Making the case for transport authorities

“Underneath all the commercial activities of the board, underneath all its engineering and operations, there is the revelation and realisation of something which is in the nature of a work of art … it is in fact, a conception of a metropolis as a centre of life, of civilisation, more intense, more eager, more vitalising than has ever so far been obtained.”
Frank Pick, the first chief executive of London Transport (December 1935).

At a recent UITP meeting of mostly European transport authorities it was revealing how much in common many of those attending had. We were in the 80% club (patronage plateauing somewhere in the 80% range of pre-Covid). Our national politicians simultaneously (for climate and cost of living reasons) want better public transport, but (for Covid deficit reasons) also want to reduce financial support. In addition, national governments are increasingly dropping fares cuts initiatives from the sky without having thought through the rationale or how they will be funded. All of which means that budget crunches are coming for many transport authorities with little sense as yet of how they are going to be resolved. The wide-ranging consistency in these immediate challenges was the background for the launch of a new Urban Transport Group/UITP report that makes the case for empowered transport authorities for metropolitan areas as the best vehicle for tackling challenges like these.

A big part of the case for metro area transport authorities is that they map on to real travel, cultural and economic geographies, at a scale whereby they can develop capacity, expertise, reputation and corporate memory. This allows them to deal with the bad times (like Covid or fiscal squeezes) as well as be ready to move quickly to capitalise in the good times (for example, when there is the political will for traffic restraint or public transport expansion). More widely they are also best placed to make the inevitable trade offs that will need to be made (given finite resources) on service provision and investment without bias to one mode or another or one sub-area or another.

Critically too, although they need to be fiscally responsible, they also have a public interest remit. It’s not just about the bottom line – it’s also about making the places they serve more prosperous, fairer and greener. All of this also gives them a spur to innovate, which they are too rarely given credit for (in the UK, for example, it’s transport authorities who were ahead of the private sector on everything, from low floor buses, to Oyster and zero emission buses).

The job that transport authorities have had has never been easy but the report argues that it has now become more complex and difficult than ever. Not so long ago a bus was a bus, a tram was a tram and a bicycle was a bicycle. Now there is both blurring of the edges between the modes (from tram-trains to e-bikes) as well as a growing range of new formats for mobility (such as e-scooters) and new business models for their provision (such as Bolt). At the same time, in fits and starts, vehicles are becoming more connected and autonomous as well as greener and cleaner.

And that’s just one dimension to the growing complexity. More widely we live in an urbanising world, putting incredible pressures on those cities which are growing fast in terms of resources, energy, housing and transport. We also live in a warming world where we need to both deal with the consequences and slow down that warming. All of which means that the professional sectors dealing with energy, transport and the built environment can’t continue to inhabit separate silos. For example, you can’t have electric buses without green energy infrastructure and you can’t fully decarbonise transport without decarbonising transport’s built estate.

So what are some of the key contemporary challenges that both existing and potential transport authorities are facing in the second decade of the 21st century and how are they doing it? Here’s four:

Let’s start with where we came in – funding. Transport authorities can find ways of blending different and new funding sources because they can earn the trust needed to do so through scale, capacity, capability, and track record. There’s a very wide range of mechanisms for doing this which transport authorities round the world are already using. Land value capture and property development is big in South East Asia whilst in the US local taxes on everything from fuel to mansions are widely deployed. There are big tech solutions like road pricing in Gothenburg (used to fund a new cross-city rail link) to more prosaic parking charges in Sydney. Given the squeeze on national budgets from Covid, metro areas are going to need to raise more themselves – and empowered transport authorities are a good vehicle for ensuring the proceeds are wisely spent.

On climate there are difficult choices to be made around how to balance spend on reducing carbon emissions with improving climate resilience. At the UITP meeting where the report was launched there was a presentation from Paris on the vast programme of works being carried out to protect public transport from the increasing risks of a major flood, which could take out much of the Metro for an extended period. Transport authorities are in a good place to make the difficult decisions about how much to spend on expanding the network compared with protecting what’s already there from climate risks.

