How will the National Infrastructure Assessment shape the future of urban transport?

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When the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was established back in 2015, researchers such as myself took note. This non-ministerial Government department is charged with producing a key document, the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). To be published once in every Parliament, the NIA will analyse the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs for the next three decades, including transport, and set out recommendations for how these needs should be met. What’s not to like?

I was therefore delighted to be invited to a recent ‘Future Cities Transport’ workshop, hosted by NIC and the Institute for Transport Studies (ITS Leeds). With topics such as ‘addressing urban transport pressure with a sustainable vision for future mobility in cities’ and ‘how we better integrate transport and housing’ on the agenda, this seemed like my kind of workshop!

The aim of the workshop was to test and hone the NIC’s thinking prior to the publication of the NIA this summer. Bringing together national, regional and local policy and decision makers, with academics and Commissioners, the event was a high profile opportunity to hear about the forthcoming assessment and feedback into those plans – with participants asked to respond to questions from the organisers.

So how might the NIA shape the future of urban transport?

We’re unlikely to know until we see the full document later this year, but a number of aspects from the discussions and the presentation of the NIC’s vision for transport were particularly refreshing to hear.

Bus was highlighted as a key component of future urban mobility, which is deeply encouraging as this mode of transport is often overlooked. Despite recent rapid declines in patronage, 70% of public transport trips are made by bus – as we outlined in our recent ‘Number Crunch’ report, which explores some of the trends emerging in travel behaviours.

There was a lengthy discussion on what can be done to increase the attractiveness of the bus, with consensus emerging around the need for better integration with other transport modes and improvements in information for users.

 

National Infrastructure Image workshop

Another interesting dimension was the discussion around autonomous vehicles, which – rather unusually given the usual focus around tech – was framed in the context of sustainability. The point was made that autonomous vehicles need to be electric (otherwise we’ll be replacing like for like) and that they should feed passengers into public transport networks rather than replace them. Sensible thinking.

Connecting housing and transport is another key aim of the NIC, along with improving wellbeing through high quality placemaking. And it was good to hear that the NIA will be considering the potential interactions between its infrastructure recommendations and housing supply. These connections are something we at the Urban Transport Group will be taking a closer look at in the coming months, in our forthcoming report about Transit-Oriented Development.

There’s undoubtedly further thinking to be done between now and the publication of the NIA, but it should help to set national strategic priorities for government, while ensuring that projects and decisions remain devolved to local and regional governments. And we’ll be on hand to further analyse those transport recommendations once they’re available. Until then, I’ll have to wait patiently.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

We need to talk about vans

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Van traffic is the fastest growing section of road traffic. There are 3.8 million vans registered in the UK, with these vehicles now representing 15% of all motor vehicle traffic, compared to just 10% 20 years ago. There has been an astonishing 70% increase in van mileage over the last 20 years and the Department for Transport’s road traffic forecasts project further growth in the future. What’s more, vans are increasing in numbers in city regions too. Our new report White Van Cities explores some of the key questions, challenges and options on the rapid rise in urban van traffic.

Knowns and unknowns

A van is defined as a vehicle weighing under 3.5 tonnes. These can be small vans, not much bigger than a car, through to large ‘Luton style’ vans.

While we know that van traffic is increasing, there is a lot that we still don’t know about vans, including:

  • Who owns and operates them – though we do know that 51% are privately registered and 47% are registered to companies;
  • What they are being used for – there is limited data on van journey purpose; and
  • How fully loaded they are and what is in them.

We do know that increasing van traffic impacts on a range of policy issues and challenges in our city regions. These include:

  • Congestion – as increasing urban van traffic can exacerbate existing congestion problems;
  • Air quality and carbon emissions – given the majority off vans are diesel fuelled;
  • Urban realm – as cities seek to prioritise people over traffic;
  • Safety – even though vans tend to be involved in fewer accidents per mile than other vehicles; and
  • Data and technology – which could help to maximise van efficiency.

Leading by example

Addressing these issues in the context of rapid growth of van traffic can seem challenging. That’s why our new report highlights some of the leading best practice case studies which are seeking to address this issue.

Transport for London have a number of schemes in place to mitigate the negative effects of traffic in the city, including vans. The Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003, charges vehicles £11.50 a day to enter the zone between 7am and 6pm. This is now supplemented with the T-Charge for the most polluting vehicles; for vans this costs an additional £10 for those earlier than Euro 4 standards. The Ultra Low Emission Zone is also being introduced from 2019, covering the congestion charging zone, and will levy further charges on vans. These schemes will encourage fleet managers to switch to lower emission vehicles and re-time journeys, thus improving air quality.

Fleet managers, in both the public and private sectors, are being encouraged to switch to lower emission vehicles. UPS now uses electric vehicles for many of its delivery routes in central London. Leeds City Council has shifted to electric vans for their fleet vehicles. This improves local air quality and builds public awareness of alternatively fuelled vehicles.

Given that 63% of vans stopped at the roadside have serious mechanical defects and 89% are overloaded, there are safety issues. The Freight Transport Association (FTA) runs a ‘Van Excellence Scheme’ which helps to promote improved safety, and its ‘Van Excellence Code’ sets out a code of practice, covering areas such as behaviour, licensing and maintenance.

Dealing with the growth in van traffic can seem challenging, especially as vans contribute to valuable economic activity in our cities and because many of the causes of van growth remain under-researched. By setting out options and approaches for managing the growth in van traffic, and presenting a number of areas for further potential work and research, we hope our collective understanding of increasing van traffic can be greatly improved.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group