Northern Ireland is getting ahead

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Of the four main constituent parts of the UK, only one of them saw bus use grow last year. It is the same one on track to having a smart and fully unified ticketing system across all forms of public transport, and which has also seen the use of its rail network double in 10 years. That’s Northern Ireland, where after decades of being sidelined as car dependency took hold, public transport is back.

The posterchild for the new found assertiveness and visibility of public transport in Northern Ireland is Belfast’s new Glider BRT system which spans the city east to west with a branch into the Titantic quarter of the city’s docklands. As a visitor to Belfast you can’t miss this striking new addition to Belfast city centre’s imposing street grid. Residents have taken to it too – it’s winning over passengers and raising the wider status of public transport in the process.

Glider works because it’s been thought through. It’s on-street and unguided but this format for BRT works in Belfast because of the specifics of the road network and the geographies served. These artics don’t get to give their rubbery midriffs much of a work out because the roads they serve are mostly straight, which makes the experience of using Glider feel more rapid transit. Some of Belfast’s roads are not just straight they are also wide enough to slot bus priority in without too much fuss (the city centre’s streets are also, helpfully, on a grid pattern). Where the roads narrow as they pass through inner city communities, getting bus priority in was trickier – however, rather than attempt to barrel bus lanes through for the benefit of suburbanites, the opportunity was taken to renew local streetscapes, giving local high streets a boost in the process.

If the overall concept has been thought through then so have the details. Stops were reduced and standardised to be more like tram stops. All ticketing is off-board. The vehicles themselves are no nonsense Belgian Van Hools which iron out the bumps in the road for passengers. The smoother ride gives more of a rapid transit feel. They also have air con. Because having big windows to gaze out of is lovely, but being trapped inside a rattly greenhouse – not so much.

The off-board ticketing also has some interesting beneficial side effects. Firstly, it makes dwell times shorter and more regular in duration, removing the background annoyance of the stop-start nature of conventional bus travel – making the experience more like rapid transit. It also means that passengers who don’t like that kind of thing can avoid the interaction anxiety which comes from having to negotiate with a driver in front of an audience. Yet, at the same time human interaction, in less theatrical form (unless you are fare dodging), is retained in the form of roving teams of jovial inspectors.

The well thought through concept and the well thought through details mean the whole adds up to a lot more than the sum of the parts. It’s what FirstGroup’s FTR should have been and wasn’t – despite the hype and sycophancy from the trade press, Department for Transport and so on that greeted its launch at the time. This isn’t plonking fancy new bendy buses on the streets, and walking away – it’s a whole new Belfast thing. People say they are getting the Glider rather than saying they are getting the bus. Suburban shopping centres are giving Glider the credit for higher footfall. Before it was implemented the media said all that bus priority would lead to is the shuttering up of local traders. Yet now look at Ballyhackamore – on a Glider route and voted one of the best places to live in the UK. And it’s also doing its bit for bringing communities together as some people from nationalist communities have been travelling on it across to unionist parts of town, and vice versa. Some of them for the first time in their lives.

If Glider stands out in the city centre, there’s something else that’s striking to those used to the messy, shouty state of play in many GB city centres (with all those different buses in different colour schemes proclaiming the merits of tickets you can only use on their services). It’s the calm and order in Belfast of the interlocking network of bus services which serve the city and Northern Ireland more widely. Metro for frequent urban Belfast services, a new high spec ‘Urby’ network for longer distance commuters, Ulsterbus for local services across Northern Ireland and then the Goldline coach network for fast services between towns and cities. It’s an easy to understand network which experienced overall growth in patronage last year.

All of this is possible because, firstly, the vast majority of public transport services in Northern Ireland are provided by Translink (a state-owned corporation). And, secondly, Translink is carrying out its remit, which is not to use a monopoly position to manage decline but to get out there and ensure that public transport plays its part in delivering the wider objectives Northern Ireland has for a thriving green economy based on healthy communities.

The end of decline management is also exemplified by the transformation of Northern Ireland’s rail network. In the sixties Northern Ireland was no more immune to the brutalising of its railway system than the rest of the UK – leaving some districts without any rail service at all. Until the early 2000s this residual rail service was the domain of veteran English Electric ‘thumper’ units which dolefully and noisily trundled their way around a bare minimum of trackwork. When, finally, approval was given for new trains it unleashed an astonishing growth in passengers – a doubling in 10 years.

Meanwhile, bringing the whole rail and bus shebang together are two major projects. The first is a rebuild of the current hub of both Northern Ireland’s rail and bus network at Great Victoria Street. It’s starting to feel its age and both the bus and rail terminals are struggling to cope with surging demand; so much so that some rail services can’t be squeezed into it – such as the Enterprise rail service to Dublin. Everything is going to change, including the name (it will be rebranded within a broader regeneration site known as Weavers Cross), when it becomes a new, more spacious interchange topped off with a significant commercial development.

The second major project is the modernisation of transport ticketing. There are already 28 million smartcard journeys annually and nearly half a million active smartcards. As the modernisation project is rolled out across more types of services and ticketing projects, Northern Ireland is one of the frontrunner territories in Europe for achieving smart, simple and fully integrated ticketing across its entire public transport network.