On fairness and social justice, because of their wider public interest remit, there is an expectation that transport authorities should be pioneering ways of ensuring that both their own organisations and the decisions they make reflect the full diversity of the areas they serve. New York’s MTA is one example of a transport authority doing this in practice through its concerted efforts to ensure more of the contracts it lets go to women and minorities-owned businesses (the most successful programme of its kind in the US).

On new technologies, mobility and business models the job of transport authorities is to balance consumer benefits with protecting the wider public interest. The classic example of this is where new entrants flood the market with a new mobility format (such as dockless e-scooter or bike rental offers), which some travellers respond to positively but which can cause wider safety and urban realm issues in relation to use and parking (for example, for disabled people).

Singapore is a good example of how a transport authority can take a sophisticated and agile approach. The Singapore Land Transport Authority’s approach to new forms of mobility and business models is to ‘turn disruptions into opportunities’ by creating a regulatory framework which is flexible and facilitative to allow businesses to thrive. But the LTA is also not afraid to act decisively where necessary, including on requiring data and on clamping down on excesses in the dockless bikes market when operators wouldn’t do it themselves.

At their best the sum of a transport authority is far more than the parts. Reflecting the quote from Frank Pick at the start of this article, they can reflect and enhance the identity of the places they serve through being the respected custodians of their design traditions (from the Montreal Metro to London’s red double decker buses) and by maintaining a strong and consistent corporate identity. They can also support public art and cultural events and provide wider civic and commercial leadership in the investment, procurement and organisation decisions they take. In short, they can add to the allure of the places they serve for visitors, investors and residents.

Transitioning to a fully empowered transport authority can be difficult where one doesn’t currently exist – as inevitably it will take on powers currently held elsewhere. Without strong political backing a stepping stone approach may be needed, but the case for transitioning is stronger than ever. And as the world becomes more uncertain and the challenges facing urban transport become more complex I hope this collaboration between UITP and UTG can help provide those considering the future governance of their urban transport networks with the arguments and evidence they need to take the next step.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine

Menopause in the workplace – breaking the taboo

For several years, the Urban Transport Group has been promoting initiatives to support our members to recruit and retain a diverse workforce, including in relation to improving gender balance in a sector that has typically been male dominated. Part of this involves looking at how organisations manage people, paying attention to health, wellbeing and inclusion, and creating work environments that engage people and enhance their performance. Supporting women through menopause is at the heart of employee health and wellbeing, gender equality and economic participation of women. 

Women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the UK and many of these women will be going through menopause transition, coinciding with the point at which they are at the peak of their careers with an abundance of skills and experience to offer. However, menopause is still often a taboo subject, despite the fact that approximately 13 million women are currently either peri menopausal or menopausal in the UK. 

Research by BUPA shows that almost one million women have left their jobs due to severe symptoms representing a huge loss of potential – the taboo around menopause must be broken. 

The issue has raised a lot of media attention recently with celebrities like Davina McCall and Radio DJ Jo Wiley openly talking about their struggles, to MSP Collette Stevenson and MP Caroline Harris calling for an end to the stigma and debating the issue in Parliament on World Menopause Day 2021. 

And, knocking on the menopause door myself, I am increasingly aware of the issues that might face me in the very near future. So that is why I was keen to suggest UTG discuss menopause with our network and open up the discussion to raise awareness amongst our members. 

To that end, we held a webinar on supporting staff going through menopause.  

Speaking at the webinar was Dr Sarah Hattam from ConcilioHealth who imparted her in-depth knowledge and expertise and Gurdeep Bhogal and Hayley Magorian from Transport for London who presented on their Women’s Staff Network Group Menopause Hub. 

So, what exactly is menopause? If you look on the NHS website, it explains it is the period when a woman’s periods stop due to a drop in hormone levels and lists just five symptoms. But it is more than mood swings, hot flushes and night sweats. The full list is quite a lot longer than that. In fact, a total of 35 symptoms exist, including anxiety, depression, low mood, low self-esteem, brain fog, migraines, fatigue, increased body fat, bladder and intimate area problems, and more. 

