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

Into the unknown

 

UTG Tram and light rail2

As tough as it gets for public transport

This is as tough as it gets for public transport. The Government’s decision to trigger a restart last night (Sunday), that begins this morning, has run ahead of the guidance on how public transport should respond. Leaving us with not a chance of being able to prepare in a consistent way to make the best fist of what is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. That challenge being to run the biggest service you can, whilst protecting staff and seeking to ensure passengers keep two metres from each other.

Not only did we have no clear guidance from Government in advance on the detail of how they want us to achieve this – at present we don’t even know how much detail there is going to be. On top of that (other than for rail), we don’t have any detail on what the funding package will be to support the ramp up in services. Given that COVID-19 transmission is more likely in enclosed spaces, and where people are in close proximity for prolonged periods of time, it was always going to be particularly difficult for public transport to manage the risks in its preparation for restart. But trying to plan in the information vacuum of recent weeks has made that task even harder and contributed to public transport now being portrayed as the pariah mode of transport – the one to be avoided. In the week ahead we will do our level best to collectively respond as adroitly as we can to the hand we have been dealt – but it’s difficult to see how the result isn’t going to be messy (at best).

The dam breaks on active travel

In stark contrast to the gloom around public transport, is the unconfined joy that permeated Twitter over the dam breaking at the weekend on Government support (fiscal, policy and verbal) for getting more people walking and cycling. However, compared to the intractable problems on public transport as a result of COVID-19, the obstacles to the roll out of temporary road space reallocation are much more manageable. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how you use cheap, basic immediate road space reallocation measures to prepare the way for more expensive longer term street redesign, done in quality. And in doing so, how you also lock in capacity for buses (the importance of which many green commentators and advocacy bodies seem to have forgotten about in the excitement).

Let the circle be unbroken

In the many weeks since this all began I’ve been in innumerable telecons but not one so far where there was Department for Transport reps from rail and from local transport at the same time. This is symptomatic of a wider compartmentalised approach where what seems to be seen as the elite public transport mode (rail) gets both a privileged dialogue and funding deal with Government (national rail got its funding deal the day lockdown was announced – whilst TfL is still waiting). Meanwhile, local public transport trails in at the back of the queue. This compartmentalised approach makes no sense when passengers experience rail as part of a wider public transport system in different areas and when a common approach to social distancing, service ramp ups and messaging to the public is going to be critical at this very difficult time for public transport as a whole.

The other circle that needs to be closed soon is on travel demand management in terms of joining up whatever Government is saying to business at the national level and what we need to be saying to major employers and destinations in our areas… especially with the danger of numerous mini-peaks occurring as highly constrained public transport attempts to cope with peaks in demand at different times from different major employers and destinations.

Personally, I am baffled as to why the Government has triggered more transport demand in advance of publishing the guidance on how this should be handled. But this is where we find ourselves and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether our task over the next few weeks will be to deal with the consequences in the best way we can for our people, our passengers and the places we serve.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

 

 

Funding, distancing and messaging – the three big recovery challenges

TfL please keep your distance

As we enter week seven of the lockdown, the challenges of preparing for a restart remain daunting. It’s hard to plan a public transport restart when at the start of the week we don’t know the phasing or the timing of any lockdown release; what the rules will be on social distancing or PPE; and whether there will be a coordinated national travel demand management exercise or not. Though by the time I write the next of these weekly blogs, it looks like the Government will have told the public, and us, more.

Boiling it right down, the three main challenges of a restart are funding, operational (mostly relating to social distancing) and what the messaging is to the public.

Funding

So, let’s look at funding first. If public transport burned through a lot of cash running near empty services during the lockdown, then recovery could be more expensive still. Why? Because during lockdown there were far fewer services than normal and lower patronage, whereas the recovery stage means the fullest service you can provide but with patronage still well down (because of social distancing and continuing restrictions on travel).

