Six to watch on urban transport from the new Government

Early days but here’s six to watch that could be early indicators of the long term direction of the new government on urban transport. 

1. All the political big names love buses these days – if they can’t claim blood relatives in the industry they are making models of them in the evening. True love means long term commmitment though and if bus decline is going to be turned upside down then we need to see the bus get a bigger slice of the transport funding pie. So all eyes on the spending review to see the extent of reform and of any funding increase. We show how every pound of bus subsidy brings multiple benefits for departments across Whitehall here

2. Lots of talk both pre and post election on ramping up on devolution (and even talk about significant local government reform). But will Whitehall now really take the plunge and give up on its ability to pull the strings and take the credit? Particularly crucial if we are to see the ramping up of investment in transforming local transport in towns and cities will be getting some longer term stability on local transport funding. At present there’s excessive reliance on ad hoc competition funding which overall is inefficient and wasteful. Separate new funds for potholes, electric bus towns, cycling, superbuses, future mobility etc all make sense in their own terms. But they don’t make much sense if you are trying to plan local transport networks as a whole in an integrated long term way over time. What happens early on with local transport funding could set the tone for years ahead. 

 3. Talking of devolution we can now expect to see rail reform following on from the Williams Review. The PM has been strong in speeches about handing over more control over local rail networks. However the Williams Review team (as part of what is probably the most DfT captured of all the recent rail reviews) could hardly be more cautious – if not borderline negative. How this is resolved is key to whether or not metro areas are going to get the fully integrated, London-style urban transport systems that the PM has said he wants to see (more on this at the end of this piece). There’s more on the case for rail devo here.

4. Not so high profile, but rumbling along in the background, are government moves to establish a legal and regulatory framework that can cope with new mobility options, such as the transformation of the PHV sector, powered personal mobility devices (including e-scooters), connected and autonomous vehicles and so on. Urban transport authorities don’t want the overarching technical safety role but they do need a legal and regulatory framework which gives them the ability to strike the right balance in their areas between consumer benefits and the wider public interest. Between ‘sandboxing’ innovations and taking action if flooding of cities with new mobility options is causing wider problems such as for public safety, congestion or street clutter.

5. Post election everybody is talking towns. Good job last year when everyone else was writing very similar repetitive reports  about cities we put together the one and only report on how transport can help post industrial towns thrive. In short there are no magic bullets – it requires attention to local detail and joined up policies across transport and other sectors too. The report, blogs, infographics – all here

 6. One more thing. The biggest thing. The thing that is going to grow as we head towards the make or break international talks in Glasgow in November – which is the climate emergency. It’s likely in 2020 that this will lead to a ramping up of moves to electrify road transport. Which means we will need to move from the current cottage industry of charging infrastructure to something much more comprehensive. And for that we need a bigger top table of those who are going to bring it about – with the city regions given a seat alongside government, catapults, the vehicle manufacturers and the the energy sector. More widely, if we mean it about this is being an emergency, then it should change the way we look at everything – in particular how much sense it makes that bits and pieces of staggeringly expensive road schemes (which in turn are a guarantee of more car dependent sprawl) are still so dominant in transport spending when they are 100% non-compliant with a climate emergency and counter-productive in nearly every other way too.

 And in closing. We remain, as ever, so near but yet so far on urban transport. Take Liverpool city region as an example. There is a smartcard, there is an extensive urban rail network (with the UK’s most sophisticated new commuter trains due to enter service shortly), there is a bus network. It’s within grasp to bring this all together within the next five years into a single, modern and fully integrated network which will look and feel akin to the ‘one network, one ticket, one system’ that London and European counterpart cities takes for granted. Indeed it could be up there with the best of them (I wrote about this here). And not just in Liverpool city region but in other city regions too. What’s more the new government has said it wants urban transport in the metro areas to be more London. What happens with the six pointers above will give an early indication of whether this will be finally achieved, or remain a ‘so near but yet so far’. 


Getting beyond the MaaS hysteria

MaaS Movement cover social size

I don’t know about you but I’ve seen more than enough Power Points by now explaining with breathless excitement what Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is – as if no-one had ever heard about it before. And as if frequent repetition of the phrase in itself has alchemic properties which render immaterial base considerations as economics. So in the report we recently published on MaaS, we’ve tried to get beyond the MaaS hysteria and delve deeper into the real issues on turning the considerable potential of the concept into reality on the ground.

However, first it’s worth acknowledging how understanding of what people mean when they say Mobility as a Service has shifted in recent years. When this clumsy technocratic phrase (which unfortunately we are all now stuck with) first emerged it was commonly understood to mean the purchasing of packages for access to public transport combined with different forms of vehicle hire and sometimes bikes. It has since morphed to include portals for access to information and purchase of individual trips, and further evolved into the potential for the creation of ‘walled gardens’ where international corporations seek to ensure that you always go to them for transport information and payment (thus seeking to reproduce the monopoly platform model that has ultimately proved so profitable for Airbnb, Amazon, Google et al).

