A new era for active travel?

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Active travel is entering an exciting phase which is seeing investment on a new scale. However, with the upcoming Spending Review, there is also some nervousness around revenue funding streams and ensuring that we can continue the good progress that’s been made. These were two of the topics of discussion at our recent active travel meeting in Birmingham, hosted by our member Transport for West Midlands.

At these meetings we like to get out and experience new walking and cycling infrastructure first hand. So, on this occasion, we had a ride along the new A38 route, and back along the canal network.

As someone who has ridden many urban cycling routes as part of my role, I have to say that the A38 route was an absolute joy. The road is one of the busiest through the city centre, and not one that I could have imagined cycling along at a leisurely pace before. But the new route allows just that. In particular, the tree lined section down the middle of the road felt safe, relaxing and enjoyable. The scheme is direct, with good journey times into the city centre.

We returned to the city centre through the University campus and then down the canal. The canals in Birmingham are a great natural asset, providing direct off-road routes into and out of the city centre. It was encouraging to see the number of people commuting and enjoying leisure activities along this route.

Cycle lanes and Let's Ride Day

Yet it’s not just in Birmingham where exciting active travel developments are taking shape – they’re happening all across the Urban Transport Group’s network. High profile active Travel Commissioners (or equivalent) have been appointed in London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire, raising the profile of active travel at the local and national level.

Transport for Greater Manchester was our first member outside of London to adopt this approach and they have made startling progress since. Its Bee Network – the UK’s largest cycling and walking network championed by former Olympic cyclist and Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman – will now cover up to 2,000 miles. A large proportion of the recent Transforming Cities Fund (over half) is being devoted to helping deliver this. This funding statement would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago.

And just this month, Leeds’ new £7.9 million city centre cycle superhighway opened, adding an extra 4km of segregated routes to the city’s growing cycling network thanks to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s CityConnect programme, in partnership with Leeds City Council.

However, active travel still continues to attract relatively low amounts of funding in comparison to other modes. Last week, the Transport Select Committee published its findings to the Active Travel Inquiry in which they call on Government to play a stronger central role. The Committee identified that the Government will allocate just 1.5% of its total transport spending on active travel and called for a dedicated funding stream for delivering improvements which will increase levels of walking and cycling and increase total funding for active travel. This is something that we fully support. As Ben Still, Managing Director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority and our lead Board member for active travel said, “walking and cycling have a key role to play in the imperative of reducing carbon emissions from transport, as well as offering wider health, social and economic benefits to people and communities. With the right funding deal and leadership from national Government, we can ensure active travel delivers a win-win for people and the planet.”

Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

We know the pledges – but what’s the plan?

In signing up to climate change pledges politicians are also signing up to a seismic public policy shift – especially for the way we travel

There is no planet B

Climate change is the challenge of the century, both in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the worst effects of the continuum we are already on. We all kind of knew that. But the implications were just too hard to face. However, now that Greta Thunberg emerged to embody our unappeasable guilty conscience – city after city is declaring a climate emergency or a net zero target, or both. Nationally MPs have approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency and the UK Government became the first country to legally commit to become a net zero emitter of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In signing up to these pledges politicians of left and right are also implicitly signing up to the biggest public policy shift of the century. Because it implies government, nationally and locally, taking more control to remake the economy and society on sustainability principles and the rapid transformation of whole sectors of the economy, like transport and the built environment. All on a timescale so tight you wouldn’t want to start from where we were 10 years ago – never mind where we are now. And all at a time when our society feels horribly divided, paralysed by Brexit and with optimism a dwindling resource.

Some challenge. Especially if we intend to back up those big declarations with action and especially for transport (given the sector is now the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the UK). We will need a 21st century carbon reduction mania in transport to rival the railway mania that transformed the UK in the 19th century.

It will mean electrifying transport as rapidly as a greener grid can support it and as quickly as battery costs and availability come down. But this is going to take time, has its own significant challenges (including the embodied carbon in making these vehicles), so there is also a need to get people travelling in more efficient ways, such as 70 people sharing the same vehicle (a bus) or moving about without the need for any sort of engine (on a bike).

