COVID-19 and urban transport – the message, the money & the future

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The message

We’ve had the first weekend in England since the latest easing of COVID-19 and now the first working week has begun. Early signs are that public transport patronage is picking up sharply but it’s too early to say at the time of writing to what extent this will stretch the capacity of public transport which is already heavily constrained by social distancing.

However, the time is surely approaching when we can move away from a single national approach to messaging about the use of public transport (in effect based on London’s unique conditions) to one which can be fine tuned locally to take into account the capacity that may be available in very different geographies. We don’t want public transport which is too busy to be safe in some areas – but at the same time, it makes no sense for public transport to be running empty in other areas whilst the roads fill up with cars bringing road casualties and air pollution in its wake.

More widely, the top down approach to the response to COVID-19 leads to other problems too. Perhaps this was most starkly illustrated recently by the withholding of information about the full details of local COVID-19 infection data from those local authorities and Directors of Public Health who need that data to ensure local responses are as effective as possible. On transport, this top down approach has settled down into a consistent pattern which consumes vast amounts of time which could be spent more productively. First comes the speculation, probing and rehearsing different scenarios whilst we wait for key decisions to be made. Then an announcement comes largely out of the blue on a key issue (such as making face coverings compulsory on public transport). Often the announcement lacks all the guidance and information needed to implement it. So then there is the second guessing, probing and speculative implementation of policies at short notice whilst we await the full details. Then the details emerge – and then there is a process of reorienting policy and delivery around that. And so it goes on. This is time wasted that could also be spent looking ahead and planning in a more considered way for what the next operational challenge of the COVID-19 response could be. It’s also not effective overall either – as the UK’s poor record on its coronavirus response in comparison to other countries shows.

The money

The additional COVID-19 money runs out for light rail and bus (in England outside London) in less than a month’s time. Emergency funding for private operators of national rail services runs out in September. Transport for London’s additional funding runs out in mid-October. There are different rules and timescales for different modes – but all the funding deals were time limited and they are all approaching the end point. The funding deal for local bus and tram (outside London) being the first to expire. If the past is any guide to the future, then HMT will insist on taking it to the wire and find anyway it can to get public transport used to the idea of starting to come off financial life support in advance of the Autumn (when the hope is life will have settled down to a new normal which is closer to pre COVID-19 life than it is to the national lockdown). The trouble is, that with Government advising people to steer clear of a socially distanced public transport network, fares income has collapsed and it’s only the additional COVID-19 financial life support which is keeping public transport alive. And even when and if the messaging changes about the use of public transport and capacity is restored, it’s hard to see patronage returning to its pre COVID-19 rates any time soon, if ever (and certainly not by the Autumn).

Meanwhile, there is no money yet for the additional costs of getting kids to school in September, the Government is still expecting transport authorities to continue to pay bus operators for concessionary trips that aren’t being made and Merseytravel hasn’t seen any funding for its Merseyrail Electrics franchise.

Much angst lies ahead on funding – but much time wasted too on trying to keep the show on the road on the basis of short-term, cliff edge deals and complicated one-size fits all funding packages (this also compounds the time already wasted on operational issues set out above). This is why we continue to make the case for additional funding for bus to be devolved to transport authorities. We can then deploy it alongside light rail funding in an integrated way that meets local needs whilst at the same time replace a system which means we pay for bus journeys that aren’t being made with a system where we can support bus networks that are being provided.

The future

The big task ahead is to fuse a green recovery from COVID-19 with the decarbonisation agenda in a way that makes better places. The Committee on Climate Change recently reported to Parliament on how it thinks this should happen with its top five investment priorities being:

  1. Low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future.
  2. Tree planting, peatland restoration, and green infrastructure.
  3. Energy networks must be strengthened for the net-zero energy transformation in order to support electrification of transport and heating.
  4. Infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
  5. Moving towards a circular economy.

The opportunity that the lockdown brought to address number four by reallocating road space to active travel has been one of the most positive aspects of the last few months. But there are big challenges ahead in retaining and developing the levels of lockdown modal shift to active travel and in maintaining the road space reallocation momentum (including turning the temporary and rudimentary into long-term quality). But leaders at the local and national level have got religion about active travel – and that’s half the battle.

