Safe and sustainable… but currently unattainable

Rebecca Fuller, Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group (and my manager), recently wrote this brilliant piece about how transport planning has historically been built around the ‘default man’. Meaning that the considerations of many have been ignored including women, those with complicated journey patterns, disabled people, those who travel encumbered – the list goes on.  

One thing I have been thinking about recently is how safety affects my journey planning as a woman. And how my fear means that I can’t or don’t always choose the most sustainable transport options, even though I want to. I recently moved house and I am in the process of adjusting my travel habits to both accommodate this move and the ‘new normal’. For example: 

Last week I went to a friend’s city centre flat in the evening. My first instinct for this journey is to cycle, but do I feel safe on the roads at night? Will I feel safe unlocking my bike in town after dark? What about public transport? I feel pretty safe on the bus, but the walk to and from the bus stop and waiting for the bus, I’m not so sure. So, I’ll probably end up in a taxi (though I don’t always feel safe in a taxi, it usually feels like the least bad option). If I had the option to, I would probably drive. That said, car parks have long felt like unsafe places to be at night.  

This is all to illustrate that safe and sustainable journeys are inextricably linked. I don’t feel safe making my journey in the most sustainable ways. 

Some statistics by TfL, DfT and YouGov which were highlighted in a recent Transport Network article illustrate that I am not alone in these fears:

  • More than half of women in London are victims of sexual harassment on Tube, trains and buses 
  • 62% of women are scared walking in multi-storey car parks 
  • 60% are scared waiting on train platforms 
  • 49% are scared waiting at the bus stop 
  • 59% are scared walking home from a bus stop or station 

So what can we do about it? 

When I was a student at the University of Leeds, I was impressed by the work of the Student’s Union to help people to get home safely. They run a night bus, using a minibus, which will take students home from the Union for £1. This is a great example of how simple, affordable demand responsive transport can support people to get home safely. I’m sure there are many other examples of schemes like this one, but it demonstrates to me that bookable, door-to-door services might help to support people to make travel plans that don’t rely on the car but still feel safe.  

I often think that what we need is more flexibility as a whole. So I might feel safe walking somewhere in the day time, while it’s still light and busy. But maybe I need a different option to get me home at night. And if those options are not easily available, affordable and safe, then driving becomes the default. 

Earlier this year the Government published a strategy for tackling violence against women and girls. As part of this, our Chair Laura Shoaf (CEO of West Midlands Combined Authority) and Anne Shaw (interim MD, Transport for West Midlands) were appointed Transport Champions for tackling violence against women and girls. They are working with campaign groups, advocates, industry and government to identify areas for improvement.  

We need this kind of action at the highest levels of government and innovative solutions at a local level to tackle the issues of women’s safety and travel patterns. Because without dealing with this, women will not be empowered to make the travel choices they want to, including making their journeys in the most sustainable ways. And this will be a barrier to women’s freedoms but also to achieving our decarbonisation targets and having a healthy, active population.  

On a personal level, I would like to feel safe to make the travel choices that align with my values, particularly in minimising my environmental impact. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. 

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

Funding and a finely balanced future

Now that the dust has settled from Comprehensive Spending Review, it’s becoming easier to see through the smoke and mirrors and work out what actually happened. The question people often ask is ‘is it new money?’. And ‘is it more money?’. All depends on what you are comparing it with. Which previous year’s actual spend are you looking at and which projections of which spending review are your starting point? It is especially tough to come to a firm conclusion when old funding streams are replaced by new ones (who can say how much would have been in the old funding stream if it had been continued)?

What we can say is that DfT did better as an ‘unprotected’ department than it has at recent blockbuster fiscal events. Like other unprotected departments the better than expected economic forecasts have fed through into spending. But it still depends on what your comparison point is. For example, revenue spend is still projected to be lower than it was in 2010/11 in real terms. However, capital spend is much higher than it was back then. But a high DfT capital budget has been the case for a while given pre-existing commitments to HS2, investment in the rest of the rail network and a bloated national road programme.

What we can say for sure though is there was good news for mayoral combined authorities which benefitted from capital spending packages (City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements) which were at the upper end of expectations, at the upper end of what those city regions were asked to bid for, and more than they were getting under previous comparable funding streams. By bundling up what were formerly separate funding streams into a single longer term funding stream there is also now greater certainty which allows transport authorities to plan and deliver schemes more efficiently and effectively than with fragmented, stop-start funding. It will also mean significant capital investment in active travel, in light rail systems and in buses (bus priority and greener buses in particular).

