Be like Rotterdam and ‘make it happen’

The planet is in danger. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’ – we need to act now

“The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area for which observational data are sufficient for trend analysis (high confidence) and human-induced climate change is likely the main driver.” Climate Change 2021 : The Physical Science Basis, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Get off your train (powered by renewable energy – because they all are) at the modernised Rotterdam Centraal station. Turn north out of the station (crossing the river of cyclists) and turn right. Close by you will find a public square with space for ball games. Much of the square is recessed, because that way the square can hold and store 1.7 million litres of water in a storm. The rain may fall fast but the water collects slowly in the square and then can be slowly released into the groundwater and nearby canal, thus reducing the risk of flash flooding.

Circle round the station and head down into the underground car park. It isn’t obvious but above you is an enormous water storage tank – its construction integral to the wider station rebuilding project. Again designed to hold rainwater to slow its release and reduce the risk of flooding when the hard rain falls.

Keep exploring the immediate vicinity of the station and you will find watercourses that were underground but are now open to the sky, tram lines set in a carpet of green and urban farms (ground level and on rooftops).

Organising principle

Targets, visions, speeches, declarations: the planet is in danger – we must act now. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’, displacement activities. International, national, regional, local, sectoral targets that don’t link up with each other. Hanging wires. On the kind of timescales we need to work on to limit the scale of climate damage what really matters is not what declarations an organisation has signed but what staff do when they go to work on Monday morning. Is it contributing to decarbonisation – or is it not?

The key challenge now of decarbonisation is not Extinction Rebellion finding ever more sensational ways of stopping buses and trams from moving in city centres, or delivering more earnest speeches. It’s organisational strategy and management, because the need to decarbonise is no longer a debating point, it’s a practical challenge. And for national and local government in particular it’s a very complex challenge: a three dimensional game of chess.

The first of the three dimensions is sectoral. The big three carbon generators are energy production, transport and the built environment. Carbon emissions from energy have fallen rapidly, transport is the worst offender at present (but there is some kind of plan) and then there’s the built environment (where the plan is sketchy to say the least). The clock is ticking so we need to move across all the sectors simultaneously and in sync. Like Rotterdam does – but also like Islington, which has sourced waste heat from the underground to heat council estates. Or Leeds, which put in the piping for district heating at the same time as making the city centre roads that sit on top of them favour active travel, buses and trees. You can find further practical examples that link transport and energy, as well as transport and the decarbonisation and adaptation of the built environment in our ‘Making the connections on climate’ report.

The second dimension is temporal. Some things you can do quickly and relatively easily on carbon reduction (replacing old buses with zero emission buses) and some things will take time and are hard (decarbonising the existing built environment). But if you don’t start on the hard stuff now then inevitably it isn’t going to happen in time. We need to get carbon emissions down as soon as possible so it would also be wrong not to crack on with the easier stuff. And different actions have different costs attached – some of which will fall over time (though only if somebody else invests in them when they are expensive so that unit costs can come down for everybody else). So given finite resources how do you get the sequencing right?

The third dimension is the balance between taking measures to decarbonise what an organisation is doing now and reducing the impacts of the carbon that is already in the sky. For example, do you use your land holdings and roof space to generate renewable energy through turbines or solar panels?

Or do you use it for making your city spongier and cooler through urban drainage systems and more greenery?

Winning this three dimensional game of chess is the challenge of the age. It means decarbonisation has to become everyone’s job within an organisation (as Covid was). It means working across disciplines and departmental boundaries and budgets. All this set against finite resources and the danger that if you touch too many public raw nerves then the backlash could set you back by years we don’t have.

Putting the money where the mouth is

As well as reorganising around the climate imperative, organisations will need to put their money where their mouth is.

The most important part of any organisation’s plans and strategies is not the vision at the front – it’s the annex at the back (which shows what the money is actually being spent on). And the annexes at the back on transport haven’t been changing fast enough. There are still too many road schemes in them and not enough roadside gardens.

Meanwhile, car use is too cheap and public transport use is too expensive. As long as this mismatch persists we are in danger of putting more subsidy into public transport just to keep it in the game. Not winning the game, just losing the game more slowly.

