Six to watch on urban transport from the new Government

Early days but here’s six to watch that could be early indicators of the long term direction of the new government on urban transport. 

1. All the political big names love buses these days – if they can’t claim blood relatives in the industry they are making models of them in the evening. True love means long term commmitment though and if bus decline is going to be turned upside down then we need to see the bus get a bigger slice of the transport funding pie. So all eyes on the spending review to see the extent of reform and of any funding increase. We show how every pound of bus subsidy brings multiple benefits for departments across Whitehall here

2. Lots of talk both pre and post election on ramping up on devolution (and even talk about significant local government reform). But will Whitehall now really take the plunge and give up on its ability to pull the strings and take the credit? Particularly crucial if we are to see the ramping up of investment in transforming local transport in towns and cities will be getting some longer term stability on local transport funding. At present there’s excessive reliance on ad hoc competition funding which overall is inefficient and wasteful. Separate new funds for potholes, electric bus towns, cycling, superbuses, future mobility etc all make sense in their own terms. But they don’t make much sense if you are trying to plan local transport networks as a whole in an integrated long term way over time. What happens early on with local transport funding could set the tone for years ahead. 

 3. Talking of devolution we can now expect to see rail reform following on from the Williams Review. The PM has been strong in speeches about handing over more control over local rail networks. However the Williams Review team (as part of what is probably the most DfT captured of all the recent rail reviews) could hardly be more cautious – if not borderline negative. How this is resolved is key to whether or not metro areas are going to get the fully integrated, London-style urban transport systems that the PM has said he wants to see (more on this at the end of this piece). There’s more on the case for rail devo here.

4. Not so high profile, but rumbling along in the background, are government moves to establish a legal and regulatory framework that can cope with new mobility options, such as the transformation of the PHV sector, powered personal mobility devices (including e-scooters), connected and autonomous vehicles and so on. Urban transport authorities don’t want the overarching technical safety role but they do need a legal and regulatory framework which gives them the ability to strike the right balance in their areas between consumer benefits and the wider public interest. Between ‘sandboxing’ innovations and taking action if flooding of cities with new mobility options is causing wider problems such as for public safety, congestion or street clutter.

5. Post election everybody is talking towns. Good job last year when everyone else was writing very similar repetitive reports  about cities we put together the one and only report on how transport can help post industrial towns thrive. In short there are no magic bullets – it requires attention to local detail and joined up policies across transport and other sectors too. The report, blogs, infographics – all here

 6. One more thing. The biggest thing. The thing that is going to grow as we head towards the make or break international talks in Glasgow in November – which is the climate emergency. It’s likely in 2020 that this will lead to a ramping up of moves to electrify road transport. Which means we will need to move from the current cottage industry of charging infrastructure to something much more comprehensive. And for that we need a bigger top table of those who are going to bring it about – with the city regions given a seat alongside government, catapults, the vehicle manufacturers and the the energy sector. More widely, if we mean it about this is being an emergency, then it should change the way we look at everything – in particular how much sense it makes that bits and pieces of staggeringly expensive road schemes (which in turn are a guarantee of more car dependent sprawl) are still so dominant in transport spending when they are 100% non-compliant with a climate emergency and counter-productive in nearly every other way too.

 And in closing. We remain, as ever, so near but yet so far on urban transport. Take Liverpool city region as an example. There is a smartcard, there is an extensive urban rail network (with the UK’s most sophisticated new commuter trains due to enter service shortly), there is a bus network. It’s within grasp to bring this all together within the next five years into a single, modern and fully integrated network which will look and feel akin to the ‘one network, one ticket, one system’ that London and European counterpart cities takes for granted. Indeed it could be up there with the best of them (I wrote about this here). And not just in Liverpool city region but in other city regions too. What’s more the new government has said it wants urban transport in the metro areas to be more London. What happens with the six pointers above will give an early indication of whether this will be finally achieved, or remain a ‘so near but yet so far’. 


Turning declarations into decisive actions


On and on we hurtle deeper into the turbulent unknown. What would have been unthinkable five years ago in global and domestic politics is now our shared new normal. And in climate change what even a couple of years ago seemed a deferrable threat now feels uncomfortably and unavoidably close. So what can 2019 say to us about what 2020 might look like for transport?