We are gearing up on number three on the list – as we need a coordinated approach to the electrification of transport (rail, bus, car, e-bikes) which integrates approaches to both the vehicles and the infrastructure to get the juice where it needs to be. City regions should have a key role to play in this and we are working with other bodies – like the Energy Systems Catapult and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership – to ensure that they do.

Transport can also play a role in priorities one and two – which we explored in our Making the connections on climate report looking at good practice from the UK and the wider world on how transport authorities and providers can decarbonise their own estate whilst improving its resilience through green infrastructure.

We can build back better from this crisis and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether we aim to play our full part.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Finding comfort in a crisis – my ever-changing role in the new world of urban transport

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Over the last few months, my job has looked drastically different to what went before. The Urban Transport Group has turned its attention to supporting its member network of city region transport authorities to respond to and manage the coronavirus crisis. And whilst working with, and supporting, our members has always been a part of my role, the change in focus and the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic has meant a change in pace somewhat.

In ‘normal times’, a large part of my role is research and thought leadership work, taking time to research key urban transport policy areas in detail, from taxis to climate change, freight to Mobility as a Service. These reports can take many months of detailed research and can be incredibly time consuming. In the new world, the burning issues come and go from day to day, even hour to hour, with hot topics demanding responses on an altogether different timescale to that which I am used to.

I have been working closely with various groups across our network, but in particular with our Heads of Human Resources group. At the beginning of lockdown, they were navigating how to support large numbers of staff in working from home and how to keep frontline transport workers safe from the virus. Sharing ideas and best practice has been incredibly valuable to their work. And they continue to collaborate on longer term issues that are emerging due to the crisis, such as how to proceed with recruitment in a socially distanced way and support some staff who may be required to return to work places ahead of others.

I have also been working on our ‘issues logs’, in which we are tracking key developments across a range of topics for our members. I’ve been responsible for producing the ‘staff and passenger protection issues log’ which covers issues such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), social distancing, and testing and hygiene.

Looking forward as the crisis shifts to recovery and lockdown is tentatively eased, I’m turning my attention back to some of the issues I more commonly work on, and how they might look in the new world. The climate crisis hasn’t gone away, people are widely discussing the need for a ‘Green Recovery’ from the current situation and ensuring that transport is part of those discussions will be critical in the coming months. This is not without its challenges, with public transport capacity much reduced, the groundswell of interest in active travel will need to be maintained and accompanied by an acceleration in decarbonising motorised travel. Supporting people to change their behaviours, both to enable social distancing and more sustainable lifestyle choices, is going to be critical if we are to realise our climate objectives.

Another area of focus that has returned is taxis and private hire vehicles, something I last spent a lot of time thinking about in 2017. With people avoiding public transport due to social distancing, we may see an increase in their use. But how can we keep drivers and passengers safe and what are the consequences for air quality, congestion and road safety in a world where more people are choosing active travel? Ensuring that taxis and private hire vehicles are part of the solution and play a positive role in the recovery phase are thorny challenges that will need careful consideration in the coming months.

It’s not all been a bed of roses. I do miss many face to face elements of my job: the larger group meetings which can’t be replicated in the same way over telecons, the major events and conferences where I learn so much about the diverse range of topics I research, and of course, the company of my fellow colleagues in our office. But whilst my job may have looked different over recent months, I’ve never been prouder to be a part of our small team and our wider group of members. From PPE to social distancing, supporting frontline staff and those working from home, liaising with senior leaders and decision makers both within our network and more widely with Government and other stakeholders, feeling useful and busy has felt positive in these strange times.

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

Is transport the cure-all that the NHS needs?

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Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman was recently quoted as saying “Pick a crisis: congestion, obesity, inequality, air pollution, global warming, safety…Investing in cycling and walking is as close to a silver bullet as you’ll get.”

The NHS is certainly in the market for a cure-all, unveiling last month the ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign. The campaign aims to ensure that the NHS and its staff step up efforts to tackle what it calls the climate ‘health emergency’. It recognises that what is bad for the planet – global warming, flooding, air pollution – is also bad for people’s health, with evidence linking these conditions to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, asthma and the spread of infections and diseases.

The campaign involves the establishment of an expert panel to chart a practical course to get the NHS to net zero emissions; a new NHS Standard Contract calling on hospitals to reduce carbon from buildings and estates; and a grassroots movement to encourage staff and hospitals to reduce their impact on the environment, and in doing so, improve people’s health.

