The unexpected joys of an unconference on transport

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Earlier this month I attended the second annual Transport Planning Camp, held in Manchester, which focused on addressing the climate emergency. I had never before been to an ‘unconference’ – for those unfamiliar, an unconference is a conference without predefined topics, where instead participants choose and drive the agenda – and I was a little wary of the open nature of the format. But honestly, it was absolutely brilliant.

The day started with everyone suggesting a session idea or topic for discussion by sharing this on a post-it note. These were then passed around the room and rated out of five, and those with the highest scores became sessions in the day’s agenda. There was such a varied collection of ideas and thoughts from passionate attendees that included organisations as diverse as local authorities, academics, transport consultants and environmental campaigners.

I wanted to take part in all of the parallel sessions, because they were all interesting and important topics! But I chose:

  • How do we get public support for tough decisions?
  • How do we avoid male, pale and stale?
  • Do we need new laws to tackle the climate emergency and what should they be?

Grasping the nettle

The first session’s discussion focused around how to encourage the public to accept difficult decisions and for me, there were a few key takeaways: We need to evidence why we are taking difficult decisions in order to address the climate crisis (and other challenges) and articulate this well, in particular, by explaining the potential benefits from changes in the long term. Creating a clear vision of a better future can help with this and showing how these tough decisions might contribute to heathier, happier, more liveable places can help. Community ownership of changes can also help to improve the acceptability of difficult changes, engaging with the community earlier and bringing them along on the journey.

Diversity in design

I’ve had plenty of discussions around diversity in transport in recent times, but this one was particularly energised by this video that had been doing the rounds on social media showing what a feminist approach to planning in Barcelona could achieve. And it demonstrates how because women tend to travel in more sustainable ways, using public transport and walking more often, ensuring that they are better reflected in the planning process could reduce the contribution of transport to the climate crisis.

It was great to share stories from different participants about their experience of working in transport and ideas about what works well. Most notably, measures that make our workplaces, and our transport infrastructure and cities, more inclusive, often make them better places for EVERYONE. We can foster kindness in the workplace (and the world!) and be good advocates for each other. I know in my own experience, when I am trying to make a point in a room full of men and struggling to be heard, when someone consciously makes a space for me it helps.

Legislating for change

Finally, we discussed whether we need new laws to tackle the climate crisis. And the answer seemed to be a resounding yes. Suggestions ranged from reforming current laws to ensure we meet targets, to more radical suggestions such as banning cars from city centres, banning fossil fuel vehicles soon and even banning all advertising! But there was a general consensus that we do need new policy and legislation to tackle the climate emergency.

I left the Transport Planning Camp feeling energised, which was good because I faced delays on the way home due to flooding. And that’s the point. Our transport system (and most of our other systems) are not only contributing to the climate crisis, they are not resilient to the impacts either. And the clock is ticking on our window of time to respond.

Dr Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

She is a co-author of the recent report Making the connections on climate

Another green transport world

swissrail

The weather is losing some of its British reserve. Changing from introversion to extroversion. Records are now there to be broken – and regularly. The hottest, the wettest, the most extreme. As the weather intensifies we need to expand the capabilities of transport infrastructure and its supporting built environment to cope.

We have a problem though – which is that we have already built our transport system. The wiring, the drainage, the track were built for a world that’s gone. Or as ScotRail’s Alex Hynes recently (and succinctly) told the Railway Industry Association’s Annual Conference in London last week: “The railway in this country can no longer cope because of climate change.”

Note that Alex is talking about now, not some time in the future.

This has massive implications for transport investment – implying that investment isn’t just about expanding capacity it’s also about making sure the capacity we already have can function as the weather becomes more technicolour and less monotone.

It also requires a different way of thinking about transport infrastructure. We need to make it spongier because at present we have too much rain bouncing off hard urban surfaces and then racing into drains (joining that which is pouring off deforested hillsides), to form implacable surges of flood water which overwhelm flood defences before submerging great tracts of land (and its transport infrastructure). As rainfall becomes more intense then this is going to happen more frequently.

In the heroic modernist engineering age the answer to this (as to most things) would have been to build more large objects and pour more concrete – in this case larger flood defences and bigger drains. It’s what the Netherlands used to do – but now things are changing. It’s always worth looking at the Netherlands, given how much of their country is situated below sea level (their water boards are one of the oldest democratic institutions on the planet).