So far, despite all the fervour and theology about MaaS, what’s been achieved on the ground so far is rather less clear cut. At scale take up of MaaS (as originally defined as packages of mobility) is difficult to find. Indeed, we are at a point where the future of MaaS is still to be determined. It could be a system that steers people towards greater use of cars or away from them. It could make travelling easier for all, no matter their income, disability or location, or it could make mobility easier for tech-savvy, city centre dwellers and harder for those who are already excluded and marginalised. It could be a great concept that takes off at scale or one that people don’t need or want in practice.

Our report identified three factors that will determine the future of MaaS. The first is the topic that nobody seems to want to talk about when it comes to MaaS – which is money. The challenge for MaaS (where this means packages of mobility) is how you price the package at a rate where all the different providers involved make a return at a price the punters are willing to pay. Not easy unless either the public sector or the private sector is prepared to take a hit to ensure that cost is kept low.

A purely private sector-led MaaS could be prepared to burn cash in the short term in the hope of establishing a profitable monopoly in the long term. A purely public sector-led MaaS may be willing to do the same because the outcomes are worth the costs.

And then there’s the awkward question of how many people want to buy a package of mobility in the first place, rather than pay as they go – and who are they? Not clear yet. However, I always remember speaking to the person who runs the MaaS offer in a German city where the transport authority has been doing what is now described as MaaS for years and he said he thought it was good to be able to offer it, but it’s a niche product. He said most people will get a taxi when they want one rather than pay up front for access to taxis they may not use. One radical viewpoint on the economics of MaaS is that the real breakthrough would be to fuse MaaS with the pricing of road use to put paying to use your own car on contested and congested road space on the same app and pricing framework as for public transport, taxis and car hire.

The second make or break for MaaS is access to data. This factor is much more commonly covered in the debate on MaaS – so I won’t go into detail here. But with data now commonly seen as the earth’s most valuable commodity there are some big questions around how you get to the point of ‘if I show you mine will you show me yours?’

The third determinant is around the extent to which wider environmental, transport and social goals are encoded into the objectives of MaaS schemes. So, alongside the consumer benefits of a MaaS scheme to what extent does it relate to the wider goals that cities have to become healthier, greener, fairer and more prosperous places? For example, will MaaS schemes encourage people to make more short journeys on foot or by bike (good for public health and for reducing road congestion) or will they subtly promote the use of modes which can be more readily monetised for profit (such as taxis). The same risk is there for public transport if MaaS schemes promote taxi and hire car use at the expense of buses in particular.

Another big question is the extent to which MaaS schemes will also enable everyone in a city region to access opportunity or whether they default to targeting wealthier, city centre living early adopters?

If MaaS is about more than just those who already have the luxury of choice on transport (and much else besides), how could it be adapted to provide affordable options to low income groups?

Or how could it be used to precisely target information about transport options that work best given the nature of a person’s particular disabilities?

And in relation to this to what extent could MaaS dovetail with the concept of Total Transport to also incorporate currently silo-ed provision of social services, education and non emergency patient transport services to provide a more efficient service overall?

How MaaS evolves may also vary between the very largest city regions in the world and the rest. The world cities are those where the impacts of the big tech ‘platforms’ are being most widely felt. The world cities also have the most clout and resources to assert themselves if they so wish. At a time when housing costs are already the number one public concern in many of these cities, Airbnb is turning precious private and public housing stock into quasi-legal flop houses and pouring more petrol onto the flames of extreme financialisation of housing in the process. Meanwhile, on transport there is evidence that Uber and equivalents can eat into mass transit use (particularly in the US). And now there is the potential (depending on how MaaS develops) for Californian corporations to usurp the city’s role as trusted and impartial provider of transport information and access in the process, they are potentially also extending their control into cities’ transport planning role. In short, the world cities have some big decisions to make about the big tech platforms.

In the UK the role that second tier city regions play on MaaS may also be a product of their different circumstances and aspirations as they may well be hemmed in by their, as yet, limited influence over the core of any MaaS offer – public transport. This role could also be hampered by the hollowing out of local government by recent national administrations which means the resources that even some of the larger city regions have at their disposal to engage with issues like MaaS are highly constrained. However, we still suggest ‘five tests for good MaaS’ in our report that could be a useful frame for any urban area to think about MaaS:

  1. Does it incentivise public transport use?
  2. Does it reduce congestion and pollution?
  3. Is there a culture of openness/data sharing?
  4. Is it socially inclusive?
  5. Does it encourage active lifestyles?

Whether we are on the verge of a MaaS movement, or experiencing MaaS delusion, is not yet clear. But what is clear is that city regions will have a key role to play in determining whether MaaS is fool’s gold or the real thing.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

We know the pledges – but what’s the plan?

In signing up to climate change pledges politicians are also signing up to a seismic public policy shift – especially for the way we travel

There is no planet B

Climate change is the challenge of the century, both in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the worst effects of the continuum we are already on. We all kind of knew that. But the implications were just too hard to face. However, now that Greta Thunberg emerged to embody our unappeasable guilty conscience – city after city is declaring a climate emergency or a net zero target, or both. Nationally MPs have approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency and the UK Government became the first country to legally commit to become a net zero emitter of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In signing up to these pledges politicians of left and right are also implicitly signing up to the biggest public policy shift of the century. Because it implies government, nationally and locally, taking more control to remake the economy and society on sustainability principles and the rapid transformation of whole sectors of the economy, like transport and the built environment. All on a timescale so tight you wouldn’t want to start from where we were 10 years ago – never mind where we are now. And all at a time when our society feels horribly divided, paralysed by Brexit and with optimism a dwindling resource.