Transport is recognised in the campaign as having a key role to play in placing the NHS on the path to net zero. It is estimated that patients and visitors to NHS facilities alone generate 6.7 billion road miles every year. The NHS Long Term Plan has previously committed to making better use of technology to reduce the number of face-to-face appointments patients need to attend. Staff travel is also a problem and the grassroots campaign will encourage more employees to travel on foot or by bike. In addition, NHS fleets are acknowledged as needing a clean-up, with NHS Chief Sir Simon Stevens pledging last year to help ‘blue lights go green’ to reduce their impact on climate and air pollution.

Transport, health and climate are inextricably linked to, and dependent on, one another. The transport choices we make as individuals, organisations and policy makers influence the speed of climate change and the quality of our air. They also help determine the amount of physical activity a person undertakes, their mental wellbeing and their access to opportunities.

For many years we have been calling for greater recognition of the connections between transport and health and for more collaboration between the two sectors. The tools and evidence base we have built and collected over this time can be found on our Health and Wellbeing hub. The ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign presents a big opportunity to strengthen and maximise those connections and relationships.

To this end, we have written to the newly appointed Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, Dr Nick Watts, welcoming him to the role and expressing our wish to work with the NHS in a strategic way to address our shared challenges. Our letter includes four propositions that we believe could help:

  1. A health and transport champion in each region charged with making the connections between the sectors and bringing leadership on the issue.Evidence suggests that progress on making the connections between transport and health is frequently driven by passionate individuals keen to make a difference above and beyond their day jobs. When these individuals move on, or when their organisations are restructured, the momentum can be quickly lost.Creating a specific, permanent role within each NHS England regional team to champion and drive forward joined-up thinking between health and transport could provide a stable footing for strategic, long-term collaboration.
  2. A health and transport convention in each region of England co-owned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Department for Transport (DfT) to seek to broker ways forward.Our research shows that despite growing collaboration between our two sectors, significant barriers remain, from differing standards of evidence to the use of codified languages. From a transport perspective, even identifying whom to engage in the NHS – and maintaining that engagement – can prove very challenging.There would be value in enabling key health and transport stakeholders in each region to meet, build relationships and broker ways forward.
  3. Require the NHS to consult with transport authorities when making decisions on healthcare locations. The DfT and DHSC should co-commission good practice guidance on ensuring sustainable transport access to healthcare to support this.Evidence gathered from our members suggests that consultation by the health sector with transport bodies about decisions to open, close, merge or re-locate healthcare settings is patchy. When transport bodies are consulted, too often location decisions have already been made. Sites that are poorly integrated with public transport, walking and cycling networks generate more car journeys, contributing to congestion, poor air quality, climate change and physical inactivity.These issues can be avoided if transport authorities are consulted at the earliest possible stage. They can provide expert advice about which sites would be most accessible, minimise traffic and support non-car access (and therefore positive climate and health outcomes), enabling these factors to be designed into the scheme from the outset.
  4. An independently chaired government review to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of non-emergency patient transport services (NEPTS) and potential reforms.We believe that there is considerable scope to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of NEPTS to reduce the number of journeys and vehicles on the road.In 2017, we worked with the Community Transport Association and the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers to explore alternative approaches to commissioning non-emergency patient transport and found that taking a ‘Total Transport’ approach to NEPTS has the potential to generate significant savings for the NHS as well as deliver better outcomes for patients.

    Total Transport would see multiple public and community sector fleets (e.g. NHS, social care, education) bought together into a shared pool under a single point of access catering for a wide range of passengers (from patients to school children). Often there is considerable overlap in the vehicle standards and care components required across sectors. The pool of vehicles would be coordinated and scheduled centrally, taking into account options on the mainstream network. It would ensure that the entire public sector vehicle fleet is put to maximum use throughout the day and that the right vehicle is deployed for the right job (avoiding over-specification).

    In doing so, NHS and other public sector partners could achieve more using fewer vehicles and reduce the number of trips made overall. The benefits would be further extended if the pooled fleet was made up of zero or low emission vehicles.

As well as the Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, we have also shared these ideas with HM Treasury, Sir Simon Stevens (CEO of the NHS) and the Director of the Sustainable Development Unit (the body which supports the sustainable environmental, social and financial development of the NHS, public health and social care).

We hope that colleagues in the health sector find the ideas useful and take up our invitation to work more closely together at strategic level to fully realise the potential of clean, active transport as a prescription to cure the ills of people and planet alike.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group