Go to Rotterdam and they have built a huge water tank above the underground car park of Rotterdam Centraal’s rebuilt station to first capture, then hold and then slowly release excess rainfall. Within a short walk of the station you can also find water parks (which feature recessed areas which can be used to hold water when rainfall is intense), urban farms on spare railway land (which in normal circumstances would be wasteground), formerly buried watercourses opened to the sky and plenty of green roofs. The aim of this approach is not the traditional one of deflecting the water (with the danger that somewhere else takes the hit) but to temporarily detain it until the weather calms down.

Now there are clearly good reasons why the Netherlands is taking this kind of strategic approach to climate adaptation on rainfall. There are also some good examples of initiatives in the UK on adaptation and decarbonisation of the built environment (from Accrington’s eco-station to London’s eco-bus depot in West Ham). But given the scale of the challenge we also need to get more strategic – because as well as joining the dots on adaptation we also need to join the dots on climate between transport and energy.

Photo credit - Edmund Sumner.jpg

(Photo: Edmund Sumner)

It was very sobering to see a piece by Roger Ford in a recent edition of Modern Railways showing how disappointing diesel trains are on carbon emissions when compared with air travel. Most striking of all is that our main provider of long distance cross country rail services (the Voyagers) are only 50% better than a plane for a journey of London to Edinburgh dimensions. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands and Switzerland, because they electrified their rail networks to a far greater extent decades ago, they are better able to promote the hell out of its climate credentials today. They can do this with a clean conscience because their trains are powered by clean and renewable energy (in the Swiss case mostly by their own hydro power plants).

The public doesn’t really give a monkey’s in the UK about the corporate branding we use to sell train travel these days. However, people do care about the climate – and a proper climate strategy for public transport would be cracking on with electrification so we can sell rail travel on that basis. Electrification should also be part of a broader systematic national sustainability strategy for rail.

Again, as a comparator, the Swiss railways are part of a wider ‘Exemplary in Energy’ initiative which brings together the Swiss Government with key state-owned entities and major national and regional organisations (including Swiss Post, Swisscom and Services Industriels de Genève, a major utilities provider) who are working together to achieve a binding action plan to improve energy efficiency. The initiative comprises 39 joint measures in three action areas, plus a series of specific measures determined by each organisation individually. Among the energy measures the Swiss railway are taking include ‘green wave’ systems to give drivers extra information to reduce unnecessary stopping and starting and new tech that optimises when train heating and point heaters switch themselves on and off. The annual reports show how each of the organisations involved are delivering on their commitments. It’s this kind of transparent and coordinated approach which means you can market the sustainability benefits of public transport off the back of having its environmental credentials in order.

As well as taking a strategic approach to joining the dots on climate at a national level we also need to do the same at a city region level. In our new report on this topic we feature two cities that we think are ahead of the curve – Munich and Nottingham. We argue that one of the reasons they are doing more is a greater level of municipal control over both public transport services and utilities than is the norm in their respective national contexts. This means it’s been much simpler for these cities to join the dots on climate – as they can just do things rather than have meetings with other organisations with completely different priorities about maybe, sometime, never doing things. So already both cities are powering their public transport systems with renewable energy provided economically by their own energy company (trams in the case of Nottingham and trams plus the wider urban transit network in Munich).

Another green public transport world is possible and sometimes you get glimpses of it. Like Stockholm’s wondrous new tram-centric, eco-housing development at Hammarby Sjöstad or Berlin turning a redundant railway goods yard and an entire disused airport into parks, or travelling on trains powered by the turbines you can see from their windows. An optimistic take on the future goes like this. It’s about doing all the right things on transport, energy and the built environment – and doing them all at the same time. You are going to love it.

Download the report Making the connections on climate: How city regions can join the dots between transport, energy and the built environment.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

What is the scope for boosting bus use?

Double Decker Buses in Queens Lane, Oxford, UK

“How much have we as an industry put into research and development in the last five years? We’re getting worse, not better, and we have to change that.”

These were words from Brian Souter last year, emphasising that despite being the main form of public transport across the country, research and development in the bus sector remains relatively low. Much of the debate about what is driving bus use has instead been based on assertion and gut instinct. And lots of the money that should be spent on research and development is spent on spin instead.

Our new research programme, which we launched earlier this year, seeks to change that. The latest research from this programme (carried out by Transport for Quality of Life), has taken a rigorous approach by analysing a mass of data sets across England to find the combination that best predicts levels of bus use by local authority district.

The research finds that six underlying conditions, when combined, can be used to predict levels of bus use with 85% accuracy. This is what the report calls the ‘Intrinsic Bus Potential’ (IBP) of an area. Those areas with a high IBP could be considered “good bus territory”. So what are the six background factors that are driving bus use?