However, not everybody struggles, and it doesn’t have to be a hassle. Something that can really help is for employers to provide some basic adjustments and do those well. And looking at all policies through a menopause lens is key. 

Dr Sarah highlighted four things employers and managers should do… 

  • brush up on the facts 
  • ask colleagues how they are 
  • keep an open mind and be flexible 
  • make adjustments 

…and some things they should not do… 

  • Don’t make assumptions about what colleagues need 
  • Don’t break confidentiality 
  • Don’t be embarrassed to mention the M word 
  • Don’t offer medical advice (unless you are qualified) 
  • Don’t forget non-binary or trans individuals 

Next it was time for Transport for London to provide some inspiration as to how to put these into action in the workplace. 

Gurdeep and Hayley presented on their Menopause Hub set up by their Women’s Staff Network Group (WSNG). 

The Hub was launched in January 2022 after Hayley was inspired by World Menopause Day in October 2021. She realised that a huge gap existed, and colleagues did not have a safe space to discuss these issues. 

The hub is a monthly forum run by WSNG volunteers, on the last Wednesday of each month. It is open for people to share experiences and seek support. It provides a safe space; community; support and advice; awareness raising; opportunities for allyship; and overall positive cultural change. The more menopause is normalised, the more the taboos are broken. The Hub has produced a phenomenal amount of engagement amongst staff. 

Hearing about this Hub really excited me and I wished I could join myself. I was so happy to hear that so much progress has been made in bringing this issue out in the open and supporting so many valuable members of staff. 

Five takeaways 

  1. Women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic  
  1. Menopause can start at any age but the average is between 45-55 years 
  1. Menopause is much more than a hot flush or night sweat 
  1. There are easy things employers can do to support their staff 
  1. A bit of inspiration goes a long way 

I think we really hit onto something in opening up this topic as the response was incredible. We had record numbers listening and so many questions. People are hungry for answers and information, and I am glad we could help open up the conversation. A massive thank you to Dr Sarah Hattam for her wise and reassuring words and advice, and to the TfL team for daring to dream! 

Saila Acton is Office Manager at the Urban Transport Group 

Cost of living crisis – what will the impact be?

In Germany you will be able to buy a pass for all regional and local public transport for nine euros a month for each of June, July and August

Is the cost of living the new Covid in terms of the impact it’s going to have on patronage and travel trends? If it’s too early to say yet what the medium and long term implications of Covid will be, then that’s certainly true of rising energy prices and all the other inflationary pressures. But let’s speculate anyway.

Usually a squeeze on living costs leads to a squeeze on discretionary travel. In other words a squeeze on the very leisure market that has been seen as public transport’s best hope for growth. At the same time the cost of living crisis could lead to a modal shift to public transport – if the public transport price is right. If it isn’t, then electric cars and push bikes could be the main beneficiaries.

Whilst the Department for Transport has focused on encouraging people to make one-off cheap, discretionary long distance rail trips (via its recent sale of discounted advance purchase fares), other countries have gone for something more universal, more bread and butter. In Germany you will be able to buy a pass for all regional and local public transport for nine euros a month for each of June, July and August. Yes you read that right – nine euros on any public transport vehicle (except the very fast ones) for a month. Northern Ireland has frozen public transport fares and the Republic of Ireland has cut fares by 20%.

There could be fares cuts on a more patchwork basis in England too – given that there is Bus Service Improvement Plan revenue funding available for that in some areas. Mayors too are pressing for simpler and cheaper fares. However, it could well be a mixed picture with different modes doing different things at different times – as well as fares rising elsewhere (and often from a high base).

On the other side of the coin the cost of living crisis could also deter measures to raise the cost of motoring as the politics of doing so gets harder still.

