Tackling transport challenges, together

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People will always need to travel to places. So, there is a strong consensus around the need for high quality, integrated urban public transport networks that can support the greener, healthier and more prosperous city regions that we want to see. But the big question is how to sustain a public transport offer when passenger numbers are falling, congestion is rising and resources continue to reduce?

Cooperating in partnerships, with operators and local authorities, and working closely with other regions as the Urban Transport Group, to exchange intelligence and expertise, is one of the ways we can try to achieve more with less. But we need to recognise that responding to the challenges facing us isn’t a case of one size fits all. On the contrary, to stimulate growth, more than ever we now need to understand local markets, and their demands and needs, in order to meet them.

Investment is critical: investment in research into public travel patterns and preferences; investment in attractive infrastructure; and investment in people and embracing diversity, to sustain a strong industry workforce that strengthens the transport skill and knowledge base to generate new ideas and take a fresh approach.

Collective insight and analysis can help policy makers and providers offer modes of transport that are competitive with, or even better than, the alternative. Everyone’s familiar with the climate rhetoric, but more needs to be done to make the grass look greener if travel behaviour is to change. It’s about increasing awareness around the impact an individual’s travel choice has on the whole community, and the benefits an efficient and integrated public transport network can bring to all – by reducing congestion on roads, for bus users and car drivers, whilst contributing towards cleaner air and a healthier community.

Research shows that using public transport helps to integrate physical activity into a daily routine, because most walk or cycle to and from bus, tram or train stops. This is an easy way to try and achieve the British Heart Foundation’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. People who travel by bus, tram or train are ‘happier’ too, according to a study from the University of East Anglia – simply because they have more time for mindfulness, to relax and to concentrate on themselves.

Among other factors, we’re working against a rise in car ownership, a shift in people’s expectations for more bespoke and on demand services, fare prices, increased online shopping, different work patterns and reduced investment. All of this impacts on public transport. Given this environment, it’s vital that transport leaders influence and shape what’s in their backyard and maximise every opportunity to affect change. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is supporting Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority in a bid for the Transforming Cities Fund, combining public transport improvements with a wider development and growth plan. Part of this would see investment in a cleaner fleet of buses. They’ll run on the most polluted corridors around the region, connecting people to employment and education, whilst contributing to air quality and congestion issues. It’s a step in the right direction. As is our Active Travel campaign, encouraging people to make small changes to the way they travel to bring big benefits for themselves and their environment.

In times of less resources, the way ahead is to share them. Together we can tackle the challenges to transform public transport. Today, and for future generations.

Stephen Edwards is Executive Director at SYPTE and the new Chair of Urban Transport Group

Read Stephen’s biography here

The secret life of the street – and what we need to know to make future streets work

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For a couple of years now I have been banging on about the need for a debate on future streets (i.e. about how best to reconcile the complexities of all the different calls on street space – or more accurately the space between the buildings).  So I am pleased to see that this is an issue that has now caught fire with two projects under the ‘future streets’ banner (one from ITS Leeds and one from UCL) as well as a London conference on future streets that we are sponsoring.

On Tuesday I took part in a seminar at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) on the outcomes, so far, of the ITS project which will hopefully result in guidance for authorities.

I thought reconciling the different demands on road space was complex before I went into the room. However, I left the room realising it was even more so than I had initially thought. I went in thinking that streets need to accommodate the different needs of different types of vehicles – buses, taxis, bicycles, powered two wheelers, cars, freight and logistics, as well as the different types of users including people with disabilities, and different objectives such as clean air, crime reduction, thriving high streets, reduced carbon emissions, provision for electric vehicles, provision of connected and autonomous vehicles, healthier streets and more…

However, all these are in principle broad brush issues. What the seminar taught me was that there are so many other variables – for example dealing with the unusual (funeral corteges, removal vans, deliveries that take time such as beer to pubs, skips). There is also street furniture, the paraphernalia that shops and cafes put in front of their premises, street beautification (raised planters, etc.), and emergency services needs. And all these complex needs and variables play out differently on different streets and at different times of the day.

