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WHY BIRMINGHAM NEEDS TO WALK THE TALK

08-02-2007

The chair of Birmingham Forward Dianne Benussi on why the city nees to put its best foot forward - and become more firiendly to pedestrians.

Traffic chaos, such as the logjam caused by the closure of St Chad's Circus, which I had the misfortune to get snarled up in recently, always grabs the news headlines.

Hardly ever, though, do you hear about pedestrian hold-ups. Yet they happen. As I walked to work through Birmingham's Centenary Square last week, the open-air ice rink was being dismantled and, as a result, the footpath had been closed and discarded barriers were strewn about, forcing people to climb up the steps of the Rep theatre to get past.

Meanwhile, the workmen responsible for the disruption were standing around smoking and chatting.

I have a growing suspicion that the needs of pedestrians rank the lowest on the city's rolling improvement plans. This is despite the efforts made over the past few years to make the centre more walker-friendly (filling in dingy subways, installing more pedestrian-only areas).

Picture this still typical scene: You've been working late at the office and you decide it's time to down tools and hot-foot it home. In all likelihood, you'll have to walk some way from the company building to catch your bus, train or Metro connection.

If your company is located in Birmingham's business quarter, then - according to several people who have contacted me recently in my capacity as chairman of Birmingham Forward - your walk will not be a pleasant one. You will pass through ill-lit, sparsely-populated passages and walkways.

The improvements made to Broad Street through the BIDS (Birmingham Improvement Districts) scheme are significant and have been widely welcomed, so it's great that the same street enhancements are to be applied to the city's business quarter.

Already the area looks more ‘alive' after dark than it used to, but little has so far been done to make foot-travellers tread more easily in their Guccis or sling-backs. It has to happen.

One business sector office worker told me of her fear when, as she was walking through the business quarter at 7pm one day, she was aware of someone following her and was convinced she was about to be attacked.

Thankfully, her anxiety was misplaced, but this woman's experience demonstrates that we, as leaders in Birmingham, must not rest on our laurels. Not only do we not want people to be attacked in the city centre, we don't want them to fear being attacked.

So what do we do about it? The most obvious solution is for every company located in the business quarter to buy into BIDS and for all those involved in the process to go on an after-dark walkabout in the area. It's not enough simply to drive through the streets to identify what needs doing.

To be an all-round successful city we must cater not only for the car drivers, but also for the thousands of employees who leave their offices on foot every evening and have to traverse our walkways and streets, not to mention the many locals and tourists who flock to the city centre at weekends.

In short, we need to make Birmingham user-friendly for all.

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