We asked for longer term, consolidated funding for local transport (to bring it more into line with the longer term funding deals that national roads and rail already enjoy) so that’s a tick in the box. It also provides a base to go further through revitalised Local Transport Plans which we are told will be refocussed around carbon reduction. This would also be a positive step forward. It makes sense for transport authorities to have single transport plans – and they were only sidelined in the first place due to the constant quest for policy novelty that comes with a constant churn of ministers and advisors in a country as centralised as this one.

Now for the not-so-good news. The funding for transforming bus services in England is a lot less than was expected and indeed as was pledged by the prime minister. We were expecting £3bn of transformational bus funding to deliver on the bus strategy’s aspirations. To increase service levels where there are bus services. To provide new services where there aren’t. To make buses greener and to cut fares. Our members were asked to submit ambitious Bus Service Improvements Plans to government by October 31 in order to achieve those objectives. However, instead of the £3bn, we have £1.2bn for transforming bus services (plus over half a billion for zero emission buses).

his is still a lot of money – and an increase in dedicated bus funding from what was available before. Plus, there is more dedicated funding for bus for the mayoral combined authorities in the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements. The problem is that given bus networks and bus use were declining pre-pandemic, and that the pandemic delivered a further hammer blow to a struggling sector, even £3bn wouldn’t have been enough. Not enough for every part of the country to make their bus networks cheaper, denser and greener – given it would be split by capital and revenue, by 79 English local transport authorities and over three years. To give a sense of the level of spend that would have been needed Bus Service Improvement Plans submitted by larger urban areas were often of the order of £1bn. If it was a big ask of the promised £3bn to meet the objectives of the bus strategy in full, then the reduced levels of transformational funding now available for bus (particularly revenue funding) definitely won’t be enough to achieve those aspirations.

On top of this, the cost of keeping public transport running every week is higher than it was before the pandemic – because patronage is lower than it was before the pandemic. These costs are likely to rise further due to inflation and rising labour costs (as bus operators raise wages and conditions to attract and retain drivers). The government is providing welcome recovery funding for both bus and light rail to the end of the financial year. But it is uncertain whether this recovery funding will be enough (it’s based on projections on patronage which may prove to be optimistic) and it is uncertain what will happen after April 22 when patronage is still likely to be less than it was pre-pandemic. All of which could mean that money meant for improving services could be eaten into in order to either maintain the status quo or control the rate of decline. In short, the prospects for the bus remain fragile.

What else did we learn from the spending review? The ‘save the Union’ project is a significant driver of transport policy. A big enough priority to outrank decarbonisation where necessary (as we saw in the Air Passenger Duty reduction for domestic flights). The ‘save the Union’ project overlaps with the prime minister’s enthusiasm for big transport infrastructure and probably also contributed to keeping a zombie national road building programme lumbering on – though with some limited scaling back.

The spending review showed that the government also continues to rely primarily on tech fixes for the decarbonisation of transport and certainly doesn’t want to be seen to raise the cost of motoring. So, the fuel duty escalator is suspended again – whilst there is substantial investment in zero emission cars.

The tougher decisions necessary for modal shift and decarbonisation are deferred; in particular a fundamental realignment of the relative cost of private and public transport. However, away from the Comprehensive Spending Review and other big government policy documents, it’s a fact on the ground that environment focussed charging schemes are now becoming a more common feature in urban areas as more and larger charging air quality zones come on line. Meanwhile various think tanks (including the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change) are on manoeuvres, rolling out the pitch for road user charging for when the Treasury is ready to make its move on this (which it will have to at some point as more of the car fleet goes electric).

And outside of the game changer of road user charging, Number 10 is very clear that they see City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements and Bus Service Improvement Plans as a way of accelerating the transition of more road space from private cars to space for people on foot, on bikes and in buses. The vote of confidence for further light rail investment and expansion in the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements is also encouraging.

Overall, the future for public transport is finely balanced, with perilous balance sheets thanks to Covid and the relative costs of using private and public transport skewed the wrong way. At the same time there is a capital funding base to build on, road space allocation slowly gaining favour, and the climate crisis contributing to unparalleled political support for the idea of modal shift. We are also starting to see more of the tough decisions being taken (like charging zones). Perhaps it’s the extent of that boldness on those tough decisions – both nationally and locally – that will swing it one way or the other.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Transport planning beyond the default male

There is little doubt that – consciously or not – our transport networks have traditionally been designed for men, by men. Specifically, men who are white, able-bodied, unencumbered by children or other loads, men who are simply trying to commute into work and back again, otherwise known as the ‘default male’. The needs of women, parents and children – or indeed anyone outside that template – are all too often given scant consideration, if they are considered at all. 