The way forward is for national and local government to find the opportunities where they can to level up the score between the car and public transport – which in turn needs to find a new and more attractive equilibrium on fares (lower and simpler than they are now).

A crunch is coming

The forthcoming multi-year spending review will be a key test of whether government is putting its money where its mouth is on decarbonisation. In previous spending reviews the government more widely has not treated transport as a protected department but within its beleaguered budget intercity road and rail spend has been given a degree of protection not afforded to local transport. However, it’s not credible in any way, shape or form to continue to give priority to a bloated £27bn national road programme which will pump yet more traffic into cities (which have tough air quality and climate goals to achieve) and stimulate more car dependent sprawl around junctions.

This is money which is being squandered at the same time as active travel and bus strategies have set out ambitious aspirations for delivering everything which the national road programme won’t do – reduce pollution and carbon, less social exclusion and fewer death and injuries on the roads. And although the £3bn promised for transformational bus funding sounds a lot – if you subtract what’s been spent already and then divide what’s left by three years, then by capital and revenue, and then by 79 local transport authorities – then it won’t come even close to the magnitude of what the bus strategy rightly envisages.

Utopias and dystopias

The strange thing about the moment we find ourselves in, at a time when we face a dystopian threat at a global level, is that the most practical thing we can do is be inspired by what might be seen as utopian ideals; greener cities, public transport as a universal service. But only if we organise ourselves methodically and adopt the slogan of the City of Rotterdam: ‘Make it Happen’.

Jonathan Bray, Director, Urban Transport Group.

A pdf of this article is available to download here.

What the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport

Here are five key takeaways, based on an initial run through, of what the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport.

1. It accelerates the shift in tone and emphasis in urban transport policy and delivery towards active travel and public transport and makes moves to lock this in (in a quantifiable way) through resuscitating previously out of favour Local Transport Plans (LTPs) as the vehicle for doing so. So ‘LTPs will…need to set out how local areas will deliver ambitious quantifiable carbon reductions in transport.’

This will be part of a wider pincer movement through consolidation of local transport funding. Importantly, the plan states: ‘For future local transport funding, we will transition to a state where this is conditional on local areas being able to demonstrate how they will reduce emissions over a portfolio of transport investments through LTPs, which will become a focus of engagement between central and local government about future funding.’  

A further element underpinning this will be a green shift in the guidance and rules on how schemes are appraised. Particularly interesting is that it signals a desire to  move away from a ‘predict and provide’ approach to transport planning towards planning that starts from the outcomes communities want to achieve and providing the transport solutions to deliver those (‘vision and validate’). This would be a ‘revolution in the head’ for transport planning if it’s followed through on.

2. The ambitions for world class cycling infrastructure everywhere and a big shift to bus (with more, cheaper and greener services everywhere) are what we want too. The Government has also put money behind the bar for more spending on both (£5 billion in total). This sounds a lot and is a lot. But given the scale of the ambition it won’t be enough – especially on bus where the starting point is declining patronage and services and high fares.

So all eyes on the multi-year spending review in the Autumn. If DfT loses out to other Gov departments, and if local transport loses out to other parts of the DfT (as it did in the last spending review) then buses and active travel provision can still improve but not at the pace or scale necessary to meet the objectives of the TDP.

3. Tech optimism and tech fixes are preferred to hard decisions. We can have our cake (more travel, more roads and more flights) and eat it too (by decarbonising everything that moves). For urban transport one hard decision that is dodged is around the relative cost of motoring and public transport.

The cold hard stats show the relative cost of public transport has been rising fast compared with the cost of motoring in recent years. Although there is talk in the Plan about cheaper bus fares, there is only a brief veiled reference on the other side of the equation – vehicle taxation – where it says: ‘we will need to ensure that the tax system encourages the uptake of EVs and that revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with this change, to ensure we can continue to fund the first-class public services and infrastructure that people and families across the UK expect.’

