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.

Budget 2021: Five key takeaways for urban transport

1. The one year 2020 Spending Review, and the multi-year 2021 Spending Review, are more significant for urban transport than the Budget was likely to be – and indeed, proved to be. Also, between now and the 2021 Spending Review, we will have the bus strategy, and, if the road map to COVID-19 recovery works out, the Government will need to take some decisions on how it will fill the patronage/funding gap that COVID-19 will still leave behind. So plenty still to play for.

However, although public spending wasn’t the main focus of the Budget, it did put more flesh on the bones of the new funding streams that were announced in the 2020 Spending Review – perhaps most notably on the Levelling Up Fund. It also showed that the political dimension to funding choices, that are always implicit, are becoming more explicit through more ranking of areas to be prioritised and the greater involvement of local MPs.

2. Glass half empty? The Resolution Foundation analysis is that the Budget has further sharpened the axe which hangs over non-protected Government departments. They say: ‘Further planned cuts to public services spending will see budgets for unprotected departments (such as transport and local government) fall by £2.6bn next year (2022-23). And that by 2024-25, day to day public service spending per capita in unprotected departments will still be almost one-quarter lower than in 2009-10, with less than a fifth of the reduction in spending between 2009-10 and 2018-19 having been unwound. These spending cuts assume no further spending pressures elsewhere, which is highly unlikely given what’s in store for the NHS, schools and social care over the coming years.’

This is a particular concern in relation to the revenue support that public transport needs to recover, never mind, build its often low share of the trips that people make. It also has implications for the already denuded capacity of local transport authorities to retain and develop the skills and capacity they need to deliver capital investment and meet the increasingly complex environmental and social challenges that cities face.

3. Glass half full? Most of the extra £5bn promised for bus and active travel that the Prime Minister pledged in February 2020, is still to come. If you add in the existing Transforming Cities Fund and the new funds on their way, then potentially there could be significant capital funding on its way to spend on the right things on urban transport (public transport and active travel). Plus, few could argue that post industrial towns are not overdue an investment boost.

4. Meanwhile there’s a danger of a swing back to greater centralisation of decision-making with the risk that the Intra-city Transport Fund in particular becomes a tool by which HMT can manage the priorities of city regions which should be left to determine their own futures. More widely, the Budget reinforced the trend of recent years away from block funding towards places having to please and convince terribly clever people in London about the merits of their bids into multiple competitive funding pots.

5. One day a Chancellor is going to have to grasp the nettle of significant road vehicle taxation reform – not least because of the rise of electric vehicles. But yesterday wasn’t that day. The fuel duty escalator remains frozen. This further undermines both public transport’s competitive position and the slow progress being made to reduce transport’s drag on wider Government carbon reduction targets. But it could be that as the pandemic recedes, that 2021 is the year when more kites are flown around how a new and more progressive fiscal and charging regime for road vehicles could also fill the revenue gap that the electrification of vehicle fleets will cause in the current system.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Shared mobility in the new normal?

Reflecting on my blog post after last year’s CoMo Conference brings home to me just how much the world has changed. Pandemic, social distancing, face coverings, R-number were all things that were unheard of or vague and distant threats. For most of the last year we avoided non-essential travel and public transport patronage has suffered. But how has shared transport fared? And what might its role be in the ‘new normal’? CoMo held its 2020 conference online last month, exploring some of these questions and more. Here are some of my thoughts.  

Shared transport in the pandemic 

Shared transport operators stepped up in the early days of the pandemic, particularly seeking to support key workers to access jobs as people avoided public transport. Many bike hire schemes offered discounts and free rides to those working on the frontline. There was a huge growth in cycling over the Spring and Summer, with cycling rates in the week at 165% of pre-lockdown levels on average in the week and at 265% at the weekend during May and June, as people made the most of good weather and quiet roads. Shared bike schemes saw increased use, with Santander Cycles in London having its busiest ever day (on a normal working day) on Wednesday 24th June, with 51,938 hires. 

The UK Government accelerated e-scooter trials to support those who needed to travel. These are still in the early stages but initial results from Nottingham’s trial show that they are popular. In the first four weeks, 3,000 people registered to use the scheme, 19,000 rides had taken place, with over 38,000 miles ridden. And a key worker scheme will be launching soon that will provide an e-scooter on longer-term hire.  

Transport decarbonisation  

These facts, from Ali Clabburn at Liftshare, made me stop in my tracks. 50% of commuters drive alone and they are responsible for 82% of commuting emissions. Pre-Covid, commuting by car contributed 15 million tonnes of CO2 every year, 5% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Given we are seeing a return of car travel to pre-pandemic levels while public transport patronage remains lower, this could be exacerbated in the coming months and years. Shared, sustainable and public transport options are key to decarbonising our transport system. The Government is set to publish its Transport Decarbonisation Plan shortly and you can find our response to their consultation here. Richard Dilks from CoMo has also written about the role for shared transport in decarbonisation here: Decarbonisation: cutting edge ideas from the past – CoMoUK.  

Social inclusion  

Where it’s designed well, shared mobility can help to address challenges associated with social inclusion. In Portland, Oregon, the Bureau of Transportation worked with their e-scooter operator to ensure that low income areas were served and found high support for e-scooters amongst people of colour and low-income groups. It is also important to engage with disabled people in the design of shared mobility schemes to ensure inclusive design, enable the widest range of possible users and to mitigate any negative impacts for example around street clutter or riding on pavements. And as one operator suggested during the CoMo conference, the majority of people will not be using shared micro-mobility schemes, so making sure that these systems work well for non-users is important.  

Revenue funding and resourcing at transport authorities 

A theme that appeared throughout the CoMo conference is the need for cities and towns to develop a strategic and joined up approach to shared mobility as part of wider transport and spatial planning. However, declining revenue funding for transport, coupled with more than a decade of austerity that has stripped much of the expertise and capacity from local authorities, makes this a challenging prospect in many areas. If we want truly joined up, integrated planning for a sustainable and decarbonised transport future, then we need to invest in building capacity in our local and regional authorities to enable this. 

Shared mopeds 

Shared electric mopeds were a mode I was vaguely aware of, but presentations from operators during the CoMo conference brought them to life for me. And personally, I’m excited about them! The idea of being able to hop on an electric moped to make the last mile (or two) of a multi-modal public transport journey is attractive to me, and I think it could be a good gateway to car-free or car-light living. Though I would be slightly concerned that this would abstract from active travel trips, with potential negative health outcomes.  

A swiss army knife for personal mobility 

Finally, this phrase from Sandra Phillips from movmi really appealed to me: ‘a swiss army knife for personal mobility’. Having the right tool for the right job is what sells a swiss army knife, and we need the right modes and options for the right journeys. Shared mobility can offer multiple options in distributed locations, so you can hop on a shared bike or e-scooter when you arrive in a city on a train. Sometimes you might need to make a journey by car, but maybe if all the other tools or options are available then those car journeys are fewer and car club membership looks more attractive than owning your own private car? Taken together, we could see more agile journey patterns and more sustainable lifestyles as a result. 

You can catch up on all the presentations from the CoMo 2020 conference here: Conference – CoMoUK 

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group, and is on the Board of Trustees at CoMo