ITS had an A3 sheet with a closely typed list of factors to consider (which got longer by the end of the day) when looking at the street of today – never mind the streets of the future. All of which suggests firstly the need for a more sophisticated and holistic approach to street management (rather than single issue, for example ‘we need to get a lot of EV chargers in ASAP’). Secondly, there is a need for more people to observe how each busy street operates now, to think deeply about how to make it work better (what trade offs need to be made on the basis of what priorities) and then make it happen (not forgetting the need for on-going management, enforcement, maintenance and adjustment).

future streets long list (jonathan bray)

Here are five further thoughts from the day…

  1. Parking and loading regulation is shouty, complicated and often ambiguous (what happens if you park on a cycle lane? What is the status of the shop forecourt in front of the shop but behind the curb line?). This can lead to people going round what they see as the regulated parts of the road space (even free parking bays) and parking on what they see as sitting outside the regulated areas (including pavements). Bus lanes can often be something that people see as very clearly a regulated and enforced space – which leads to the phenomena of people not driving in bus lanes even when they are not in operation. Some drivers are perhaps pavement parking out of consideration for their fellow drivers (i.e. to make space for them to park or pass) without thinking about the impacts on pedestrians. All of which suggests there could be a need for more research into the deeper reasons behind what makes drivers do what they do (including etiquette, peer pressure, fear of embarrassment, etc.).
  2. A lot of British streetscapes are so ugly and dilapidated that drivers may be making the unconscious decision that some ugly parking behaviour isn’t going to make them any worse.
  3. Physical signs and lines to regulate the road space create clutter, are not always read or understood by drivers and are inflexible (i.e. it is difficult to change the use of space at different times of the day or to allow two or more different functions for the same space). Digitalising the allocation and regulation of road space (including through geo-fencing) would make sense in that it would be clearer, more flexible and less ugly. However, the extent of data sharing necessary (and the knock on concerns about data ownership and privacy) is daunting.
  4. The current limitations on taxi and PHV pick up and drop off are few and mostly unobserved. If taxis and PHVs grow further then the problems caused by dropping off and picking up anywhere will grow. And how will taxi share work in practice if multiple taxis are trying to pick up / drop off different people from the same area of curb space?
  5. The enforcement of parking and loading regulation is constantly demonised by the media and by some politicians. But then the case is rarely made for it in a positive and pro-active way, and its complexity, ambiguities and its officious language and branding isn’t helping. Is there a need for a comprehensive rethink about how parking and loading restrictions and enforcement is communicated to the public as something that is there to help streets thrive and keep moving in a safe way? This is something that might relate to further research into how drivers feel about the regulation of streets.

Roll on the Future Streets conference on February 12. This is a topic where we need to revel in exploring all its complexities before we can make progress.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group.

You can find out more information and register for the Future Streets conference here.

 

I build therefore I sprawl

In his latest article for Passenger Transport Magazine, Jonathan Bray asks will where future Britons, live, rely on, or ignore public transport?

Tens of thousands of homes lying empty whilst people sleep on the streets, not enough homes of the right type in the right places, unaffordable homes, not enough new homes being built. Britain has a housing crisis. Nothing new there. Cathy never did come home. But what is new is that Britain’s housing crisis is now near the top of the political agenda. Everyone is now agreed: we need to build more homes. But where will they be and will the places where future Britons live rely on, or ignore, public transport?

How quickly Britain takes to the concept of transit oriented development could be key to answering that question. Transit oriented development means putting public transport at the heart of new developments which are also sufficiently dense to make that public transport viable. Developments where walking and cycling is easy and car use… not so much. Places which are not flats and houses and nothing else – but places which are mixed – combining housing with shops, healthcare, schools and other key services. Brownfield sites should be the first location choice and there should be a significant role for the public sector in their development (as someone needs to hold the ring to ensure quality, affordability, public transport access and that mixed developments happen).

In short they should be places to be. Places to really live. Places that people don’t just sleep at night but places that might be destinations in themselves.

Last time I was in Amsterdam I got tram 26 from Centraal station to an entirely new residential area of the city called IJburg about which I’d read good transit oriented things. The tram romps along, soon escaping the claustrophobic world of selfie-taking, Harry Potter loving mass tourism in the city centre. And in 20 minutes flat it has tunneled and bridged its purpose-built way to the central boulevard of IJburg. Constructed on a series of seven artificial islands on Lake IJmeer on the city’s eastern side, IJburg was created from scratch. Land, street layouts, buildings and all other components of a complete urban district have been developed in less than 10 years on what had previously been the seabed. The plan is that 45,000 people will live there.

