Time for transport policy to get in touch with its inner hipster?

Something is happening to our bland, branded up high streets in the same way that something fundamental is happening to our urban economies. The hipsters have arrived.

Sure, Greggs and Virgin Money and all the other high street chains have most of the prime spots locked up but springing up everywhere, and at quite a rate, are shops, bars, cafes, barbers (or a fusion of all of them behind one artful plate glass window) which are ‘artisan this’ and ‘craft that’.. valuing the authentic, the independent, and the culturally and digitally savvy.

And behind those shaken up high streets, in former industrial areas and repurposed office blocks, similar preferences inform the wider ‘flat white economy’ or ‘new economy’ (the communications, information, digital and media economy) which is also surging. After all, most people are on some kind of computer most of their work and leisure time – the digital natives, and there’s money in it.

And just as for those (that can afford the prices) who are shifting away from boring chain stores in the high street for shopping, so too is a linked shift away from dull isolated business parks for working – at least for the refuseniks or those with the skills the booming new economy needs. All of which helps explain why more new economy businesses want exciting urban locations where ideas and talent can spark off each other rather than fizzle out in sterile suburbs, malls and business parks. In doing so, the new economy also joins the financial and legal sector which has always preferred to cluster in city centres.

What does all this mean for transport? Urban Transport Group’s latest report Banks, bytes and bikes explores this issue.

Much of existing transport policy has been predicated on the economic value that can be derived from reducing journey times between point A and point B. The not unreasonable argument being that reducing the time and cost of moving goods, people and services is good for the economy. This in turn has tended to favour ‘inter’ rather than ‘intra’ urban transport projects. After all that’s what business says it wants isn’t it? It’s certainly what a lot of business wants. But not necessarily what all business now wants to give overriding priority to. It’s not just greenies that are now prioritising making places interesting and accessible by active travel and mass transit, over traffic speeds and volumes – it’s the Corporation of the City of London. And it’s not just in European cities that this is happening – it’s in the USA too – as a fascinating contribution from the American Passenger Transportation Association to our report shows.

But it would be wrong to replace one monolithic view of what business wants on transport with another. It would also be wrong to ignore the needs of the thousands of employers and millions of people who do not work in city centres and who also work in less celebrated or in vogue sectors of the economy (such as  retail, catering and hospitality). This is one reason why we will be following up this report with one on urban towns later this year. However, a valid challenge from this report remains – which is: is it time for urban transport policy to better reflect the priorities of the new economy, and as part of that get more in touch with its inner hipster?

It’s time to transform regional rail networks – and here are four practical examples of why and how it could be done.

Ben Still, Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Urban Transport Group’s Board Lead for Rail, takes a look at our new report on regional rail investment.

From the evidence and experience we have developed over the years, we know investment in rail services can have a real and transformational impact on people’s lives and regional economies. Previous research from the Urban Transport Group has shown that investment in urban and regional programmes represents high or very high value for money, and returns far in excess of the original capital investment.

Our latest report – The Transformational Benefits of Investing in Regional Rail: four case studies – is a powerful study of the benefits that improvements in rail infrastructure can bring to regional economies. Although the case studies are based on real examples they are indicative of what can be achieved from different types of rail schemes rather than fully worked up business cases for particular schemes.

The examples include the development of a new passenger services on an existing freight route (based on the Ashington Blyth and Tyne line in South East Northumberland), the linking of two radial passengers routes to create new longer distance and cross-city journey opportunities (based on a new link in the West Midlands) and the total transformation of an entire rail network to include tram-train technologies and on-street running in city centres (based on the Cardiff Valleys).

As Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, one of the case studies has particular resonance for me. This is for a whole route upgrade (based on the Leeds – Harrogate – York line). The route is extremely well used, with demand increasing at some stations on the route by around 40% over the last 10 years. However, to date the only major improvements to the line have been lengthening trains and some station improvements.

The report uses the route as the basis for a case study of the benefits of resignalling and electrification as well as route and service improvements, including new stations. The benefits would include increased passenger capacity, shorter journey times and easing congestion in the major urban areas at either end of the line. The two new proposed stations would also unlock much needed new housing development potential and deliver new and easier access to jobs, education and other social services.

The report found this case study to have very high value for money, with a cost benefit ratio of 4:1 – meaning for every £1 invested in the scheme there are £4 worth of economic benefits.

The other case studies have differing cost benefit ratios but all bring significant benefits. Our report should be seen as a signpost to what can be done and what can be achieved – if brave and forward-looking investment decisions can be reached.

Our blueprint for urban transport can deliver transformational change

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus and Chair of the Urban Transport Group, offers his thoughts on our new report – Policy Futures for urban transport.

Over the coming few weeks the major political parties will be getting together to debate their policies for the next few years. Ensuring our urban economies can grow in a sustainable and inclusive way has to be a key part of those debates. We believe modern and efficient transport networks can be the link between policy objectives and delivered results.

Very few other services brings together – or facilitates the success of – the goals of many government departments and agencies. The Urban Transport Group calculated that in 2014 local bus services alone contributed to the policy goals of half of all government departments and 46 policy goals of those departments (41 outside of the DfT).

That’s why we are launching our latest Policy Futures vision – a blueprint that can lead to transformational change for everything from economic development, social mobility and inclusion through to creating the cities we will need for the future.

At its heart, the Policy Futures vision requires a national framework that brings together government and civil service at the national level with the urban transport authorities delivering services in their local areas. Potentially, the barriers between departments and agencies can be lessened so that the benefits that joined-up transport thinking might be realised – in such disparate policy areas such as health, employment and education.

Not only that, a national framework could also deliver real economic and budgetary goals – funding decisions for transport schemes and infrastructure can be streamlined and made more efficient enabling transport authorities to have more control over a more stable funding regime. A more focussed transport framework will unlock additional job opportunities by helping people get into work and increase the skills base of the population by easing access to education and training.

The Policy Futures vision has 16 specific policy changes we would like to see implemented – I won’t list them here, but we will be on hand at the Labour and Conservative party conferences to explain them in detail.

Our member authorities deliver vital urban transport services for millions of people  in the UK – and we hope to make their voices, and the voices of our members heard this party conference season.