How the home of cars is transforming transport once more

Birmingham and the wider West Midlands region will be the site of the first Future Mobility Zone, but what does it mean, and could it set an example for the rest of the UK?

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The motorcycle, the bicycle and the car were developed and manufactured in the West Midlands. It seems fitting, then, that the area – which includes the cities of Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton – would become the UK’s first Future Mobility Zone, as announced by the West Midlands Combined Authority Mayor Andy Street at the 2018 Conservative Party conference – an announcement that is accompanied by £20m of Department for Transport funding. But what do transport officials have in mind when they talk about “future mobility”, and what effect would such a “zone” have on the day-to-day movements of those residing in the most populous region outside of London?

Mike Waters, director of policy, strategy and innovation at Transport for West Midlands, explains how the region is already racing ahead in faster 5G mobile connections, autonomous vehicle development and smart ticketing. Having carried out extensive research and trials in these smart city areas, the Future Mobility Zone is about “taking the best of that R&D and deploying that at some scale”. His team intends to create “genuinely seamless travel across modes”. In practice, this means creating a single, “best price” payment system across all legs of a journey, so that there is “one common underlying pricing structure and means of paying for services across everything from bike hire through to buses, trams, trains, taxis and parking”.

“Nobody,” Waters declares, “has really quite managed to put all of these components of the transport system together.” It’s also about connecting the transport system to the rest of the city’s infrastructure, by integrating the payment solutions with other public services, “be that leisure facilities, education, libraries”. One central source of journey information, similar to that offered by Transport for London and using travel data that Google and other apps don’t currently have, will be made available to users that will tell them exactly how long a journey will take, and the best route across all modes, “giving people information they can be utterly confident in when they need to leave”.

A payment system called Swift is already in use throughout all public transport in the West Midlands network; it has 200,000 regular users across the whole region, and is the second largest of its kind after the Oyster payment system in London. A priority for the West Midlands Transport Authority is to develop Swift further, to “build up the success of the information systems improvements we’ve put in place and the payment systems that underlie that”. Creating a Future Mobility Zone is a rolling project with no fixed end date, and as it progresses it will eventually turn its eye to more radical changes such as facilitating shared car journeys and developing autonomous vehicle services. The £20m injection from government gives the project an initial boost, but in the long term the authority will be seeking private investment.

In 2015, the West Midlands Combined Authority didn’t exist, and Waters believes that having the young organisation lead on infrastructure projects such as this brings together “all the leaders across the West Midlands with the mayor to provide a single voice [which] did not happen anywhere near as powerfully two years ago”. How can it be ensured that the whole area progresses, not just the cities? The very fact that it’s a region-wide body means “these benefits spread across all citizens,” he claims.

Creating a seamless public transport system is not an attempt to kick people out of their cars, Waters says, but to provide genuine travel choice “so that there aren’t second-class choices”. Currently, he explains, “there are many circumstances where people feel that the car is the only viable journey for them”. “I think in common with many large urban areas outside of London … you don’t benefit from that density of public transport that central London has” and “a car-free life is much more challenging”. His team is looking to tackle what he calls “inappropriate” car use. “The big problem is single-occupancy, short-distance car trips in peak periods using polluting vehicles.” Still, is it not a little risky a for Tory mayor with a slim majority to ask people to minimise their car use, in an area known for its love of cars? “There is no sense that there is a car-bashing agenda,” Waters responds. “It’s about making sure the whole transport system works in an integrated way.”

The initiative seeks to capitalise on a recent influx of investment in the region. “There are multiple billions going into the structure of our transport system,” explains Waters. “HS2 is delivering two stations in the area, through to ten new railway stations, rail line enhancements, capacity line enhancements, bus rapid transit, metro lines are going to treble,” and so on. This follows a prolonged funding drought: “It’s on the back of a sustained period of underinvestment, so yes, we are catching up quite aggressively … all of our city centres – Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton – are all almost unrecognisable from ten or 15 years ago.”

Looking to a smarter future, Waters would like this “new way of travelling” to be available across the country. “We don’t want a siloed West Midlands solution; this is not a parochial race …we already work closely with London, Manchester, and other major urban areas to make sure we are all working together to get a national-level solution.” Andy Street has said that “the Future Mobility Area will make sure the residents of the West Midlands can travel around the region as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible.” If he’s right, and people find that they are happy to leave their car at home, then the rest of the UK could follow suit. As Waters says, “ultimately, it’s an exportable, exploitable product.”

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.