As our recent Number Crunch report shows, in the largest urban centres we are already seeing a shift to the more carbon and energy efficient transport modes. Cordon counts for the Birmingham am peak for example show a big increase in rail and a decrease in car commuting. Similar patterns can be seen in some of the other largest urban centres too – including in some areas a marked increase in cycling (though often from a low base) alongside strong growth in rail.

Largely missing from the modal shift party so far however is the bus. But the imperative provided by the need for rapid action on climate must surely be an opportunity for the bus to make a comeback. Especially because you can turn the funding up on bus services and see the benefits quickly. Handy too to have expanded bus services if you are planning to make it more difficult and expensive to drive, because some kind of alternative is there right away. It worked for Ken Livingstone when, as mayor of London, he flooded the streets with buses whilst simultaneously introducing congestion charging in 2003. He got re-elected too.

But this is not an opportunity that the bus industry currently looks in the state to capitalise on. Not structurally (Livingstone couldn’t have done what he did in a deregulated environment) nor when two of the ‘Big Five’ groups are up for sale and one of those is looking distinctly shop soiled. Indeed, with Greater Manchester now well down the franchising route and the end of Britain’s Big Five (and their unity in opposing franchising starting to crumble) there’s the feeling of an end of an era in the sector. A fresh start will be needed if the bus is to take the opportunity that net zero offers – including perhaps a major rethink of bus design (both exterior and interior) so that its face fits with both the look and feel that cities are aiming for and what might get travellers out of their cars.

However, much as the bus does have an opportunity from the climate crisis, the fact is that the car is still king outside the largest urban centres. More journeys are made by car than by any other means and much of the UK has also been made into a palace for King Car. For many people the places where they shop, work and spend their leisure time have been built on the rock solid assumption that there was no need to even consider that people might get there by any other means than the car. Even some of the places where we build buses and trains these days can be found in the middle of a car park in the middle of a nowhere that you can’t easily reach by bus or train. Of course these areas still need a public transport service, but given the overwhelming trip share of the car in vast tracts of the UK which have been built in the car’s image there must also be a role for increasing car occupancy rates through car sharing and through reducing the need for ownership through car clubs. But to make any of this happen we need some bold leadership. Cities and city regions that have signed up to net zero will also need to show leadership by looking at what they are spending their budgets on and to what extent these choices are making the biggest in-roads into reducing carbon fastest.

We also need national leadership on decarbonising transport – in particular on what the fiscal and taxation framework is going to be for vehicles which will in turn give consumers and manufacturers more confidence to embark on the ‘road to zero’ than they do now. The ‘road to zero’ needs to be short, straight, smooth and well lit, not the long, dark and unmade road it is now.

We also need a shift in spending priorities away from an inter-urban road building jamboree which is increasing carbon emissions whilst pointlessly redistributing traffic congestion and creating countless more high carbon, car dependent sprawl opportunities. This is money that could and should be spent on a rolling programme of rail electrification, taking measures to switch more short car journeys to active travel and increasing the journey share of low and ultra low emission buses on key corridors.

These are big vertiginous policy shifts – but far from unprecedented. The Netherlands was heading down our car dependent route until they made a big shift to the bike in the 1970s. Cities like Stockholm have a market share for public transport of 49%. London’s cycle superhighways, road pricing and taking out the gyratories would have been beyond the wildest aspirations of green transport campaigners 20 years ago. On power generation, carbon emissions halved in the UK in the eight years to 2016. Going further back we converted every gas appliance (20 million of them) across the country for natural gas in around a decade from 1967. Cities and city regions are also showing that they are increasingly prepared to take more direct control to make things happen for other goals too – from taking over tram systems and bus networks to providing utilities and building social housing.

On climate and carbon (as with much else besides) it feels these days that we are ‘poised between hope and despair’. And there is clearly the option of not looking Greta in the eye and sticking to the big statements without making the hard choices. Because the implications of the climate challenge is all too difficult, because other nations or sectors need to act first, and because, who knows, something may turn up. At the same time, taken together, the transport policy shifts may seem daunting, but broken down they are far from impossible – and all beneficial. The big pledges have been made on climate and now we can expect a new phase of much more intense scrutiny of the choices that are made on transport policy as a result.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

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