Finally, layered on top of everything is a marketing campaign that stresses the intrinsic advantages of public transport for both the individual traveller and Northern Ireland as a whole. The predominance of the car culture in Northern Ireland (and the consequent tendency of Belfast to gridlock) can be an advantage here – as you are starting from a clean slate with a fresh proposition. The aim is to make public transport a credible answer for policy makers looking at where best to invest in tackling wider social, environmental and economic goals and for individuals’ travel needs. ‘Get on board’ as the strapline has it.

Northern Ireland really isn’t so different from the rest of the UK to make it an invalid comparator or to make lessons untransferable and the rest of the UK really needs to start looking at what Northern Ireland is doing on public transport. Because whilst you weren’t looking – they got ahead of you.

Jonathan Bray is Director of Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

Five takeaways from Health in All Policies 2019

Prevention is better than cure’ is a truth universally acknowledged and one that has recently taken centre stage in UK health policymaking. The extent to which we can prevent poor health depends on influencing the wider determinants of health and wellbeing, neatly summarised here…

Social determinants of health

Many of these determinants are within the control of local authorities, underlining the case for a ‘Health in All Policies’ (HiAP) approach which:

‘systematically and explicitly takes into account the health implications of the decisions we make; targets the key social determinants of health; looks for synergies between health and other core objectives and work we do with partners; and tries to avoid causing harm with the aim of improving the health of the population and reducing inequity.’

The recent HiAP 2019 conference at the Royal Society of Medicine sought to identify those synergies. I spoke at HiAP 2019 about the connections between transport and health and the opportunities for collaboration between the two sectors. You can read my presentation here.

Here are five things I took away from the day:

1. Give up power

Throughout the conference was a recognition that, to achieve HiAP, health – and other professionals – need to be willing to give up some power and, where possible, some funding. That might include, for example, the health sector giving up some power to enable other sectors – such as transport, housing, playwork – to tackle the wider determinants of health. It might also include professionals recognising that the amenities, services and places we design must work for the people and communities that we want to see using them. That means co-design, listening and acting on what communities say they need rather than what we think they should have.

2. Social participation is vital for good health

Dr Piroska Ostlin of the World Health Organisation talked about social participation as a key means for, and goal of, health equity. If we ask and act on what communities say they need (which itself is social participation) they are more likely to get out of the house and use it once it is delivered– whether that’s an attractive, well-cared for green space in the neighbourhood or a new bus service. Good public transport, walking and cycling have a vital role in linking people to each other and to opportunities to participate.

3. Place-based, not service-based

In line with HiAP, health policy is increasingly looking to intervene at the level of place rather than individual health services. How can we design our places and provide the amenities required to promote health and wellbeing? This plays directly into our Year of Action on Healthy Streets – an approach that seeks to put people and their health at the heart of the way we design individual streets. At HiAP 2019 I learnt about other models and frameworks that can help us think about how whole places can be designed with health in mind including the TCPA’s 6 elements of healthy places and Scotland’s Place Standard, pictured below. How people travel and move around a place is a central consideration in both frameworks.

Scotland's Place Standard

4. These places are already putting HiAP…

Wales: The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act requires public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

Norway: Government departments and politicians have a mandatory obligation to take account of health in all policy decisions.

New Zealand: The forthcoming 2019 Budget will place wellbeing, kindness and compassion at its heart. For the first time, alongside GDP, it will measure performance against five key priorities aimed at improving New Zealanders’ quality of life including: supporting mental health; improving child wellbeing; and creating opportunities. Any Minister wanting to spend money must prove it will improve inter-generational wellbeing.

5. Watch out for these…

A raft of new publications and resources are due in summer:

  • The Department for Health and Social Care’s Green Paper on prevention.
  • Public Health England’s Joint Strategic Framework for Health Inequalities (working title). A live, modular resource, the Framework is intended to provide a structure and vision for people working at local level on place-based action to tackle health inequalities.
  • The Health Foundation’s HiAP case studies collection.

For more on the connections between transport and health as well as tools to foster collaboration take a look at our Health and Wellbeing Hub.

Rebecca Fuller

Health in All Policies – the transport connection

A few quick reflections on the thought provoking Health in All Policies conference we were a sponsor of on Wednesday and which our AD Rebecca Fuller spoke at (as part of our long term aim of getting better coordination across the health and transport sectors) 

– shamefully, health inequalities in this country are getting worse 

– all the focus in the public and media debate health is on clinical care (thus on transport the focus is air ambulances and free hospital parking) whereas the relative quality of clinical care is not the main factor in health outcomes. It’s wider economic, environmental and public health factors. The right transport policies can contribute to all these factors (such as promotion of active travel and healthy streets)

– having said that ‘social prescribing’ for some health problems is in vogue, as is a more place based approach to recent health reforms, which could help

– there’s a long way to go in getting the two sectors to understand what makes the other sector tick and although there is good guidance out there (including our transport and health hub on the UTG website) how do we get greater awareness of what’s our there?

Lots more to do then but with the CEO of NHS England now on record as saying the NHS has to reduce its environmental and transport impacts there’s some ways forward too. On which more soon!