The world turned upside down?

A progressive way to turn the world upside down would be to do as the Welsh Government has done with the M4 road scheme in South Wales – and look at how the money could be better spent on giving the sub-region a public transport network second to none

There’s a risk that the short horizons of the Covid crisis, Zoom fatigue and the desire for a return to normality tricks us into thinking that the normal we last saw in March is still there. That our main task is to claw our exhausted way back to it. That’s certainly the inexorable logic of HMT ‘recovery plans’ where the funding rug is pulled as soon as ‘normality’ can be glimpsed on the horizon. But what if the normal we had isn’t there anymore? The pandemic turned our world upside down but will it fully right itself afterwards?

There’s a big debate going on around whether Covid has triggered a fundamental realignment between the relative strength of core cities, secondary towns and cities and the suburbs. To some extent I’m going to cop out on this on the grounds that it’s too early to say. But there sure are a lot of powerful signals out there amongst all the noise. A lot of this relates to who can work from home and who can’t. The new Covid divide between the blue collar and the loungewear economy. Between the stay at home Covid aristocracy and those who have never taken part in a Zoom work call. Between those who travelled to work throughout the worst of the pandemic and those that sat it out.

This plays out geographically. Centre for Cities research that shows that London, Reading and Edinburgh have among the highest shares of workers able to work from home (more than four in ten) whereas in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke just two in ten workers are able to do so. This could also be a reason why town and city centres serving less prosperous areas have done better for footfall – relative to both more prosperous areas and core cities (as office workers stay home, and fit in more on-line shopping in the process).

After Covid, many of those who can work from home are going to want the best of both worlds. The logical consequence for those jobs that can be done anywhere is hybrid working with offices repurposed as people places that you might actually want to spend time in so that deeper collaboration can happen than via Zoom. There are signs too that the flight from expensive city centre living in small spaces is starting earlier in life and in greater volumes. Bringing with it the potential for a revitalisation of fading suburbs as more people seek the space to work and enjoy the good life whilst bringing as much of the trappings of hipster city life with them as possible. This also ties in with the idea of the 15-minute city or cities of villages. Instead of each part of a city or a city region having one job to do (dormitory, retail, work) everywhere does everything with shops, workhubs and services within easy reach.

Some are embracing this hoped-for shift – including C40 cities (which represents the world’s superstar cities). The Welsh Government has set an ambition for around 30% of the workforce to continue working from home, even when coronavirus restrictions have eased. It sees potential long-term benefits in reducing congestion, air pollution and improving work-life balance. It is also looking into developing a network of ‘community based working hubs’ – office-like environments within walking or cycling distance of homes, shared by public, private and voluntary bodies. It says that the “intention is to develop a hybrid workplace model, where staff can work in the office, at home, or in a hub location”. This offers the potential for more of a ‘goldilocks’ economy where economic activity and vitality is dispersed throughout conurbations rather than what we’ve had – which is piping hot core city economies and stone cold secondary centre economies.

But is this a vision that only works for a certain type of person who can enjoy and afford it because it fits how they work like a glove? Which leads us onto the possibility if what The Economist and others has described as ‘the 90% economy’. More fragile and less innovative, due to the retreat from a vibrant public sphere. And more unfair, both because of higher unemployment but also as the blurring of work and home responsibilities increases gender divides and disadvantages for younger workers.

We can see the evidence of some of these trends in real time during the pandemic. More people have been using buses than trains. The light rail systems that specialise in transporting lower income and blue collar industrial workers have been doing way better on patronage than those that don’t (i.e. the West Midlands Metro and Croydon Tramlink). In fact, more widely what the Covid crisis has demonstrated is what was always true: A core role of public transport is moving those on low incomes (including low pay key workers) as well as blue collar workers.

If fewer trips are going to be made by those who can work and shop from home then catering to this solid base becomes more important. Couple that with higher levels of unemployment then what does this mean for the fares we charge and the nature of the public transport offer? In core urban areas should we be looking at something cheaper for this base to use? Steadier rather than spectacular? A simple to use, green and low cost utility which means the low paid can get to work and which is part of the plumbing for modern decarbonising economies. A service that reflects the civic identity of the place it serves rather than something that shouts in many voices at the public, in an unconvincing way, about how it’s a BMW equivalent product at a taxi-equivalent price?

How does all that square though with the pressure that is coming from the Treasury to show willing on making public transport worse, and more expensive, as a blood sacrifice in return for their frustration for them having no choice but to provide additional revenue support during the pandemic? Fare increases always make the Treasury feel better – a little win to show who is top dog in Whitehall office politics.

If revenue support is in short supply, and the consequences of this are a steepening of the trajectory of local public transport decline, does this pave the way for a fresh push on road user charging? The three factors that suggest it might are the climate imperative, the state of local and national finances and the decline in VED (Vehicle Excise Duty) revenue as the vehicle fleet transitions away from petrol and diesel. The last two factors are playing on the Treasury’s mind in particular, which is why they have started to float the concept.