Most significant of all for 2020 is that ‘what to do about our warming world’ elbowed its way to the position of primacy that it deserved. This translated into politicians pressing the panic button through signing up to climate emergency declarations and ambitious net zero targets. In 2020 the big question will be ‘…and now what?’

The truth is that decarbonising the UK is a monumental task, and on these timescales it’s mission nearly impossible. Totally impossible if the cautious incrementalism that characterises the current overall policy approach continues. Officials in both national and local government know this. But how and when are we going to move from incrementalism to action on a scale that is consistent with what the word ‘emergency’ implies? Especially when a strategy of holding down the cost of road freight, air travel and car travel (with inadequate incentives to shift to less carbon intensive cars) whilst pumping in more money to keep public transport in the game – clearly isn’t going to cut it.

Over all of this looms the question of public acceptance. Climate has been one of the biggest issues in recent Canadian, Swiss and German elections (and much more significant this time around in the UK – even given Brexit). However environmental measures have also triggered backlashes in France (the gilets jaunes) and Norway (on road pricing) and going further back – the fuel duty protests in the UK in 2000.

Some of this also relates to the ‘metro versus retro’ divide. In the ‘metro’ city centres and the inner suburbs there can be an appetite for (or at least acceptance of) radical green measures – even when they hurt. Meanwhile in the ‘retro’ outer suburbs, towns and countryside they can be seen as the last straw – even prompting a transition from saloon bar complaining to manning the barricades. Get the calculation wrong on what the public will accept by being too pessimistic and you don’t make enough progress on decarbonisation. Conversely, if you are too optimistic and a backlash ensues, then the political fallout could set you back for years. And on the timescales necessary for carbon reduction we don’t have those years to spare.

In 2020 this is a condundrum that will come more to the fore. The most obvious way through (and I’m not arguing this would be adequate) is that city centres and inner suburbs do more of the hard stuff on climate (driving becomes way harder and more expensive) and everywhere does the easy stuff.

Among the easy stuff (it’s all relative) should be the electrification of transport, and this is starting to happen with the car fleet. Right now we are looking at about 5% of new cars being electric. This time next year it’s forecast to be 10%. We are starting to get scale (same with electric buses).

As the grid becomes greener you can see how this looks like an ‘easy’ route to decarbonisation. But scaling up on electrification of vehicles also means we need to scale up on how we get electricity into those vehicles. And that in turn means nailing a mass charging infrastructure for road vehicles and prodding a sluggish electricity industry into greater levels of proactivity on transport’s mega electrification project than is currently the case. A tentative prediction for 2020 is that we will also spend a little less time talking about electric vehicles (now they are on their way) and a bit more time on the interface with the energy sector so that we can keep them powered up.

A further prediction is that it is going to look increasingly weird that Great Britain just went on a diesel train buying spree and in the process blew what was an obvious ‘easy’ win on climate – which was having a rail system you could power by renewable energy and then being able to promote the climate benefits of rail travel with an entirely clean conscience.

The sudden, and deserved, re-framing of the transport debate around climate change also contributed to a subtle change in the optics around some other big transport topics. In 2018 a giddy headlong rush towards an inevitable tech-determined and pre-programmed future of a consumer paradise of CAVs (Connected and Autonomous Vehicles), micro-mobilty, and MaaS (Mobility as a Service) was in full flow. In 2019 some conference agendas on tech started to mutate into asking how all this relates to the more existential and collective challenge of climate. This, coupled with some of these initiatives falling foul of the ‘hype cycle’ (as well as high profile bad behaviour of big tech), means that perhaps in 2020 we may see a more thoughtful debate on transport tech.

I suspect that in this new age of climate anxiety there will be implications for other transport issues too, including more calls for moratoriums on road building. Indeed it’s going to be tough to defend the yawning gap between declaring a climate emergency and filling up the spending annex of your shiny new sustainable transport plan with bits and pieces of sprawl-distributing legacy highway schemes.

At the other end of the spectrum I would expect that calls for free fares are going to become more common as the most dramatic and striking quid pro quo for whatever needs to be done to make car use harder. This will put some further heat under the cauldron filled with the churning morass of intractable, complex and inter-related problems that is UK public transport pricing and ticketing. Perhaps it will give the task of addressing these problems more urgency? If free fares isn’t the answer then what’s the alternative reform plan that gives the way we do things now on fares and ticketing relevance in an age of climate anxiety?