Of course it is also right that we do press ahead and at pace on the decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets – and solid progress is being made. However, it’s disappointing that the approach to decarbonising vehicle fleets is still modally divided, focussed on the vehicles rather than how we get sufficient green energy to where it needs to be to power those vehicles.

It also doesn’t recognise sufficiently that if all urban vehicles (buses, vans, fire engines, cars) are to be zero emission – and therefore have access to the green power they need – then city regions need to be at the top table when decisions are being made about how to make all this happen.

4. The bloated £27bn national roads programme which is set to pump more and more traffic into urban areas looks increasingly vulnerable. Gone is all the macho rhetoric about ‘biggest road building programme since the Romans’ and in comes ‘nothing to see here’ – it’s all about enhancements, renewals, tree planting and cycle lanes. The TDP says there will be a review but is cagey on the detail. It could and should be the beginning of a more common sense approach to the use of the £27 billion in a climate crisis.

5. The car is king in terms of journey share but in the UK occupancy rates are low. So the maths says if you increase car occupancy, even by a small percentage, you can make a significant cut in carbon emissions. The TDP signals that it gets this and that more needs to be done to make this happen but recognises that more thinking needs to be done on how.

The TDP could be the start of a process of bringing vehicle sharing from the margins to a more central position in transport policy which is positive. However it misses a trick on this (and more widely on other topics in the Plan including decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets) on how the public sector (education, healthcare, local government and so on) could be taking more of a lead. After all this is a lever that the Government should more easily be able to pull.

All in all, the TDP should perhaps be seen as the latest stage (and a consolidation of recent progress) of a journey for greening urban transport policy which had been long overdue, but remarkably rapid once it got underway. For example, it’s hard to believe now but a decade ago cycling was at the far margins of urban transport policy and investment priorities. It couldn’t have been any more fringe. But now it’s front and centre.

The TDP also sets the stage for the tougher decisions that are still to come – most notably on taxation and pricing of travel, and on how the totality of available transport funding is prioritised.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

From point A to B with a bit of poetry

Leeds 1953

Leeds was one of many cities that pre-figured what Beeching was to do to the national rail network in the Sixties by trashing their own mass transit system in the fifties. After World War Two housing was a bigger priority for public investment than comprehensively overhauling run down tram systems. At that time the parties competed over houses building targets (two million council houses were built between 1945 and 1960). And with trams, unlike housing, there was an alternative – let people sort out their own transport by buying a car whilst at the same time keeping the town hall bean counters happy by giving free reign to the bus side of the municipal public transport operation. Trams were also seen as part of the mean and sooty clutter left over from the last century. Tatty Victoriana that had no place in a Britain that yearned, in a way that was never resolved, for urban forms that reflected both the clean lines and bountifulness of Scandinavian social democracy and of American consumer capitalism. The post-war boom also exacerbated the twentieth century British trait for favouring idealised suburbs over the necessary evil of the city. And there is nothing that says city more than a tram. In short, the tram’s face did not fit in Britain in the Fifties and all were gone, bar Blackpool, before the Sixties had even got properly started. The scale of the mistake in cities like Leeds is a wound that still hasn’t healed. The Leeds tram system had as strong a case for retention as any – some of its routes had dedicated sections on central reservations, experimentation was taking place with more modern vehicles, there were plans for tunnelled city centre sections. Tram travel was cheap (the fares didn’t change between 1894 and 1944), frequent (every four minutes) and in 1950 the Leeds trams and buses carried a record number of passengers (252 million). But this was also a time when one of the city’s local newspapers was running an energetic campaign to get rid of them, blaming them for holding up the traffic, with headlines such as ‘Trams are museum pieces with no economic future.’ They were pushing at an open door. ‘Tha sees yon trams lad? We’re getting shot o’the buggars’ the Alderman in charge of transport told the young news reporter Keith Waterhouse. And he did. Alan Bennett later wrote: ‘Trams were bare and bony, transport reduced to its basic elements, and they had a song to sing, which buses never did. I was away at university when they started to phase them out…I knew at the time it was a mistake, just as Beeching was a mistake, and that life was starting to get nastier.’

