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

A first draft of the future?

 

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Once more unto the breach

Not all the details are clear at the time of writing but we do now have a funding support package for light rail and buses to see us through the next three months. Subject to the fine print this is very welcome, and one doesn’t want to seem churlish about a quarter of a billion pounds, but all this eleventh hour HMT brinkmanship about a funding deal they were always going to do anyway has used up time that could have been spent looking ahead to what’s coming next. And in this crisis, there’s always some kind of intractable problem coming up fast. Indeed, there’s a bit of a phoney war feeling at present. Although patronage is creeping up, public transport’s pariah status is by and large fending off mass breaching of social distancing limits – but what happens when the schools come back at greater scale? Where do you find the capacity to maintain socially distanced general and specific public transport for school children (especially given how peaky school traffic is)? And you may be able to show ‘bus full’ signs as you speed past adults but what about school children? And what about  Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport? And so the problems stack up one after the other. Making those problems more tractable is our homework this week.

A first draft of the future?

If we don’t seek to shape the legacy of COVID-19 it is going to shape us. So here’s some initial thoughts on a first draft of the future.

1. More people are going to walk and cycle for more trips during the COVID-19 crisis and afterwards. And this isn’t just a London thing. Places like Liverpool, Newcastle and Doncaster are joining in the road space reallocation race. City leaders have got religious about this. The temporary absence of traffic noise has meant that people can hear themselves think. And what they are thinking is – “we could just do this.” Fast forward a decade in a year. We can dream in Dutch and Danish. So let’s ride the active travel wave. But always be thinking about how the temporary and rudimentary can become the permanent and the thing of beauty. And in a way that works for everyone (including the bus user, the wheelchair user, our future selves facing greater climate extremes).

2. The permanent shift now taking place to more journeys being undertaken by bike and on foot is an unequivocal good thing. So I hate to throw shade on the active travel love parade but we still need to recognise that the car isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It really isn’t. It dominates trip share now and nearly everywhere. Even in London as a whole more trips are made by car than public transport or than by bike/on foot. London is Trafalgar Square but it is also the outer boroughs where you can drive down a street and look down from the upper deck of a world leading bus service and see that every house has a rubik cube of vehicles on the hard standing where the garden used to be. And that’s our world city. For decade after decade the UK has been rebuilding and refashioning lives and landscapes around the car leaving active travel and public transport with a Lilliputian mode share in the countryside, the edge lands, the suburbs and the towns. It is absolutely possible that active travel trips will increase – at the same time that trips by car will increase. Public transport’s current existential challenge is the car salesman’s opportunity – and they are raring to go. The modern car already looks like a bulked out bouncer. SUVs look like they could be fitted with advanced weaponry as standard and transport data points to the fact that bigger cars are more deadly when it comes to collisions – concerning when children behave like children, and act impulsively. If people wanted these kind of vehicles before a global pandemic I’m guessing they still will when the threat level has been raised and we have all got used to being in our bubble. Your name’s not on the list, you are not coming in. If the car is still king then let’s get occupancy rates up, electrify them toute suite, take road deaths as seriously as those from COVID-19 (if it’s face coverings for humans then it should be speed limiters for cars). And when we talk about transport let’s not always be thinking about city centres but think about providing alternatives to car dependency where we can in towns, suburbs and edgelands. We also need to broaden our transport planning minds by factoring in the interplay with broadband provision and the trip patterns that follow on from an expansion of home working.

3. As Oscar Wilde said, “each man kills the thing he loves”, and we are doing a good job of that in the short term as people heed the warnings and avoid public transport like the, er, plague. The question is how many of them are coming back – and which types of passenger? It seems unlikely they all will. The bus was in trouble before this started so looks particularly vulnerable. This is all exacerbated by a deregulated system outside London which would allow commercial bus operators to make money from a shrinking core network whilst abandoning more of the rest for a cash-strapped local government to pick up a tab they can no longer afford. Prior to all this the Government was planning a boost in mostly capital investment in bus which they would pick and choose to carry the HM Government coat of arms. The danger of this though is that in isolation it creates Potemkin villages of exemplary pilots but without the wider financial underpinning to stem decline or maintain provision once the initial burst of government support winds down. Time to face facts – to ‘save our buses’ we need consistent higher subsidies, lower and simpler fares. And we need to stop pretending that this is compatible with seeking to sustain the illusion that this is a commercial and deregulated industry (an illusion that finally evaporated when the lockdown began and the industry went from mostly, to entirely, dependent on public subsidy).

4. The biggest policy challenge of 2020 will be how to fuse an effective post-COVID-19 economic strategy with the urgent need to further accelerate carbon reduction trajectories. Given the grid has been greening at an astonishing rate, the most obvious route one is to crack on with the electrification of transport. This would create good green jobs and slash carbon emissions – a national endeavour that is easily understood. Meanwhile the easiest way to prevent carbon emissions is not to do things that we don’t have to do and which we know will make things worse. Bloated road programme I’m looking at you.  And as a bonus all the money being spent on it which could be spent on something useful and relevant to the 21st century instead. Meanwhile, just as cars aren’t going to disappear, neither are aeroplanes. Now is the chance to drive some hard green bargains with the aviation sector in relation to their overt and hidden subsidies – and to stop the free for all in airport expansions driven by junk flights and the revenues from acres of long stay parking fees.

5. Given the scale of the challenge of COVID-19 (both right now and through the recovery phase) city regions need to be able to act decisively and at scale. At present they are bogged down in a morass of ad hoc funding competitions (some still on pre-COVID-19 autopilot) and siloed funding streams overseen by a distracted Whitehall, as well as being pinned down by a lack of decision making power. So on funding there’s a need for significant streamlining, consolidation and long term certainty. And on powers more local rail and bus decision making should come down from the national level whilst there is also scope for powers that currently sit at the District level that could, as in London, sit at the city region level (such as taxi licencing and the strategic road network). The review of the legal and regulatory framework for new mobility should also ensure city regions have the powers to innovate and to contain (on wider public interest grounds) as they see fit.

After all if we can’t be bold now – then when?

Jonathan Bray is Director 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