Evidence of the ‘default male’ is everywhere in public transport – the poorly lit route from the railway station; the limited space for buggies and wheelchairs; the impossibility of dropping the children at school and making it to work on time; the lack of space to comfortably stow shopping on the bus; the convoluted and lengthy journeys between suburbs that would be a cinch by car; the narrow pavements; the lack of taxis with infant seats. 

For a long time, as a female user of public transport – and latterly as a parent – I accepted these inconveniences as simply how things were. I had internalised the need to be constantly vigilant, to avoid certain routes, certain people, to keep myself safe. I muttered, embarrassed as my buggy tipped over on the bus, due to the weight of the food shop teetering precariously on the handles, having no other place for it to go. I resigned myself to taking two buses each way to take my children to play dates in other parts of the city. How annoying that this seat is not comfortable for my body, that I can’t reach the overhead luggage rack on the train. 

Things crystalised for me when I came across the work of Caroline Criado-Perez, and her book ‘Invisible Women’. All those inconveniences and compromises formed a pattern. It opened my eyes to the gender bias not just in transport, but all around us, and that it doesn’t have to be this way, we don’t have to put up with it. We can change it – men and women together.  

Perez is keen to point out, that often this male bias is not intentional. It can simply stem from a lack of knowledge, a lack of data, about how other people experience the world and what their needs are. Few would deliberately set out to exclude people. To begin to illuminate these blind spots, we must shine a light on the rich diversity of people’s experiences.  

This is one of the goals of ‘Gender on the Agenda’ a webinar series that we are sponsoring alongside Mott MacDonald. Hosted by Landor LINKS, the series aims to explore gender in relation to transport and planning. It recognises that, as a sector, we have a responsibility to recognise, respond to and overcome the challenges that the current system presents to women (and indeed others who don’t fit the ‘default male’ mould) to create networks that are accessible, safe and attractive for all. 

The fundamental connection between transport and social inclusion has been a key focus for us at the Urban Transport Group over the years. The extent to which transport meets the ‘4 As’ – is it Available? Affordable? Accessible? Acceptable? – is crucial in determining people’s level of access to opportunity. The webinar series is a chance to examine those aspects through the lens of gender. 

Two sessions have been held to date, one on why transport is not gender neutral and one on how technology and innovation can support inclusive mobility. The next, taking place on 23rd November, will explore making streets and public space work for everyone. More will follow in the coming months.  

So far, two themes have come out very strongly – the need for better data, and the need for better representation.  

In respect of the former, it is no secret that the current transport network is set up to support the idea of the male bread winner, commuting into the city and returning home. The work of Ines Sanchez De Madariaga, who spoke at the first Gender on the Agenda event, made it clear that women’s travel patterns are much more complex.  

Women are more likely to trip chain. They are more likely to have primary caring responsibilities for children and other family members, for example, an elderly parent in another suburb. They are more likely to be responsible for the logistics of food shopping, escorting people to medical appointments, to clubs and activities. Madariaga describes this as the ‘mobility of care’ and, taken together, these trips exceed commuting trips. And yet commuting trips are what our transport networks are planned around. We need to get better at making these trips visible, valuing them, and making them count in transport planning terms. We also need to better understand people’s lived experiences.  

These are issues we would like to explore further as UTG, examining, for example, what data we collect as a network, what is valued in appraisal, what gaps exist and what this means for what transport solutions are prioritised and who benefits or misses out as a result. 

The second key theme is representation. Having worked in transport for 13 years, I have seen first-hand that our sector is dominated by white, able-bodied men, particularly at decision making level. Women account for just 21% of the transport workforce. It is an issue that our members are keenly aware of and one which we’re working together on by, for example, sharing good practice and developing practical tools and resources. A more diverse workforce brings different perspectives, new ways of thinking beyond what we and ‘people like us’ have experienced. Ultimately it means we can provide the best possible service for the communities we serve.  

It is worth highlighting that this is not a niche issue – women account for half the population. It is a serious problem if our transport networks don’t work for them, even more so given that women are more likely than men to rely on public transport and walking to get around. We hope that the Gender on the Agenda series will throw a spotlight on women’s experiences and how these can be better represented and accounted for. It’s time to move beyond the default male – will you join us? 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group