Big Issue Vendor

No more Brum Brum: Why Birmingham needs to end its love affair with cars

In the UK, one third of our carbon emissions comes from transport alone, with private cars the biggest contributor. Birmingham's new clean air zone is a step in the right direction.
The new clean air zone in Birmingham could change the city's smoggy skyline for the better. Image: John Garghan/Flickr

The Birmingham Clean Air Zone launched this week*, with plumes of (non-toxic) smoke puffing out of the Library of Birmingham’s chimney-like roof marking the occasion. The smoke is meant to represent the nasty nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions that will be cut when we clean up the air in the city.

The Clean Air Zone (CAZ for short) targets Birmingham’s dirtiest streets. For years, air pollution levels have breached legal limits across the city. Air pollution is a combination of different pollutants, but they are essentially tiny particles that we breathe in and then settle into our lungs, hearts, brains, and other parts of our bodies.

A number of studies have revealed the negative impacts of air pollution on human health. Just one example, a 2019 study found that, if unchecked, air pollution in Birmingham could shorten children’s life expectancy by up to seven months. Other studies have found these particles are causing all manner of harm, from low birth weight, asthma hospitalisation, right through to dementia.

Nitrogen dioxide is just one of the constituent pollutants of air pollution and contributes to respiratory problems such as asthma. Motor traffic causes 80 per cent of nitrogen dioxide emissions on the roadside so the best way to safeguard our health and reduce this form of pollution is to deal with the dirtiest motor vehicles, which is where the Clean Air Zone comes in.

The CAZ works the same way as London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (or ULEZ). There are clear specifications for which vehicles are ‘compliant’ and you can easily check online. If your vehicle is older or more polluting, it is deemed to be ‘non-compliant’, and you will be charged to drive inside the Zone.

We have already seen with the London ULEZ that the charge was enough to deter people from driving non-compliant vehicles to such an extent that nitrogen dioxide levels were cut by a third within the first year of operation. An overall trend that’s been observed with these schemes is that people either upgrade their vehicles, or – and this is the preferred option  – they choose to walk, cycle or travel by public transport instead. The result of these zones is clear: cleaner air, less traffic, and a lovelier city in which to live, work, or study.

As mentioned, in the first year of operation, the London ULEZ reduced pollution by one third. A recent survey by the Evening Standard found that over two thirds of Londoners were in favour of expanding the ULEZ to cover a wider area of the city. When you think about it, this isn’t too surprising: cleaner air means saving lives and securing the future of our cities for the next generation and people start noticing the difference once they’ve been introduced.

The aim of our Car Free campaigner at climate charity Possible is to see cities that are free of the dangers, pollution and emissions caused by mass private car ownership. But that doesn’t mean it’s a city with no cars at all. We recognise that there are many people, including disabled people, who cannot get around without a car, but reducing the number of cars in cities will make their lives easier too, by reducing traffic and improving public transport.

The current way our cities are structured also means that we are obliged to accept the harm that comes with cars whether we like it or not. While affecting everyone, it does hit some people harder than others: people living in the most deprived areas, areas with diverse communities, older people, disabled people and children are particularly vulnerable to toxic air. The great irony here is that car ownership is low among these groups so the pollution is completely out of their control – which is where local government, like Birmingham City Council, must step in.

In the UK, one third of our carbon emissions comes from transport alone, with private cars the biggest contributor. While the aim to reduce the number of cars on the road will help people lead healthier lives, it will also help the UK tackle climate change and achieve net zero.

Birmingham is a brilliant city and as it moves towards a brighter future, it can follow in the footsteps of cities that have taken bold steps in reducing air pollution. If you haven’t visited for a while, you’ll be amazed at how much has already changed for the better. The best, most exciting parts are already pedestrianised, with pavement cafes, art works and spaces to unwind within the urban bustle. Redesigned cities that prioritise people over private vehicles are essential in securing the health and appeal of our cities for the future, making them more pleasant and fun to be in and around. Birmingham has taken a major step in making its city more welcoming to people rather than vehicles – so come along and enjoy a breath of fresh air.

*with the charges delayed for two weeks

Sandra Green, Birmingham Car Free Cities campaigner with climate charity Possible