Some challenge. Especially if we intend to back up those big declarations with action and especially for transport (given the sector is now the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the UK). We will need a 21st century carbon reduction mania in transport to rival the railway mania that transformed the UK in the 19th century.

It will mean electrifying transport as rapidly as a greener grid can support it and as quickly as battery costs and availability come down. But this is going to take time, has its own significant challenges (including the embodied carbon in making these vehicles), so there is also a need to get people travelling in more efficient ways, such as 70 people sharing the same vehicle (a bus) or moving about without the need for any sort of engine (on a bike).

As our recent Number Crunch report shows, in the largest urban centres we are already seeing a shift to the more carbon and energy efficient transport modes. Cordon counts for the Birmingham am peak for example show a big increase in rail and a decrease in car commuting. Similar patterns can be seen in some of the other largest urban centres too – including in some areas a marked increase in cycling (though often from a low base) alongside strong growth in rail.

Largely missing from the modal shift party so far however is the bus. But the imperative provided by the need for rapid action on climate must surely be an opportunity for the bus to make a comeback. Especially because you can turn the funding up on bus services and see the benefits quickly. Handy too to have expanded bus services if you are planning to make it more difficult and expensive to drive, because some kind of alternative is there right away. It worked for Ken Livingstone when, as mayor of London, he flooded the streets with buses whilst simultaneously introducing congestion charging in 2003. He got re-elected too.

But this is not an opportunity that the bus industry currently looks in the state to capitalise on. Not structurally (Livingstone couldn’t have done what he did in a deregulated environment) nor when two of the ‘Big Five’ groups are up for sale and one of those is looking distinctly shop soiled. Indeed, with Greater Manchester now well down the franchising route and the end of Britain’s Big Five (and their unity in opposing franchising starting to crumble) there’s the feeling of an end of an era in the sector. A fresh start will be needed if the bus is to take the opportunity that net zero offers – including perhaps a major rethink of bus design (both exterior and interior) so that its face fits with both the look and feel that cities are aiming for and what might get travellers out of their cars.

However, much as the bus does have an opportunity from the climate crisis, the fact is that the car is still king outside the largest urban centres. More journeys are made by car than by any other means and much of the UK has also been made into a palace for King Car. For many people the places where they shop, work and spend their leisure time have been built on the rock solid assumption that there was no need to even consider that people might get there by any other means than the car. Even some of the places where we build buses and trains these days can be found in the middle of a car park in the middle of a nowhere that you can’t easily reach by bus or train. Of course these areas still need a public transport service, but given the overwhelming trip share of the car in vast tracts of the UK which have been built in the car’s image there must also be a role for increasing car occupancy rates through car sharing and through reducing the need for ownership through car clubs. But to make any of this happen we need some bold leadership. Cities and city regions that have signed up to net zero will also need to show leadership by looking at what they are spending their budgets on and to what extent these choices are making the biggest in-roads into reducing carbon fastest.

We also need national leadership on decarbonising transport – in particular on what the fiscal and taxation framework is going to be for vehicles which will in turn give consumers and manufacturers more confidence to embark on the ‘road to zero’ than they do now. The ‘road to zero’ needs to be short, straight, smooth and well lit, not the long, dark and unmade road it is now.

We also need a shift in spending priorities away from an inter-urban road building jamboree which is increasing carbon emissions whilst pointlessly redistributing traffic congestion and creating countless more high carbon, car dependent sprawl opportunities. This is money that could and should be spent on a rolling programme of rail electrification, taking measures to switch more short car journeys to active travel and increasing the journey share of low and ultra low emission buses on key corridors.

These are big vertiginous policy shifts – but far from unprecedented. The Netherlands was heading down our car dependent route until they made a big shift to the bike in the 1970s. Cities like Stockholm have a market share for public transport of 49%. London’s cycle superhighways, road pricing and taking out the gyratories would have been beyond the wildest aspirations of green transport campaigners 20 years ago. On power generation, carbon emissions halved in the UK in the eight years to 2016. Going further back we converted every gas appliance (20 million of them) across the country for natural gas in around a decade from 1967. Cities and city regions are also showing that they are increasingly prepared to take more direct control to make things happen for other goals too – from taking over tram systems and bus networks to providing utilities and building social housing.

On climate and carbon (as with much else besides) it feels these days that we are ‘poised between hope and despair’. And there is clearly the option of not looking Greta in the eye and sticking to the big statements without making the hard choices. Because the implications of the climate challenge is all too difficult, because other nations or sectors need to act first, and because, who knows, something may turn up. At the same time, taken together, the transport policy shifts may seem daunting, but broken down they are far from impossible – and all beneficial. The big pledges have been made on climate and now we can expect a new phase of much more intense scrutiny of the choices that are made on transport policy as a result.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.