Once more unto the breach
Not all the details are clear at the time of writing but we do now have a funding support package for light rail and buses to see us through the next three months. Subject to the fine print this is very welcome, and one doesn’t want to seem churlish about a quarter of a billion pounds, but all this eleventh hour HMT brinkmanship about a funding deal they were always going to do anyway has used up time that could have been spent looking ahead to what’s coming next. And in this crisis, there’s always some kind of intractable problem coming up fast. Indeed, there’s a bit of a phoney war feeling at present. Although patronage is creeping up, public transport’s pariah status is by and large fending off mass breaching of social distancing limits – but what happens when the schools come back at greater scale? Where do you find the capacity to maintain socially distanced general and specific public transport for school children (especially given how peaky school traffic is)? And you may be able to show ‘bus full’ signs as you speed past adults but what about school children? And what about Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport? And so the problems stack up one after the other. Making those problems more tractable is our homework this week.
A first draft of the future?
If we don’t seek to shape the legacy of COVID-19 it is going to shape us. So here’s some initial thoughts on a first draft of the future.
1. More people are going to walk and cycle for more trips during the COVID-19 crisis and afterwards. And this isn’t just a London thing. Places like Liverpool, Newcastle and Doncaster are joining in the road space reallocation race. City leaders have got religious about this. The temporary absence of traffic noise has meant that people can hear themselves think. And what they are thinking is – “we could just do this.” Fast forward a decade in a year. We can dream in Dutch and Danish. So let’s ride the active travel wave. But always be thinking about how the temporary and rudimentary can become the permanent and the thing of beauty. And in a way that works for everyone (including the bus user, the wheelchair user, our future selves facing greater climate extremes).
2. The permanent shift now taking place to more journeys being undertaken by bike and on foot is an unequivocal good thing. So I hate to throw shade on the active travel love parade but we still need to recognise that the car isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It really isn’t. It dominates trip share now and nearly everywhere. Even in London as a whole more trips are made by car than public transport or than by bike/on foot. London is Trafalgar Square but it is also the outer boroughs where you can drive down a street and look down from the upper deck of a world leading bus service and see that every house has a rubik cube of vehicles on the hard standing where the garden used to be. And that’s our world city. For decade after decade the UK has been rebuilding and refashioning lives and landscapes around the car leaving active travel and public transport with a Lilliputian mode share in the countryside, the edge lands, the suburbs and the towns. It is absolutely possible that active travel trips will increase – at the same time that trips by car will increase. Public transport’s current existential challenge is the car salesman’s opportunity – and they are raring to go. The modern car already looks like a bulked out bouncer. SUVs look like they could be fitted with advanced weaponry as standard and transport data points to the fact that bigger cars are more deadly when it comes to collisions – concerning when children behave like children, and act impulsively. If people wanted these kind of vehicles before a global pandemic I’m guessing they still will when the threat level has been raised and we have all got used to being in our bubble. Your name’s not on the list, you are not coming in. If the car is still king then let’s get occupancy rates up, electrify them toute suite, take road deaths as seriously as those from COVID-19 (if it’s face coverings for humans then it should be speed limiters for cars). And when we talk about transport let’s not always be thinking about city centres but think about providing alternatives to car dependency where we can in towns, suburbs and edgelands. We also need to broaden our transport planning minds by factoring in the interplay with broadband provision and the trip patterns that follow on from an expansion of home working.
3. As Oscar Wilde said, “each man kills the thing he loves”, and we are doing a good job of that in the short term as people heed the warnings and avoid public transport like the, er, plague. The question is how many of them are coming back – and which types of passenger? It seems unlikely they all will. The bus was in trouble before this started so looks particularly vulnerable. This is all exacerbated by a deregulated system outside London which would allow commercial bus operators to make money from a shrinking core network whilst abandoning more of the rest for a cash-strapped local government to pick up a tab they can no longer afford. Prior to all this the Government was planning a boost in mostly capital investment in bus which they would pick and choose to carry the HM Government coat of arms. The danger of this though is that in isolation it creates Potemkin villages of exemplary pilots but without the wider financial underpinning to stem decline or maintain provision once the initial burst of government support winds down. Time to face facts – to ‘save our buses’ we need consistent higher subsidies, lower and simpler fares. And we need to stop pretending that this is compatible with seeking to sustain the illusion that this is a commercial and deregulated industry (an illusion that finally evaporated when the lockdown began and the industry went from mostly, to entirely, dependent on public subsidy).
4. The biggest policy challenge of 2020 will be how to fuse an effective post-COVID-19 economic strategy with the urgent need to further accelerate carbon reduction trajectories. Given the grid has been greening at an astonishing rate, the most obvious route one is to crack on with the electrification of transport. This would create good green jobs and slash carbon emissions – a national endeavour that is easily understood. Meanwhile the easiest way to prevent carbon emissions is not to do things that we don’t have to do and which we know will make things worse. Bloated road programme I’m looking at you. And as a bonus all the money being spent on it which could be spent on something useful and relevant to the 21st century instead. Meanwhile, just as cars aren’t going to disappear, neither are aeroplanes. Now is the chance to drive some hard green bargains with the aviation sector in relation to their overt and hidden subsidies – and to stop the free for all in airport expansions driven by junk flights and the revenues from acres of long stay parking fees.
5. Given the scale of the challenge of COVID-19 (both right now and through the recovery phase) city regions need to be able to act decisively and at scale. At present they are bogged down in a morass of ad hoc funding competitions (some still on pre-COVID-19 autopilot) and siloed funding streams overseen by a distracted Whitehall, as well as being pinned down by a lack of decision making power. So on funding there’s a need for significant streamlining, consolidation and long term certainty. And on powers more local rail and bus decision making should come down from the national level whilst there is also scope for powers that currently sit at the District level that could, as in London, sit at the city region level (such as taxi licencing and the strategic road network). The review of the legal and regulatory framework for new mobility should also ensure city regions have the powers to innovate and to contain (on wider public interest grounds) as they see fit.
After all if we can’t be bold now – then when?
Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group