the monster that is Tesco is coming soon)and the experience of walking down the High Street - which should be a pleasant one - is always one of awkwardness. Pedestrians are shoved on to narrow pavements in dogged deference to motorists, who cruise the High Street in desperate search of a coveted car park space.
On my radio show, I have often raised this issue. Why not pedestrianise the High Street, so that the much better experience we felt during carnival day was one that we could enjoy all year round? Other towns do it, and are so much better for it. Deliveries could be "out of hours". The consumer and pedestrian could again the King & Queen.
Many of the businesses won't have it.
On one level they must surely decry the decline of shopping in Stourbridge since Merry Hill opened its free-parking emporium. On the other hand, they doggedly refuse to consider making Stourbridge a delightful place to shop via pedestrianisation of the High Street. The car is King and access must be kept as close as possible at all costs.
Of course, I'm being a tad simplistic here. Stourbridge is awkward. The town centre is surrounded by a 3-lane Ring Road. Constructed towards the tail-end of the 1960s, it actually helps traffic move quite well, but it also acts to cut off easy access via public transport. Our bus station - currently being redeveloped - will still be on the wrong side of the Ring Road. The rail station is next door, but Victorian design saw that this is where it ends. Current economics and politics dictate that we won't see it go any further. Our revolutionary "Parry People Mover" railcar - an environmental delight that links Town and Junction stations - ought to be brought right into the heart of the High Street. Imagine that - street cafes with no cars and a small environmentally-effective railcar linking the town to the mainline rail station? It's something that would be given serious consideration by some of our European neighbours. Here,it's a pipe dream. We can't even get a surface-level pedestrian crossing from the bus station to the town centre (on the grounds of "Health & Safety", because we might confuse motorists on the Ring Road) - instead we shove people like rats into the underpass, a vile experience no matter how often the Council repaints it. And car parking is an issue, due to the restricted amount of space within the Ring Road and the aforementioned Tesco's appearance requiring the demolition of a multi-storey car park.
So a combination of pro-car thoughts dictates that Stourbridge will always struggle to reach it's full potential. I can't be the only potential shopper who would use the town centre more if the experience was much improved.
Something else caught my eye last week.
The New York Times ran an article entitled "Traffic Torments, By Design".
The main thrust of this was that whilst the yanks were doing all sorts of things to make motoring easier ("apps to help drivers find parking"..."synchronizing green lights to assist traffic flow"...) us Europeans are "creating environments openly hostile to cars".
London, with it's congestion charge, is the only UK City to make the article. The rest include Barcelona, Paris, Stockholm and Zurich. And the more I read about these "openly hostile" measures, the more they make eminent sense.
To quote some facts from the article:
- Cities welcome new shopping malls... but severely restrict the allowable number of car parking spaces.
- On street parking is vanishing.
- Pedestrian underpasses...have been removed (are you listening Stourbridge?)
- Operators in the City's tram system can turn traffic lights in their favour as they approach, forcing cars to halt.
And so it goes on....
But there is so much common sense in all of this.
In Zurich, a riverside pedestrian zone lined with cafes used to be two lanes of gridlock. 91% of delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work. A startling statistic, but oh so sensible.
Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, is 3 times the size of the Atlantic mall in Brooklyn but has only half the number of car park spaces. 70% of visitors get there by public transport.
And what about this for a quote, from Pio Marzolini, a Zurich City Official: "We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy. When I'm in other Cities, I feel like I'm always waiting to cross a street. I can't get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car".
And yet that's what I am, when I'm in Stourbridge. I am worth less than a car.
So frustrated last Thursday was I when on the bus leaving Birmingham City Centre at around 5.30pm, I vented my spleen on Facebook. Despite me attending and speaking at the annual Birmingham Transport Summit over many years, my experience as a public transport user in the City is as worse as it ever was. The precious little bus priority that we have in the City is simply ignored and not policed, the bus has no discernible advantage over the car. It's a very poor show. Remember, this is the City that actually REMOVED a bus lane in the recent past.
Maybe I'm being a little hard on Brum. There are plans, to be fair, to create a more car-free City Centre, and to have the Metro tram running through the heart. But the proof of the pudding will be in the riding of it. Will it be actively policed and motorists illegally in the Centre actively punished for being so? And let's also acknowledge that our European friends in places like Zurich have well-established public transport that works. Here in Birmingham, it's not so much about having a "long way to go" to achieve a decent comparison, but for having the political will to really step up a gear and give public transport the arena it needs to really shine and be effective. In Britain, the car lobby is still mightily effective and protective towards its own interests, however selfish at times, they may be.
In Germany recently, in the spot where I like to down my BitBurger and pork schnitzel, it was recently "Happy Mosel" day - a version of car-free day that is supposed to give the Mosel River and its many communities a day free of cars. I'm sure there were voices of dissent somewhere, but most people accept it and enjoy it, from what I can see. They took the opportunity in many towns and villages to have small festivals and carnivals. The beer was drunk, the wine tasted and a good time had by all. Can you imagine such a thing on such a grand scale here in Britain?
I'll state for the record again that I'm not anti-car. I have one, and I use it.
But the love affair us Brits have with our tin boxes does need a reality check.
Once again, our European neighbours are streets ahead with such thinking.

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