Acclimatising in the wintery pre-dusk it took a while for its charms to beguile me; but after a while I got what they mean when they call it the ‘good ordinary’ (which is harder than it looks to achieve). Sub-districts vary from a mix of denser residential and commercial blocks with an earth tone, house style (though with some subtle visual reminders of traditional Amsterdam architecture) and lower density family homes (again with lots of variations in design style). The more I wondered around the more the quality of the architecture and design became apparent as well as the peace and quiet, this place is reverential to its big skies and calm waters. And although some of the roads were generously proportioned for vehicle traffic; somehow the peaceful nature of the place seemed to be slowing everyone down. This place was somewhere where kids could wonder with abandon. You can see why (as a triangulation between suburb and city) there are more families in the place than was originally anticipated.

Pleasing to British eyes was that there seemed to be more independent shops and eateries around rather than our beloved chain stores and estate agents. It also seemed more diverse, settled and faintly egalitarian than its UK counterparts. But despite the mesmerising calm of IJburg (with the sun setting at a watery horizon at the end of its streets), wherever I was, I was rarely out of earshot of the sound of the next tram (‘the people’s gondola’) rumbling its way through the spine of the entire development on its way to the city centre.

Good transit oriented development is not unique to the Netherlands of course. In our recent report (The place to be – How transit oriented development can support good growth in the city regions) we highlight Kirkstall Forge in West Yorkshire, Salford Quays and Northstowe (on the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway), as well as Kings Cross. We are also seeing a new push from transport authorities to build new housing as part of existing, or new transport infrastructure – including Transport for London converting tube station car parks to housing and Transport for Greater Manchester making housing part of its new Stockport bus interchange development. RATP takes this approach even further in the Greater Paris region with subsidiaries which build, develop and run housing – including social housing for public transport employees and new housing developments as part of new transport infrastructure (such as the scheme at Montrouge bus depot which will include 650 new flats).

Back in the UK, Kings Cross is a particularly good example of the key role of the public sector in controlling the pace and quality of regeneration and capturing the uplift in land value in order to fund the supporting infrastructure. The quality control role of the public sector in IJburg was also a major factor in its success with the city council ‘quality team’ having a ‘coach’ working on each part of the development who acted as a coordinating architect, ensuring that the building and block designs of individual designers combined coherently, and that potential conflicts between different users were also considered. All so that “nobody can simply choose the path of least resistance and trot out a design on autopilot”.

Again Kings Cross is a good example of a UK transit oriented development that the public sector ensured was not trotted out on autopilot. Unfortunately there are many residential schemes in the UK which may have good public transport access but feel transient, hollow and fixated on the financialisation of the proximity to views of water. There’s nobody about and nowhere to get a pint of milk.

And meanwhile, out of the cities, in too many places it’s like the nineties never ended: all big sheds, edgelands, none places and ever widening roads. Dystopia is the default and all viewed out of the window of your car as there are no bus stops, and on some new housing estates, no pavements either! Estates built without even the possibility of a conventional bus service because the developer says they won’t build the estate at all if they have to go to the expense of designing the roads to accommodate buses. An Englishman’s home is his castle – and the place where nobody can hear you scream from loneliness if the statistics are anything to go by. The danger is that a rush to build more houses will rush us into a future which is ugly and unworkable.

In our report we make five recommendations on how to make more quality transit oriented development happen in the UK.

Firstly, we need to ensure that we have a national planning framework that favours transit oriented development over car
based sprawl.

The second is for a national funding framework that allows more options for ensuring that value uplift from new developments can be used to improve transport connectivity.

Thirdly, planning authorities need more influence over land held by agencies of national government which would be prime sites for transit oriented development schemes. In particular, city region authorities in England need the same veto powers over Network Rail land sales that the Scottish Government currently enjoys.

Fourthly, transport authorities need more powers over stations where they have the ambition and capacity to take on those responsibilities.

And finally, we need to invest in the planning capacity of local authorities so they can respond effectively rapidly and imaginatively to opportunities for high quality transit oriented development.

All of this seems ambitious in the Westminster context but pales when compared with the Netherlands VINEX plan which increased housing supply by 7.6% in 10 years mostly through urban extensions (of which IJburg was part). And all supported by government funding for the necessary infrastructure. Things are getting ugly out there but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can make places to be. And with wider public transport patronage trends going weird on us, also places that need public transport to thrive.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

Read ‘I build therefore I sprawl‘ here.