A new era for active travel?

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Active travel is entering an exciting phase which is seeing investment on a new scale. However, with the upcoming Spending Review, there is also some nervousness around revenue funding streams and ensuring that we can continue the good progress that’s been made. These were two of the topics of discussion at our recent active travel meeting in Birmingham, hosted by our member Transport for West Midlands.

At these meetings we like to get out and experience new walking and cycling infrastructure first hand. So, on this occasion, we had a ride along the new A38 route, and back along the canal network.

As someone who has ridden many urban cycling routes as part of my role, I have to say that the A38 route was an absolute joy. The road is one of the busiest through the city centre, and not one that I could have imagined cycling along at a leisurely pace before. But the new route allows just that. In particular, the tree lined section down the middle of the road felt safe, relaxing and enjoyable. The scheme is direct, with good journey times into the city centre.

We returned to the city centre through the University campus and then down the canal. The canals in Birmingham are a great natural asset, providing direct off-road routes into and out of the city centre. It was encouraging to see the number of people commuting and enjoying leisure activities along this route.

Cycle lanes and Let's Ride Day

Yet it’s not just in Birmingham where exciting active travel developments are taking shape – they’re happening all across the Urban Transport Group’s network. High profile active Travel Commissioners (or equivalent) have been appointed in London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire, raising the profile of active travel at the local and national level.

Transport for Greater Manchester was our first member outside of London to adopt this approach and they have made startling progress since. Its Bee Network – the UK’s largest cycling and walking network championed by former Olympic cyclist and Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman – will now cover up to 2,000 miles. A large proportion of the recent Transforming Cities Fund (over half) is being devoted to helping deliver this. This funding statement would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago.

And just this month, Leeds’ new £7.9 million city centre cycle superhighway opened, adding an extra 4km of segregated routes to the city’s growing cycling network thanks to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s CityConnect programme, in partnership with Leeds City Council.

However, active travel still continues to attract relatively low amounts of funding in comparison to other modes. Last week, the Transport Select Committee published its findings to the Active Travel Inquiry in which they call on Government to play a stronger central role. The Committee identified that the Government will allocate just 1.5% of its total transport spending on active travel and called for a dedicated funding stream for delivering improvements which will increase levels of walking and cycling and increase total funding for active travel. This is something that we fully support. As Ben Still, Managing Director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority and our lead Board member for active travel said, “walking and cycling have a key role to play in the imperative of reducing carbon emissions from transport, as well as offering wider health, social and economic benefits to people and communities. With the right funding deal and leadership from national Government, we can ensure active travel delivers a win-win for people and the planet.”

Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

Northern Ireland is getting ahead

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Of the four main constituent parts of the UK, only one of them saw bus use grow last year. It is the same one on track to having a smart and fully unified ticketing system across all forms of public transport, and which has also seen the use of its rail network double in 10 years. That’s Northern Ireland, where after decades of being sidelined as car dependency took hold, public transport is back.

The posterchild for the new found assertiveness and visibility of public transport in Northern Ireland is Belfast’s new Glider BRT system which spans the city east to west with a branch into the Titantic quarter of the city’s docklands. As a visitor to Belfast you can’t miss this striking new addition to Belfast city centre’s imposing street grid. Residents have taken to it too – it’s winning over passengers and raising the wider status of public transport in the process.

Glider works because it’s been thought through. It’s on-street and unguided but this format for BRT works in Belfast because of the specifics of the road network and the geographies served. These artics don’t get to give their rubbery midriffs much of a work out because the roads they serve are mostly straight, which makes the experience of using Glider feel more rapid transit. Some of Belfast’s roads are not just straight they are also wide enough to slot bus priority in without too much fuss (the city centre’s streets are also, helpfully, on a grid pattern). Where the roads narrow as they pass through inner city communities, getting bus priority in was trickier – however, rather than attempt to barrel bus lanes through for the benefit of suburbanites, the opportunity was taken to renew local streetscapes, giving local high streets a boost in the process.

If the overall concept has been thought through then so have the details. Stops were reduced and standardised to be more like tram stops. All ticketing is off-board. The vehicles themselves are no nonsense Belgian Van Hools which iron out the bumps in the road for passengers. The smoother ride gives more of a rapid transit feel. They also have air con. Because having big windows to gaze out of is lovely, but being trapped inside a rattly greenhouse – not so much.

The off-board ticketing also has some interesting beneficial side effects. Firstly, it makes dwell times shorter and more regular in duration, removing the background annoyance of the stop-start nature of conventional bus travel – making the experience more like rapid transit. It also means that passengers who don’t like that kind of thing can avoid the interaction anxiety which comes from having to negotiate with a driver in front of an audience. Yet, at the same time human interaction, in less theatrical form (unless you are fare dodging), is retained in the form of roving teams of jovial inspectors.

The well thought through concept and the well thought through details mean the whole adds up to a lot more than the sum of the parts. It’s what FirstGroup’s FTR should have been and wasn’t – despite the hype and sycophancy from the trade press, Department for Transport and so on that greeted its launch at the time. This isn’t plonking fancy new bendy buses on the streets, and walking away – it’s a whole new Belfast thing. People say they are getting the Glider rather than saying they are getting the bus. Suburban shopping centres are giving Glider the credit for higher footfall. Before it was implemented the media said all that bus priority would lead to is the shuttering up of local traders. Yet now look at Ballyhackamore – on a Glider route and voted one of the best places to live in the UK. And it’s also doing its bit for bringing communities together as some people from nationalist communities have been travelling on it across to unionist parts of town, and vice versa. Some of them for the first time in their lives.