Also in the mix are the key post-Covid trends that have still to play out. Concessionary travel remains well below what it was pre-Covid with Covid concerns and changed habits likely factors. The return to the office remains sluggish as the private and public sectors continue to wrestle with where their new hybrid ways of working should land. And as the return to the workplace continues will there be more combining of leisure and work trips as people add on nights out and shopping to the working day? If travel and patronage trends are uncertain then so is the funding. The last tranche of Covid-related funding expires at the end of September – before BSIP and City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement funding kicks in (for those places that get it). It clearly makes no sense to cut bus networks one month and try and build them up again a few months later – so will there be a way of bridging the gap? All in all a messy picture – but that’s the world these days.

Return to Planet Freight

Seven years ago I paid a visit to Planet Freight for one of these columns (PT104) off the back of a report we produced called Delivering the Future – new approaches to urban freight. Then I asked if freight is from Mars is public transport from Venus – given the different policy worlds they inhabit. So in seven years what’s changed and what hasn’t?

Seven years ago freight worked on its own terms (stuff got where it needed to be) even if at the same time it didn’t work (lorries kill cyclists and pump out carcinogens). Overall though it worked well enough (and in a commercial and adaptive way) for the downsides to be brushed under the carpet and for government to largely leave it alone. However, last year freight suddenly stopped working so well. The driver shortage meant that stuff didn’t always get where it needed to. This has benefited railfreight which needs rather fewer drivers to move the same tonnage.

Rail freight’s fortunes rise and fall largely with the fortunes of the bulk commodities that it relies on. With King Coal dethroned, aggregates and containers have been taking its place. And yet this still continues to leave many large urban centres and markets devoid of any rail freight whatsoever. For example, Bradford is the seventh biggest city in the country yet it has no active rail freight facilities. This is partly because in the UK railfreight is mainly about a few companies battling it out on cost over who gets to move bulk freight, whereas in countries like Switzerland and Germany they are still investing to ensure that there are more places where you can move smaller amounts of freight by rail. Which in turn helps explain why rail has a much bigger market share for freight in those countries than in the UK.

Over the same period London broke ranks and stopped tolerating the collateral damage from having an ‘efficient’ road haulage sector. Despite the crude ‘lowest common denominator’ opposition of the trade bodies for the sector, London has pressed on with ratcheting up both vehicle standards and enforcement of safety and emissions. The rapid acceleration in the availability of green, safety and logistics technologies is also helping the sector clean up its act (especially for the larger players), however the degree of illegality in the industry remains shocking. In 2018/19 the percentage of Light Goods Vehicles issued with a prohibition on mechanical grounds was 49%, and 70% for overloading. Operating illegally is not only dangerous, it is also unfair competition given the high safety standards that rail adheres to.

Meanwhile, the white van economy continues to grow (further supercharged by the pandemic) – not just for deliveries but also for trade. This in turn has led to several air quality zone plans running into trouble as the costs of making the growing battalions of vans compliant has collided with the politics of not doing so. The rise and rise of the van also has implications for the battle for road capacity and kerb space – something which the bus sector also has an interest in of course.

Driver shortages (people don’t want to spend their nights sleeping in a lorry cab) mean relying on road haulage to the extent we do now looks less practical (and as environmentally unwise as it ever was). This big change in the dynamics of the freight debate makes the case for a more interventionist approach (to freight). Especially given that the kind of nudges we have seen in the last seven years haven’t been enough to move the dial sufficiently towards the less intrusive, greener, skilled and safer sector that is increasingly the norm elsewhere in the economy.

An interventionist approach that would move that dial would have two main elements. Firstly, investment in the capacity of rail freight and inland waterways (including in terminal and distribution sites). Secondly, making road haulage pay its way in terms of its wider safety, road maintenance and environmental costs would help make it safer and greener but also make rail freight more competitive on price. It could also help further accelerate the booming cycle logistics sector. And it could also make economic what currently isn’t – which is more urban freight consolidation centres to reduce the volume and impacts of deliveries by road in urban centres. Perhaps the biggest difference in seven years is that the debate about freight and logistics has opened up more. It is no longer an afterthought at the end of wider transport strategies. But there’s still a big gulf between passenger transport and freight – big interventionist policies on the former are the norm – but not yet on the latter.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

The article first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.