It’s no secret that buses are often a lifeline for the less well-off in society, and so the index of multiple deprivation is one factor. The proportion of households living in rental accommodation and the working population defined as ‘lower middle class’ are two other related ones. The number of students, the working population travelling between two and 20 kilometres to work, and rush-hour traffic travel times complete the six.

It’s important to note that individually these factors are not necessarily the most important determinants of bus use. However, when they are combined, they provide the best fit. Most, but not all, of the factors that combine to define good bus territory will not be a surprise to many in the industry – however the exact recipe for the secret sauce is still worth knowing. And a predictive power of 85% is impressive. The one factor of the six that is surprising, and somewhat counter-intuitive, is that places with longer rush-hour travel times (i.e. more congestion) are associated with higher levels of bus use. This rather undermines the frequent assertion from incumbent bus operators that the only thing wrong with bus services in the UK is congestion and lack of bus priority.

To be fair though it should be noted that longer journey times could well be a proxy for higher density urban areas and that the statistics are for traffic speeds in general (so do not take into account the existence of bus priority or not). However, even with that proviso the convenient obsession that the industry has with presenting the one thing not under their control, congestion, as the biggest determinant of bus use, isn’t supported by this data-driven analysis.

The report then goes further by looking at 25 areas where bus use is significantly higher than predicted by the six background factors. It’s striking that 18 of the 25 fall into five geographical clusters: London local authorities (five), Tyne & Wear districts (three), Nottingham and three neighbouring districts, Oxford and three neighbouring districts and Brighton and its neighbour Lewes. The other seven are Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Reading, Swindon, Crawley and Oadby and Wigston.

The research goes on to suggest some common reoccurring themes among these 25 areas which may have contributed to them outperforming their background conditions. These factors include higher levels of bus provision than the norm; a ‘pro-bus’ local context (defined as “where operators or the local authority (or both) have invested resource, research and development and management focus to ensure the bus ‘product’ is well-matched to the local market”). Other possible explainations are local factors, such as relatively low levels of commuter rail provision as well as a ‘halo effect’, in which some predominantly rural areas outperform their low intrinsic bus potential because they neighbour a city which is also out-performing. Examples here include the Vale of White Horse (which neighbours Oxford) and Lewes (which neighbours Brighton).

Bus regulation is a reoccurring theme, with a number of London boroughs outperforming their potential as London’s regulated system has allowed for high service frequencies, the introduction of a flat fare and the development of the Oyster card which speeded up bus boarding.

The final potential explainer is the maintenance of a culture of bus use. Nottingham is a good example of an area which has maintained the habit. In 1981 commuter share was among the highest in the UK for the bus (at 36%). In the last census it still recorded one of the highest bus commute mode shares outside London. Admittedly it was substantially down (at 21%) – but it was miles better than 9% in nearby Derby and 14% in Leicester. And take a look at Sheffield where the bus had a 41% share of rush hour trips in 1981. Now it’s just 15% in 2011.

Meanwhile, there are examples where a bus culture has been built more recently. For example, between 1991 and 2011, with bus regulation as the tool for service improvement, Hillingdon saw its rush hour bus market share increase. In short a bus culture is easy to lose, a job of work to maintain, and a major undertaking to build.

So what to make of all this? There are three headline findings.

Firstly, and disconcertingly, transport authorities and bus operators have no, or limited, influence over the background factors that best predict bus use, with four of the six factors being socio-economic rather than related to transport.

Secondly, the factors that correlate with high potential for bus use are most often found in urban areas, suggesting it is urban areas where the biggest absolute gains could be made in patronage.

Thirdly, there are common themes which can be found in those areas which outperform their potential. Some of these could be applied elsewhere, including a long term nurturing of a culture of bus use, something which is possible to build where it might currently be absent.

It is also somewhat scary that the research shows that even the most successful areas are only outperforming their intrinsic bus potential by relatively modest margins (valuable as that extra patronage is). And many of the outperforming areas are still experiencing absolute decline. So in other words even if every sinew is stretched to provide a quality bus service, the marginal difference you will make to what your geographical genetics dictate may well still not be enough to save you from continual patronage decline.

Or, to put it another way, the data is like a dead-eyed shark and it keeps coming at you. We are going to need a bigger funding boat! And for that to happen we are going to need to turn the recent welcome warm words on buses from our most senior politicians into a transformative new deal for the bus. That doesn’t mean tinkering at the margins, it means year-on-year simpler, enhanced and ring-fenced funding for bus. Otherwise the data shows that in too many areas the downward escalator on patronage will be going down faster than we can run up it.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.