Lviv 2016

I am not old enough to have experienced the British pre-modern tram systems but in some European cities you can get some idea of the kind of cheap as chips, dilapidated tram systems that operated 70 years ago here. Tram systems where you can feel the forces at work in moving metal and people along steel rails down a street. Can experience doubt about whether the violence of the physics involved might not allow it to happen this time. Each journey seeming like a final one accompanied by death rattle shuddering. Yet somehow gravity and electricity forces forward motion and adherence to the reluctant, bowed, flattened, sheared track. Bouncing vertically and laterally like a ship leaving harbour. Rooms near and far reverberate as it passes. From dusty turning circles where suburb and industrial quarter uneasily meet to turning circles at park gates and art nouveau university villas. Scruffy and elemental. Weary and patient. Restless but permanent. Indifferent to individual frailties and sorrows but a vessel for them all. The visual and aural punctuation marks of the street. Their shacky cabs are personalised with family photos and iconography. Imperious drivers behind scratched glass, curtains: they accept the offerings of fares wordlessly like a confessional. They observe the city – the markets, graveyards, the old town tourists. They forgive everything and nothing that happens in the city. Cars and taxis may win temporary victories in traffic but the tram always wins in the end. The T34 tank of the traffic jam.

When you are in a city with a tram it feels hard to take a city too seriously which doesn’t have one. They feel too insubstantial. The tram is a delicate skeletal system of a city. Sure a city can survive without it – but if you remove that fine silver bone structure it becomes less robust, more gelatinous. More subject to other fashionable mistakes. There is no living witness to what the city was. No nagging reminder of the urban ideal – something fluid and always noisily in motion.

2020

The revival of the tram since the early 1990s in England has come about through the persistence of transport authorities in riding out the wild mood swings (usually related to wider fiscal upturns and downturns) in Westminster and Whitehall about light rail. Mood swings that oscillate between ‘absolutely no way’ and ‘if you really must’ and the occasional outbreak of real politick or devolutionary enthusiasm. The highly centralised system of tax and spend in England makes second guessing local decisions about transit systems irresistible to officials who have free reign to treat the country they live in like the last part of the Raj. But as the decades have passed bloody minded persistence by transport authorities has meant that that when the cyclical thinking in Whitehall is at the right point they have been able seize the moment to ratchet up and expand their tram networks until more have evolved from single lines to proper European-style networks – without which the cities they serve would no longer be imaginable. And then came COVID.

2021

Much of my working life during the pandemic has been spent working with our members as we negotiate with Government to fill the funding gap caused by lost patronage due to the pandemic. It’s been hard yards and at the time of writing negotiations are ongoing about funding for the period after July 19th. Whatever the result of these immediate financial wranglings COVID could trigger another mood swing in Whitehall about trams. A swing back to them being seen as a series of one off provincial excesses which central Government must be wary of indulging. There’s therefore the need to take stock again of how the case for the tram is best made. And how the next phase of the long game is played. Here’s some propositions. Firstly, light rail currently lacks a champion within the DfT and as such risks losing out especially given the rigid modal caste system where heavy rail is the Brahmin mode and when bus has more universal coverage and is benefiting from the attention given to it by the national bus strategy. Where the role of advocacy for the mode sits outside of DfT could also benefit from more clarity. Secondly, there’s a need to make the case from the ground up for the benefits that trams bring to people and places – and do this in a way which sets out the practical benefits. Which is why we have recently commissioned a new version of the comprehensive summary we undertook in 2005 of what trams can do for cities. Thirdly, the sector should continue to seek to be outward facing with a focus on the wider transformative role it can have for the places it serves. Be about what it does rather than what it is. This is something French systems often do particularly well with both vehicles and the related changes to the urban realm designed to maximise the impact of the investment from day one. The quality is the point. But back to Alan Bennett who in 1991 also said: ‘If trams ever come back though, they should not come back as curiosities nor, God help up, as part of the heritage, but as a cheap and sensible way of getting from Point A to Point B, and with a bit of poetry thrown in.’ Will have to park the poetry for now and get back to making the hard nosed case…but he was right you know.

A PDF version of this article is available to download from this link.