Are we moving to nano management?

In the summer there were high hopes that COVID-19 would be a short war in which the worst would soon be over and victory was in sight. Having won the war, we could then go onto win the peace by making some of the wartime measures (like a big shift to cycling) part of the new society we would build. Pre-war objectives were still firmly in place – plugging left behind towns back into the rail network, a green new start for the bus, levelling up and a green recovery. FDR’s New Deal was name-checked as the territory we were moving into. In some ways the mood was expansive and optimistic.

However, as the COVID war drags on it feels like horizons have shortened to getting through the slog of trench warfare with the virus until the point at which we can drop the vaccine A-bomb on it. There’s less energy around to think about the post-COVID world – including what the macro economic policy is going to be. Instead we seem to be entering a more claustrophobic world of micro-economics, narrowed horizons, central control and fragmented approaches.

Before I say why, I want to disagree with those that argue that HMT involvement in transport decision making is always a bad thing. In my discussions with HMT over the years they often take a far more clear headed and rational view than the Department for Transport. For example, HMT have seen the case for bus support but never understood the rationale for pumping that money into poorly regulated monopolies instead of a contracted system where they could see what they were getting for their money. By way of contrast, DfT tends to be siloed by mode and within each silo the default position (with honourable exceptions) is to act as the envoy within wider government for whatever the current status quo or controlling interests are within that sector.

However, the problem is that at present not only is the macro-economic approach to the crisis unclear, the scale of it has meant the Treasury has reverted primarily to bean counting mode as it attempts to keep the hurdles high for access from various parts of the economy or society for a COVID bail out, whilst simultaneously seeking to keep the hurdle low for ending that bail out as soon as possible.

This means we now have two Government departments (DfT and HMT) crawling over the detail of funding for each mode in isolation – and where there is a political backdrop (which there is with Transport for London) we also have Number 10 too.

Meanwhile, unlike the heady days of the summer when councils were told to move fast to turn capacity over to active travel, local government is now being told it must jump through numerous hoops on local traffic schemes as the government in effect wants to second guess decisions on paving stones and the position of white paint on high streets from Penzance to Peterlee. And whilst long term multi-year funding for big national infrastructure (like the climate-deaf and bloated national roads programme) appear to be intact, the one-year horizon of the Spending Review means that longer term funding for local public transport and active travel is curtailed. In short, on local urban transport we are in danger of moving from micro management to nano management.

Come fly with me?

The second lockdown is a further hammer blow to airports and the aviation industry. And that’s creating a lot of ripples for the economy and for land transport policy which we perhaps haven’t been thinking enough about. Prior to the crisis it was the norm that everywhere needed an airport – even if it was more status symbol than somewhere that tempted many planes to drop down out of the skies to touch down. And if a place already had an airport – it needed to be bigger, a lot bigger. If you have an airport what follows is a cluster of brown or greenfield development springing up around it. And if you have all that then you need new and bigger roads – and better public transport links. Before you know it you have an ‘aerotropolis’ (be it big or small) and local transport investment plans end up with big chunks netted off for improving links to the local airport.

But the boom times are over. Airport expansion plans are by and large dead or on hold. And there is a sense those airports which are pressing ahead with their growth proposals are only doing so to get permission in the bag rather out of any conviction that they will need it any time soon. The industry’s emergency landing is also taking place at a time when climate concerns are taking off – especially with Joe Biden now in the pilot’s seat in the US.

More widely, Britain may have given up on a state-driven attempt to dominate the jet age decades ago and the supersonic era started and finished with Concorde (the Apollo moonshot of aviation) but Aerospace is still one of the sectors that keeps us in the global economic premier league. It employs over 100,000 people directly, and over 220,000 indirectly. It’s also one of the UK’s largest exporters adding around £2.8bn annually to the UK balance of trade. All of this plays out not just in the economies of places near to the big airports (from Whythenshawe to Hillingdon) but in aerospace towns and cities like Derby and Preston.

So what might this mean for policy change? Any bailouts for the aviation industry should come with green strings attached, including on the fuels they use and also in relation to a shift in policy on rail.

I’ve said before that I have no idea, why, if the railways are now effectively state-owned and planned, all you would do with that opportunity is keep puppeteering the waxy corpse of rail privatisation with its cacophony of make believe brands in the pointless pretence that there is some kind of dynamic competitive market. And at the same time you are doing this why would you simultaneously let an infrastructure company with a reputation for insularity and unresponsiveness creep into the role of deciding what passengers and places want from their railways?

Why not instead use the opportunity to re-create a coherent national branded intercity network again, part of whose remit would be to eliminate domestic air travel wherever possible? This is what we are already seeing as part of airline bailout deals and wider transport policy in places like Austria where, as part of the national flag carriers bail out package, the airline is required to cut its domestic emissions by half by 2050 and to end flights where there is a direct train connection to the airport that takes considerably less than three hours. As a result, there are no flights anymore between Vienna and Salzburg but instead there is a first rate rail service.

Indeed, the Austrians are becoming the train daddy of Europe. When state operators like SNCF and DB trashed what was an extensive and inter-connected night train network in western Europe, Austria heroically kept the night train concept going by filling some of the gaps. They did this long enough for governments across Europe to realise the extent of the folly that had been committed and to pledge to start to reverse the process.

Meanwhile, as COVID and its consequences adds another layer of anxiety and procedure to air travel (and more businesses realise less flights are necessary for staff) then it will be some time, if ever, before passenger numbers return. Quality may also make a comeback over quantity as prices rise and packing people into cramped terminals and planes becomes less acceptable. Economic and transport plans predicated on an exponential rise in airline passengers may also need a rethink. It may be that securing, decarbonising and civilising the existing aerotropoli (and the jobs that depend on them) becomes more of a priority than further expansion.

Perhaps too we will see a more planned approach to airport capacity in order to safeguard the economies of those reliant on what we already have rather than the decades long cagey game of chess as the big airport operators manoeuvre and scheme for the approval of ministers and planning inspectors whilst the passing of the years grinds down the resistance of those under the flight paths. Will we also see a move away from turning airfields last used by RAF bombers into departure points for a limited repertoire of junk flights where most of the revenue comes not from the crazy cheap ‘what climate crisis?’ fares the airlines charge, but from the long stay car parks and the on-site retail.

We shall see. But one thing is for sure, less contrails in the skies will require more thinking about what happens to the runways, roads and rails below.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

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?



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