If Glider stands out in the city centre, there’s something else that’s striking to those used to the messy, shouty state of play in many GB city centres (with all those different buses in different colour schemes proclaiming the merits of tickets you can only use on their services). It’s the calm and order in Belfast of the interlocking network of bus services which serve the city and Northern Ireland more widely. Metro for frequent urban Belfast services, a new high spec ‘Urby’ network for longer distance commuters, Ulsterbus for local services across Northern Ireland and then the Goldline coach network for fast services between towns and cities. It’s an easy to understand network which experienced overall growth in patronage last year.

All of this is possible because, firstly, the vast majority of public transport services in Northern Ireland are provided by Translink (a state-owned corporation). And, secondly, Translink is carrying out its remit, which is not to use a monopoly position to manage decline but to get out there and ensure that public transport plays its part in delivering the wider objectives Northern Ireland has for a thriving green economy based on healthy communities.

The end of decline management is also exemplified by the transformation of Northern Ireland’s rail network. In the sixties Northern Ireland was no more immune to the brutalising of its railway system than the rest of the UK – leaving some districts without any rail service at all. Until the early 2000s this residual rail service was the domain of veteran English Electric ‘thumper’ units which dolefully and noisily trundled their way around a bare minimum of trackwork. When, finally, approval was given for new trains it unleashed an astonishing growth in passengers – a doubling in 10 years.

Meanwhile, bringing the whole rail and bus shebang together are two major projects. The first is a rebuild of the current hub of both Northern Ireland’s rail and bus network at Great Victoria Street. It’s starting to feel its age and both the bus and rail terminals are struggling to cope with surging demand; so much so that some rail services can’t be squeezed into it – such as the Enterprise rail service to Dublin. Everything is going to change, including the name (it will be rebranded within a broader regeneration site known as Weavers Cross), when it becomes a new, more spacious interchange topped off with a significant commercial development.

The second major project is the modernisation of transport ticketing. There are already 28 million smartcard journeys annually and nearly half a million active smartcards. As the modernisation project is rolled out across more types of services and ticketing projects, Northern Ireland is one of the frontrunner territories in Europe for achieving smart, simple and fully integrated ticketing across its entire public transport network.

Finally, layered on top of everything is a marketing campaign that stresses the intrinsic advantages of public transport for both the individual traveller and Northern Ireland as a whole. The predominance of the car culture in Northern Ireland (and the consequent tendency of Belfast to gridlock) can be an advantage here – as you are starting from a clean slate with a fresh proposition. The aim is to make public transport a credible answer for policy makers looking at where best to invest in tackling wider social, environmental and economic goals and for individuals’ travel needs. ‘Get on board’ as the strapline has it.

Northern Ireland really isn’t so different from the rest of the UK to make it an invalid comparator or to make lessons untransferable and the rest of the UK really needs to start looking at what Northern Ireland is doing on public transport. Because whilst you weren’t looking – they got ahead of you.

Jonathan Bray is Director of Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

Tackling transport challenges, together

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People will always need to travel to places. So, there is a strong consensus around the need for high quality, integrated urban public transport networks that can support the greener, healthier and more prosperous city regions that we want to see. But the big question is how to sustain a public transport offer when passenger numbers are falling, congestion is rising and resources continue to reduce?

Cooperating in partnerships, with operators and local authorities, and working closely with other regions as the Urban Transport Group, to exchange intelligence and expertise, is one of the ways we can try to achieve more with less. But we need to recognise that responding to the challenges facing us isn’t a case of one size fits all. On the contrary, to stimulate growth, more than ever we now need to understand local markets, and their demands and needs, in order to meet them.

Investment is critical: investment in research into public travel patterns and preferences; investment in attractive infrastructure; and investment in people and embracing diversity, to sustain a strong industry workforce that strengthens the transport skill and knowledge base to generate new ideas and take a fresh approach.

Collective insight and analysis can help policy makers and providers offer modes of transport that are competitive with, or even better than, the alternative. Everyone’s familiar with the climate rhetoric, but more needs to be done to make the grass look greener if travel behaviour is to change. It’s about increasing awareness around the impact an individual’s travel choice has on the whole community, and the benefits an efficient and integrated public transport network can bring to all – by reducing congestion on roads, for bus users and car drivers, whilst contributing towards cleaner air and a healthier community.

Research shows that using public transport helps to integrate physical activity into a daily routine, because most walk or cycle to and from bus, tram or train stops. This is an easy way to try and achieve the British Heart Foundation’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. People who travel by bus, tram or train are ‘happier’ too, according to a study from the University of East Anglia – simply because they have more time for mindfulness, to relax and to concentrate on themselves.

Among other factors, we’re working against a rise in car ownership, a shift in people’s expectations for more bespoke and on demand services, fare prices, increased online shopping, different work patterns and reduced investment. All of this impacts on public transport. Given this environment, it’s vital that transport leaders influence and shape what’s in their backyard and maximise every opportunity to affect change. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is supporting Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority in a bid for the Transforming Cities Fund, combining public transport improvements with a wider development and growth plan. Part of this would see investment in a cleaner fleet of buses. They’ll run on the most polluted corridors around the region, connecting people to employment and education, whilst contributing to air quality and congestion issues. It’s a step in the right direction. As is our Active Travel campaign, encouraging people to make small changes to the way they travel to bring big benefits for themselves and their environment.

In times of less resources, the way ahead is to share them. Together we can tackle the challenges to transform public transport. Today, and for future generations.

Stephen Edwards is Executive Director at SYPTE and the new Chair of Urban Transport Group

Read Stephen’s biography here