Out and about in towns

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

It would be fair to say that I’ve covered a lot of ground, literally, in the 23 years which I have worked on transport in the West Midlands.

But it was during a recent secondment to the Urban Transport Group that I really hit the road (and rails) – travelling from Strathclyde to the West of England, and all city regions in between – while writing the report About towns: How transport can help towns thrive. Below are a few personal thoughts and reflections on what I’ve seen and heard as I’ve travelled the country for this project.

Firstly, like many urban areas the world over, the story of our towns centres around how people and places can make a living post-coal. Most of our city regions are on coalfields, and directly or indirectly depended on coal as they industrialised.

Some places have adapted, survived and are clearly on their way to prospering post-coal. There were signs of public investment and signs of private investment (the latter following the former perhaps); there were many examples of attractive high quality public realm; there were people busy going about their business, clearly with money in their pocket; and in some places a real sense of community spirit, or “gemeinschaft”, as the Germans call it.

Some places though are still struggling to achieve this change, with wealth fizzling out the further you travel from the buzz and activity of the regional centre. These places are characterised by unemployment, low education and skill levels, hollowed out high streets and low productivity – all of which, as our report argues, transport can help to overcome.

Thriving towns through transport

So how does transport help people in these towns lead more prosperous lives?

The overarching thought is that transport has a role to play as part of something bigger: concerted, long term efforts to make towns good places to grow up and live, good places for businesses to invest in and provide good work, and places where neighbouring towns and cities and the countryside, which are all just down the road, are within grasp of all residents.

One of the issues to tackle is how to get people to contemplate visiting our post-industrial towns in the first place. Negative perceptions need changing but can be changed. Trendy travel guides have details of many cities and towns across Europe and the US which, 20 or 30 years ago, many people would have said “really?”

What was striking was how first impressions matter. When you get off a train in an unfamiliar town, if you see graffiti, tatty information displays, or litter, you get a sense that this is a place that’s been left behind. In sharp contrast, when you step onto a platform at a clean, bright station or interchange where the people responsible clearly care, it can make a big difference to your initial reaction – you feel welcome.

Many of the towns I visited were once grand old places in their prime. Much of the new work that has come to these towns in recent years hasn’t seemed to emulate those proud places of old where there was clearly dignity of labour. The timeless phrase of trade unionism: “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” doesn’t seem to ring true for some of the new jobs which have been created in these towns on our coalfields. And there is a wider societal debate to be had on what are fair and acceptable levels of benefits for people not in work.

Beyond national legislation for statutory minimum wage levels, working conditions and benefit levels, transport has a role. It can help attract people to visit more interesting and attractive town centres. Transport gets workers to work and students to skills. It can get people in need of healthcare to doctors’ surgeries and all the other places where people need to connect up with one another. As significant local employers, transport organisations and businesses can be exemplary employers providing that fair pay for fair work, and act as anchor institutions, spending significant sums of money on local supply chains and support services.

The bigger picture

Taking a slightly wider look, a big challenge is to help people move across our city regions and towns to all the opportunities afforded by a bigger geography. And key to this is enabling movement in ways which don’t clog up our already congested motorways and main roads. We need cool, Scandinavian-quality designed, German-quality engineered, rail and rapid transit networks, which, while we’re at it, are integrated with decent local bus networks and are really easy and cheap to use through smart ticketing.

As well as this big investment, what is also striking is how important it is to get the smaller details right. I often found that local bus services in unfamiliar towns were a confusing mixture of different liveries, colours, numbers, tickets, rules and conditions. I needed to be bolder, or in receipt of a helping hand, if I were to venture across the threshold of one of these services.

I travelled extensively by rail as part of the project. My impression of rail in the UK from this experience is that we have a lot of rail services, with our main centres well joined up with regular services on the national rail network. What we don’t have is enough carriages, enough space for comfortable seating, and fast enough trains: some line speeds are dismal. What was also a bit irksome was that often trains would be a bit late, or a door wouldn’t work, or the coffee trolley wouldn’t accept cards that day – lots of little things that collectively add up – some operators seemed to be able to do these things consistently better than others.

As I worked on the project, a recurring thought I had was that it would be great if central, city region and local government were able to work together efficiently for the common purpose of inclusive growth and regeneration of our city region towns: a bit like some sort of painting of a picture. Central Government specifies the overall aims of the painting, the general theme of the work and the types of things to consider for the composition. The city region is then able to select the tools it needs and sketch the outline of the picture and put on broadbrush colours. The local level then completes the picture with the finer grain of detail, in accord with how a good picture will go down well with the local public.

It is this joined up approach that could put our post-industrial urban areas back on the map, and get people out and about in thriving and prosperous towns.

Jake Thrush is Associate Policy Advisor at Transport for West Midlands, and the primary author of the About towns report whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group

Grayling’s review can get rail devolution back on track

Merseyrail train in new livery at Stanley Dock on canal bridge.

Last month, the government launched what it called a ‘root and branch’ review of the UK’s railways. And rightly so. On the same day as transport secretary Chris Grayling announced the review, the ORR published the results of its own interim inquiry into the May timetable meltdown, concluding that nobody took charge with a “gap in responsibility and accountability” for mistakes that were made (read more on p20).