Perhaps the ultimate endgame which would play to public transport’s advantage would be a MaaS (Mobility as a Service) payment platform which would combine payment and information options for road use, public transport, car hire, taxis, new mobility options and active travel. Factoring in the environmental and social costs would help incentivise behaviour in a way which supported wider goals around best use of available road space and decarbonisation objectives.

Short of that lofty and potentially enraging goal there are more immediate ways in which the Department for Transport budget could be reframed in a way which gives public transport more of a fighting chance. And that’s to transfer some of the funds out of Highways England bank account which are currently being wasted on a zombie national road programme, set to consume a mindboggling £27bn over the next five years in England alone. There’s £350m in there just for scheme development (reanimating brain dead road schemes that have been kicking around since the 1970s). You wouldn’t need to spend £3.50 on consultancy advice to know that these schemes will funnel more traffic onto urban roads (which we are supposed to be repurposing for buses and active travel) as well as generating yet more dystopic car dependent and carbon intensive sprawl.

The Welsh Government has taken the right approach to all this through commissioning a study on the alternative to the £1.4bn M4 scheme in South East Wales which lays bare just how transformational using road building cash could be for public transport in the sub-region. New stations, a single integrated ticketing system, an enhanced regular interval bus service – all there for the taking. A mini-Switzerland for public transport – with nature and the planet the winner too. That really would be the right way to turn the world upside down.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine

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’. 

 

A city that works for children, works for everyone

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‘A city that works for children, works for everyone’ – this was a phrase repeated time and again at this year’s International Healthy Streets Summit, an event that the Urban Transport Group is proud to have sponsored for the second year running.

The host for this year’s event was Glasgow, a city with big plans for its wide, traditionally car-friendly streets, many of which are being transformed by the £150m ‘Avenues’ programme. Glasgow City Council has taken the bold step of saying that it is ‘prepared to put the private car last’ – something it sees as absolutely the right thing to do, particularly as less than half of Glasgow households own a car.

The Avenues scheme will be transformative, placing people and their health at the heart of streets. Streets will be designed for vehicle speeds of up to 15 mph, they will be tree-lined, pleasant and safe, with more space for pedestrians and cyclists and less for motor vehicles.

But the real test will be their suitability for the city’s smallest citizens.

95cm tall and full of beans

Helen Forman, West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Urban Design Manager, presented a thought-provoking challenge for delegates at the Summit. What do streets look and feel like from the height of a 95cm child, a child who is full of energy, curious about the world and looking for fun? What are the opportunities in the environment for that child? What are the restraints?

Can they run, jump, climb and explore? Are there trees, plants and wildlife to discover, water to splash in, interesting things to see, hear and smell?

Or is the environment designed in such a way that they must proceed directly from A to B with no diversions, hand held tight to an adult for safety? Are their tiny lungs and airways assaulted with fumes from passing cars as they walk in the wake of exhaust pipes that are low to the ground, just like them? Are they confronted with a sea of grey, dotted with high windows and closed doors?

Glasgow’s Avenues will certainly provide the former, rather than the latter experience, a goal that is increasingly being pursued by cities across the world. Whilst play equipment is undoubtedly valued, designing for children in a way that benefits everyone is about more than that. Children are skilled at finding opportunities to play anywhere.

street play

Playful anywhere

Travelling back from Glasgow on the train, I tried to think of the carriage from a child’s perspective. I saw large, low windows presenting an ever-changing view – animals, fields, the sea, houses, castle walls. I saw tray tables to flip up and down. Seats to hide under, aisles to run up and down. Buttons to push. People to meet. There was no play equipment but there were certainly opportunities to play.

When we think about streets in the same way it makes sense to restrict motor traffic to enable wide, safe spaces to walk and run, cycle and scoot. It makes sense to provide walls to balance on; stones to hop between; benches to rest on; sculptures that can be climbed on; water to splash in; trees to hide behind; flowers to smell; bees to spot; fruit and veg to pick; windows to look into. The list is endless. And the best thing is – these are features that everyone likes – whatever their age.

So let’s play and find joy together. And let’s not confine these opportunities to ‘destination’ places. Let’s spread them to the back streets and neighbourhoods – communities beyond the city centre – just as Glasgow is doing with its next phase of work – ‘Avenues Plus’. And to bring hearts and minds with us, let’s design with, rather than for, communities. Let’s not talk about ‘transport projects’ or ‘streetscape improvements’ but focus on what benefits these will bring to how people live their daily lives. How we will create what one speaker called ‘loveable’ neighbourhoods that people young and old can be proud of and, crucially, part of.

Becky Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group