Meanwhile, more widely, climate change puts buses in a good place given that mass electrification of a larger bus network looks eminently doable even on the cliff edge timescales demanded by the climate modellers.

However, climate change adds to the challenges for the mega rail schemes (HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, Crossrail 2) which will need to find ways of burnishing their climate credentials at a time when confidence in the costings of mega rail schemes has taken a severe knock. 2020 could be the year of some big decisions on them – and Heathrow too.

Finally, 2020 will also see the make or break climate COP26 summit being held in the UK (in Glasgow in November). With the world’s eyes on the UK, this will add to the impetus to make 2020 the year when we move beyond big declarations in principle (but climate caution in practice) to a new era of climate decisiveness.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

When it comes to mobility, sharing is caring


Could shared mobility be one of the missing pieces in the puzzle that is the future of transport? That was certainly the impression I got at the recent CoMo Collaborative Mobility conference in Birmingham, which brought together practitioners and policy makers working on shared cars, bikes and rides from the UK and abroad. I came away feeling inspired about the potential role for shared mobility in a sustainable transport future and here are some of my highlights and key takeaways.

Shared mobility inquiry

Professor Greg Marsden, of the University of Leeds, presented the findings of the Commission on Travel Demand’s Shared Mobility Inquiry. Car is still the dominant mode choice for travel in England, used for 61% of trips in 2017, and occupancy rates remain low, at an average of just 1.2 people per vehicle for commute trips. The average car is only in use for around 3-4% of the time and one third of cars do not move on a given day, suggesting private vehicle ownership is incredibly inefficient. Clearly there could be a role for shared mobility to make the way we use vehicles more efficient and allow us to meet policy goals around congestion, air quality and addressing the climate crisis, and the inquiry recommended further research and analysis of the potential for more shared mobility.

Shared asset model

Enterprise Car Club and Liftshare are coming together to create a shared asset model, looking at how car club vehicles could be used by Liftshare customers. One car club vehicle, which might be a pool car for an organisation, will have multiple uses at different times of day and for different audiences under a shared asset model. So it might be used for business travel during the working day, for commuting for multiple staff lift-sharing outside of working hours during the week or for leisure travel at the weekend. By joining these models up, vehicle occupancy can be increased using shared vehicles, creating multiple benefits.

Wandsworth way ahead

Nationally, around 1% of the population access vehicles through a car club, but in Wandsworth, London, one in seven drivers are car club members! There are four car club operators in Wandsworth and the high usage rates show that given the right circumstances and density of vehicles, then usage can increase.

Mobility hubs

Mobility hubs – physical places which bring together a whole range of transport and non-transport services – could enhance seamless journeys. Belgium is already implementing mobility hubs. Essential features include information screens, shared cars, cycling facilities and public transport, but additional features could include EV charging, package pick up and drop off, toilets, seating, water refilling, WiFi and phone charging. The provision of transport information in a physical location can have benefits for those who might otherwise struggle to access information, such as those without a smartphone. And it’s interesting to note that BP is looking to invest in mobility hubs, because assets such as petrol stations could potentially become less attractive in the future as fossil fuel vehicles are phased out.

Sharing for social inclusion

Shared mobility also has potential benefits for social inclusion. A recent study in Glasgow looked at how improving access to shared bikes could reduced barriers to cycling amongst a range of demographic groups, including those who are homeless, seeking asylum and unemployed as well as targeting women, those from an ethnic minority background and those living in the most deprived areas. Participants were given annual access to the city’s bike hire scheme for £3 and offered additional support including cycle training, group rides, route finding support and advice. An impressive 95% of participants felt they had experienced an improvement in physical and mental wellbeing as a result of the project and other benefits included increased confidence to cycle, improvements in social life, reduced spending on transport and ease of access to employment.

With 36 million empty seats commuting to work in cars in the UK everyday, we need to think seriously about how we change travel behaviour in order to address congestion and the contribution of transport to the climate crisis.

Dr Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group and a trustee of CoMoUK