New normal?

September has brought to an abrupt end the dreams of the summer of a linear recovery from COVID-19, where empty office blocks would spring back into strip lit life and zoned out commuters would again be grazing the shelves of Prets.

However, once more the virus has shown that it is not prepared to enter into reasonable negotiations and come to a compromise. And now as September turns the temperatures down to a level the virus prefers, its resurgence could signal the start of a new normal. Just not the new normal we were hoping for back in the summer. Instead, this could be a new normal of oscillating restrictions which fall short of the national lockdown of the Spring but which is nothing like the life we used to have pre-COVID.

For public transport, this has already meant a levelling off of the growth that was occurring and in some cases the start of a gentle dip. In many areas, this has happened just before an unstoppable force (growth in patronage) collided with an immovable object (socially distanced capacity) which for many areas alleviates what would have been a very difficult problem to solve. If public transport patronage does stay in the 40 to 50% band during this new normal, then the case for a longer term COVID-19 funding support for this period is strengthened. Because – as in the national lockdown – public transport will continue to play a key role in getting essential workers where they need to be. Whilst in addition doing more than that because unlike during the national lockdown, we will be seeing less empty vehicles as public transport continues to provide wider life support for local economies.  Again, this strengthens the case for stable rather than provisional additional COVID-19 funding support to close the revenue gap caused by the pandemic. We will soon find out if this is to be the case with Transport for London’s latest funding deadline approaching on 17 October, funding for the five LRT systems outside London and Blackpool on 26 October and with bus on the precipice of funding withdrawal being triggered at any time with eight weeks’ notice.

Face coverings are also part of our new normal – and no longer something that’s only necessary on public transport (which also helps reduce the associated stigma for public transport). Enforcement and messaging is helping to support high levels of take up in general – but the more prevalent the virus becomes, the more passengers will see those who aren’t covering up as unacceptably selfish and a threat. Face covering use can also decline as the day turns into night and in particular among peer pressured groups of young people (including school children). The situation is further complicated by the fact that anyone can also self identify as someone for whom face covering regulations don’t apply by saying that they are not required to wear one due to an unspecified disability or medical reason. Whilst there are good reasons for this, it is also clearly open to abuse.  The Government’s approach to face covering use has been to incrementally ratchet up the rhetoric and the fines. However, it’s far from clear that this will be enough to get to where we should be. Which is that there should only be three types of people using public transport – those wearing face coverings; those who are legitimately exempt; and those who aren’t wearing a face covering and as a result won’t be on public transport for very long and/or whose bank account will be diminished as a result. If that’s the end state we want, then we need to move from the incremental to something more decisive. This could include giving transport authorities more enforcement options given only the police can enforce at present (such as being able to empower additional staff to support the police on enforcement as TfL can), as well as moving beyond informal self identification of exemption status.

Free wheeling on active travel?

A feature of the Summer was active travel euphoria as leisure cycling soared, main roads into city centres were adapted with pop up cycle lanes for mass commuting, and the Government’s active travel strategy declared that Copenhagen and Amsterdam should watch out as Britain would soon be at their shoulder.  As we enter Autumn, the euphoria is wearing off as a culture war backlash rages in London and elsewhere (which has spilled over into Parliament and the Cabinet) over the pace of change. A battle between the metro and the retro, and between those who like the way their street now looks and feels and are willing to give the new a try, and those for whom the inconvenience they feel it causes is the last thing they need in their busy lives in the middle of a pandemic. Meanwhile, a hoped-for exponential growth in utility cycling, where offices remain closed, is proving challenging in many areas. Whilst Government has called on local authorities to be swift, consultative and simultaneously excellent in every way on cycling, it has, and is, also dragging its feet on getting the cheques out of the door that local government needs to fulfil these goals. As this timeline shows, the second tranche of the funding originally announced in July has still not been paid out.

Momentum is everything if the current moment isn’t to be looked back on as a false dawn for active travel. This means we need to speed up the flow of funding for local government to crack on and for more capacity at the centre (at the Department for Transport and at the new Active Travel England body). At this critical point in the battle for hearts and minds, we also need more air cover from Government. A summer manifesto of active travel ambitions with a foreword from the PM is a big deal, and was and should be rightly celebrated – but its not enough on its own and needs to be reinforced as the going gets tougher.

Jonathan Bray is Director 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

Into the unknown

 

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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