With nothing more elaborate than a few chairs and some cardboard steering wheels, thirty volunteers sat for a set of striking group photographs conveying a simple home truth about traffic congestion, one that the City Council and business community still don't seem to have grasped but which public transport users have known all along: that cars, not buses, are the reason Birmingham is the congestion capital of the Midlands. By spacing themselves out in the road to represent, first thirty single-occupancy private cars, then a single-decker bus with thirty passengers, the sitters were able to graphically illustrate the advantage of public over private transport in a dense, urban environment.
There are 27 million cars on the UK's road network compared with fewer than 200,000 buses, most of which provide an indispensable service to the 35 per cent of households in metropolitan city areas who, according to Department for Transport/National Statistics 2005, do not have access to a car. The Environmental Transport Association points out that a double-decker bus takes up one seventh of the road space of the equivalent number of cars, and yet it's buses that get the blame for clogging up our roads.
Since 1995, European Car-Free Day (also known as 'In Town Without My Car' Day), which falls every year on 22nd September and usually involves closing a part of a city centre to traffic for 24 hours and throwing a party in the 'car-free zone', has served to expose the environmental and social impact of, as well as promote alternatives to, our culture of chronic car dependency.
Much as we love our cars, in a big city like Birmingham the downsides of our relationship with the 'infernal combustion engine', – traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, dangerous and intimidating urban environments – can be all too apparent. And then there's the transport sector's ever growing contribution to global warming and climate change to consider: road transport is currently the source of around 22 per cent of this country's anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.
We all know we can and should be doing something about the problem, but for many of us it can be immensely difficult to break the car habit and find alternative means of making everyday journeys. But, in the words of the Tao-Te Ching, even the longest journey begins with the first step, and that's what Car-Free Day is all about. It's an opportunity for pedestrians, cyclists and commuters to experience a calmer, safer, quieter urban environment without heavy traffic for one day, and, just as importantly, to provide people with the information they need to make better choices all year round.
To be fair to Birmingham, the City Council did actively support Travelwise Week and held their own Active Travel Day on 25th September. Besides, the number of UK towns and cities officially participating in Car-Free Day 2005 was a miserable 16, compared with 43 in 2002 and, this year, 107 in the Netherlands, 265 in Spain, 276 in Austria and 23 even in tiny Lithuania, a country of 3.6 million people. But if Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol can close a street to cars for one day, why can't the powers-that-would-be fix it for the 'second city' to do the same? This is the local authority administration, let's not forget, that last year seriously considered resurrecting the abominable Super Prix, a legalised two-day joyride around the city centre which, last time it was allowed, turned Belgrave Middleway, Sherlock Street, Pershore Street, Bromsgrove Street and Bristol Street into a two-and-a-half mile glorified rat-run.
Happily, Car-Free Day 2005 was not a total washout in the West Midlands. Support events were held in Coventry, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull; Centro, the region's public transport promoter, extended its offer of a free Centrocard multi-modal day ticket to 1,350 motorists who had pledged to leave their car at home and travel to work by bus, train or tram instead; and the Environment Agency tempted its regional staff out of their cars with the promise of free treats from a 'breakfast hamper' to those who walked, cycled or took public transport to work. Staff at the Agency's Solihull office saved 1,235 car-miles between them.
Thank you to everyone who helped made this year's Car-Free Day a memorable one, especially Hannnah Rumsby for her excellent photography, and the staff at Teamworks Karting and the Bordesley Street Diner for the use of their premises. To find out more about Car-Free Day visit www.22september.org.