The shock to the system of the lockdown led to a retreat into a compartmentalised approach to funding of public transport by DfT, with rail getting what turned out to be a relatively generous deal (compared with what was to follow, eventually, for light rail) with government promising to cover private rail operators’ costs – plus a profit margin. This was announced on the same day as the lockdown began (23 March). Buses outside London followed on with a two stage cobbled together arrangement / workaround to accommodate the peculiarities of bus deregulation. Phase one of the bus funding deal was based on local and national government doing something that it should only be doing in the absence of any alternative – which is to pay out for a service that isn’t being provided. This was topped up with a second fund for the services that private operators are actually providing. It kind of worked because the lockdown situation is stable (with services bumping along the bottom and so is patronage). But it also rests on any overpayment being reined in by a ‘reconciliation’ process further down the track – which is bound to be cumbersome and complex (and may only ever turn out to be partial) where any overpayments are supposed to be able to be clawed back.

The funding needs of the restart period will be a different animal altogether – with demand bouncing around depending on the phasing of the lockdown and local circumstances. Try reconciling and adjusting that on a month by month basis from Whitehall. Plus, the restart is the point at which we should be moving away from the last resort of asking cash strapped local authorities to pay for things that aren’t being provided, to devolving bus funding to local transport authorities so it can be used to direct funding so that every single pound is spent to ensure that the network that is provided month by month meets the changing month by month needs of the places they serve. Given that the overwhelming majority of bus industry income is now provided by the national and local state, if the rhetoric about empowering city regions to write more of the rules of their own recovery means something, then now is the time to make the big call on bus funding the right way.

Finally, it’s hard to understand why one of the world’s greatest public transport networks (Transport for London) is still without a funding deal given that private sector rail operators got theirs on day one of the lockdown. There are now 7,000 staff furloughed at public sector TfL in the run-up to what could be the biggest challenge for public transport in the capital since the Blitz. Anyone see a pattern here? And more widely, if there is to be a coordinated approach to providing a public transport network for the nation during a phased release of lockdown, then shouldn’t there also be a coordinated approach to funding?

Social distancing

The second big challenge is operationally how do you provide a service which is as safe as it can be for both staff and passengers as numbers increase? In particular, how do you maintain social distancing? And what complementary or compensating measures do you take particularly where social distancing is difficult to guarantee? Given that COVID-19 transmission is more likely in enclosed, indoor spaces, and where people are in proximity for extended periods, then that becomes an especially difficult challenge on public transport vehicles and in stations and interchanges. In the absence of a clear steer from Government, as yet, much of our work this week is about wrestling with these conundrums and sharing potential approaches with the aim of striking the right balance between consistency, innovation and adaptation to local circumstances across the modes and across geographies.

Messaging

Connected to the operational challenge is what does all this mean for the purpose and capacity of public transport in a phased release from lockdown, and how is this communicated to public transport users? At high levels of social distancing and in denser urban geographies, it won’t take long for buses and trains to be ‘full’, so will the messaging be that people should make their journey at less busy times, by other means or not at all… in effect, pushing people to active travel and cars? And what will the look and feel of buses, trams and trains be? How do you communicate the behaviours that we need passengers to adopt (as enforcement at all times is not possible) without public transport looking like a scary, crime scene? And how do we do this in a way that over time allows for a transition to the endgame where we are actively encouraging people to use public transport as much as possible again (as we were before the crisis)?

Although there are some horrible quandaries and uncertain times for public transport at present, the travails of public transport are one more reason why active travel’s time has come. Before the crisis, the promotion of active travel (and the prioritisation of people over vehicles in the urban realm) was fast moving front and centre in urban policymaking in leading cities around the world. Now the dam could really break. Because the logic is that if public transport’s capacity has been limited by social distancing and we don’t want to see the roads clogged with cars, then we need to shift more short journeys to walking and cycling ASAP. Although there is ecstasy on Twitter every time a picture is shared of some temporary coning off of road space for walking and cycling, there’s also a need, whilst moving fast, to think clearly about the best way of facilitating a mass shift to walking and cycling that is also strategic and durable. This includes how it is funded, how the temporary and rudimentary best prepares the way for the permanent and high quality, and how other legitimate calls on road capacity are accommodated (in particular, locking in capacity for now and the future for buses). There is also the role of speed limit reductions and traffic and pedestrian light phasing to play into the mix.

As we enter week seven and wrestle with these taxing challenges, now – more than ever – it is good that as the Urban Transport Group we have the mechanisms to do so as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

You can read all of Jonathan’s weekly blog posts here.