The ORR’s initial findings expose an important question: who has – and who should have – responsibility for the effective running of our railways? We believe that urban rail systems must be controlled locally, by the regions and cities which are served by them.

Rail devolution has been a huge success story – for passengers, for cities and for regions. Take, for example, Merseyrail Electrics (now fully devolved to the transport authority Merseytravel): it was – prior to devolution in 2003 – dubbed ‘miseryrail.’ Just a year after devolution, passenger satisfaction leapt from 82% to 90%, and it now stands at a staggering 92%.

We have seen a similar pattern of success in Scotland, where its railway has become  a symbol of the nation’s ambition. Its extensive rail reopening programme – which followed in the wake of the first devolution agreement in 1999 – is unrivalled, with more stations and rail lines opening in Scotland than any other part of the UK in the last 15 years or so. This has resulted in a surge in patronage, and extended beyond rail travel itself, with the additional benefits of boosted local economies through urban regeneration and tourism and new housing schemes. Further stages of devolution have handed more control to Scottish ministers, including over Network Rail’s budget and the ScotRail franchise – leading to a programme of electrification to increase capacity, provide faster journeys, and reduce carbon emissions.

The capital too has enjoyed the fruits of devolved rail systems. Until TfL took over in 2007, London’s orbital railways had suffered from unreliable services and rundown stations, endured under both British Rail and when privatised by government. Yet under the control of TfL, they flourished, with patronage increasing by 32% in the first year alone. TfL’s understanding of the city’s integrated transport, economic and social needs meant demand that had not been envisaged by central government and private train operators was recognised, planned for and exceeded.

This example demonstrates how devolution beats remote control by Whitehall. This is because cities and regions understand how important rail is to their local context far better than any centralised rail decision-making machine could. They see how modern and efficient rail services are important to travellers every day, important to reducing road congestion (and associated air pollution and carbon reduction), important to building strong agglomeration economies, and important to meeting housing needs without leading to more sprawl and road congestion.

Grayling has promised to leave no stone unturned and makes bold recommendations for the future as part of the review. Will he be bold enough to put power into the places our railways serve and get devolution back on track? We certainly hope so, and we look forward to feeding into the review.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece was originally published in Rail Technology Magazine

Oh, Vienna! Lessons from the world’s most liveable city

As part of our ‘Healthy Streets for All’ year of action, we were delighted to sponsor this year’s Healthy Streets conference which took place at the Guildhall in London. The day amply illustrated the ever growing ranks of cities seeking to put people, their health and wellbeing at the centre of their urban planning. In a day packed with inspiring city case studies, the one that particularly stood out for me was Vienna – named the world’s most liveable city nine years in a row. Maria Vassilakou, Vienna’s Vice Mayor and Deputy Governor painted a compelling picture of how this came about. Here’s what we can learn from Vienna’s approach – note also how it meets all ten Healthy Streets Indicators, flagged up in bold.

Children are the key to a healthy city

Vienna’s urban planning takes the needs of children as its starting point. The city’s leaders believe that if a city is good for children, it is good for everyone (Everyone feels welcome). A city that welcomes children means that families, and young professionals thinking about starting a family, are not driven out to the suburbs but are encouraged instead to stay and build their lives in the heart of Vienna. Doing so not only creates a vibrant, multi-generational environment, it also cuts the congestion and pollution associated with commuting (Easy to cross, Clean air, Not too noisy).

Places that are designed around children are pleasant places to be. Designing for the needs of a child means plenty of safe space for walking and cycling, restricting car traffic and providing opportunities for play and exploration (People choose to walk and cycle, People feel safe, Things to see and do).

Some 50% of Vienna is green space and they intend to retain this (Shade and shelter). City streets are dotted with trees and interspersed with splashy water features which are great fun for kids and offer interest, animation and a calming environment for everyone else. The idea is for people to feel relaxed, slow down and take time to enjoy city spaces which offer them something to experience (Things to see and do, People feel relaxed).

Affordability and fairness

Vienna, home of grand palaces, high culture and an impressive musical, artistic and intellectual legacy (Mozart, Beethoven, Klimt and Freud all called it home) is not necessarily the place you would expect to prize affordability and access for all. But you don’t get to become the world’s most liveable city by excluding people. Vienna’s vision is for a city where everyone can afford to have a good life (Everyone feels welcome).

An annual public transport ticket is 365 Euros, just 1 Euro a day to travel throughout the city! Imagine that. This, together with a welcoming urban realm, helps to explain why 73% of trips in the city are by public transport, cycling and walking. They aim to increase that to 80% by 2025 (People choose to walk and cycle).

The city also offers annual grants to communities to transform under-used spaces into temporary ‘neighbourhood oases’. Crucially, these must be available to everyone ‘without consumption’ – places that can be enjoyed without buying anything (Places to stop and rest).

The party where everyone’s invited

As Maria put it in her presentation, ‘People will go where the party is…let your city be the party’. Vienna is all about creating excitement and interest (Things to see and do). Giving children space to play. Creating public spaces that allow for temporary uses. Building an environment where everyone feels welcome. As UTG lead Board member for health, Jon Lamonte put it in his presentation about Greater Manchester’s emerging ‘Streets for All’ programme, we need to ‘make streets an invitation’. An invitation to play, to enjoy, to stay.

Rebecca Fuller