Six tests for PM’s London-style vision

merseyrail_train-1

Boris Johnson wants transport in the rest of the UK’s metro areas to be a lot more like London and a lot less so so. So here’s six early indicators to watch out for that show whether we are on course for this… or not.

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 buses in the evenings. True love means long term commitment 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 will be on the Budget and Spending Review to see the extent of reform and any funding increase.

2. There’s been lots of talk both pre and post election on ramping up devolution and even significant local government reform. Early signals are that we could be looking at some rationalisation at least – with one model (city region mayors) for the big urban areas and another for the shires (less tiered than now). But will Whitehall now really take the plunge and give up its ability to pull the strings and take the credit for local government successes?

Getting some longer term stability on local transport funding will be particularly crucial if we are to see the ramping up of investment in transforming local transport in towns and cities. At present there’s excessive reliance on ad hoc competition funding which makes for great press releases and helps clever and important people in meeting rooms in central London feel suitably omnipotent. It’s true that separate new funds for potholes, electric bus towns, cycling, superbuses, future mobility and so on all make tremendous sense in their own terms. But it all adds up to a nonsense way of doing things if you are trying to plan local transport networks as a whole in an integrated long term way.

For example, what if it makes sense for your authority to focus on different things in different years due to the lumpiness of some projects (such as BRT systems, trams, major interchanges)? What about projects that cut across different competition headings? How do we fund the stuff that doesn’t have its own pot? What about the costs of all the bids that fail? How on earth does a local transport authority plan its workload and develop its staff when it doesn’t know what competitions are coming next and when they will win? How do you meet the long term challenges of urban transport when all of these funding pots are relatively short term? So what happens early on with local transport funding could set the tone for years ahead about whether we are looking at real devolution or a more vigorously spun version of the usual puppeteering from the centre.

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 could hardly have been more cautious – if not borderline negative. How this is resolved is key to whether or not our metro areas are going to get the fully integrated, London-style urban transport systems that the PM has said he wants to see. Because for many of our big urban areas the heavy rail network is the tram/light rail/S-Bahn system they haven’t got (or only partially got). So, no meaningful control over urban rail means no meaningful wider integrated public transport network.

4. Not so high profile, but rumbling along in the background is the government’s 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. The danger is that if this doesn’t happen urban transport policy will end up being re-centralised by the back door – with Whitehall setting one-size fits all rules for new mobility over the top of the more locally specific arrangements for old mobility (buses and trains).

5. Post election everybody is talking post-industrial towns. A good job about that, last year while everyone else was writing repetitive reports about cities, we put together the one and only report on how transport can help post-industrial towns thrive. In short it found there are no magic bullets. Among its findings were that town centres should radiate easy cycling and walking routes and that town stations and interchanges can act as hubs, gateways and community and business premises. It also made the case for the transport sector to be an exemplary employer because it is a major employer in towns (from bus and taxi drivers to workers in big shed logistics centres). But it also showed the need for attention to local detail and the views of local communities. A prime example of the need for patient, long-term policies which again requires real devolution of powers and funding.

6. One more thing and it’s the biggest thing. The thing that is going to grow as we head towards the make or break international talks in Glasgow in November – the climate emergency. It’s likely in 2020 that at the very least this will lead to a ramping up of moves to electrify road transport. This 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, public transport providers and the energy sector.

More widely, if we really mean it about it 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 utterly non-compliant with a climate emergency and counter-productive in nearly every other way too. It could also mean we are back in the business of modal shift and traffic reduction targets as well as big leaps forward in the scale of car-free ambitions (take a bow Birmingham).

So in closing we remain, as ever, so near but yet so far on urban transport. Take Liverpool city region as an example. Right now it is taking delivery of the first of what are the UK’s most sophisticated commuter trains which will transform what its extensive S-Bahn equivalent urban rail network provides. In parallel with bus reform it’s now 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 take for granted. Indeed it could be up there with the best of them. And the same is true of course not just in Liverpool city region but in other city regions too. What happens with the six pointers above will give an early indication of whether this will be finally achieved over the next five years, or remain a ‘so near but yet so far’.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The 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’. 

 

Another green transport world

swissrail

The weather is losing some of its British reserve. Changing from introversion to extroversion. Records are now there to be broken – and regularly. The hottest, the wettest, the most extreme. As the weather intensifies we need to expand the capabilities of transport infrastructure and its supporting built environment to cope.

We have a problem though – which is that we have already built our transport system. The wiring, the drainage, the track were built for a world that’s gone. Or as ScotRail’s Alex Hynes recently (and succinctly) told the Railway Industry Association’s Annual Conference in London last week: “The railway in this country can no longer cope because of climate change.”

Note that Alex is talking about now, not some time in the future.

This has massive implications for transport investment – implying that investment isn’t just about expanding capacity it’s also about making sure the capacity we already have can function as the weather becomes more technicolour and less monotone.

It also requires a different way of thinking about transport infrastructure. We need to make it spongier because at present we have too much rain bouncing off hard urban surfaces and then racing into drains (joining that which is pouring off deforested hillsides), to form implacable surges of flood water which overwhelm flood defences before submerging great tracts of land (and its transport infrastructure). As rainfall becomes more intense then this is going to happen more frequently.

In the heroic modernist engineering age the answer to this (as to most things) would have been to build more large objects and pour more concrete – in this case larger flood defences and bigger drains. It’s what the Netherlands used to do – but now things are changing. It’s always worth looking at the Netherlands, given how much of their country is situated below sea level (their water boards are one of the oldest democratic institutions on the planet).

Go to Rotterdam and they have built a huge water tank above the underground car park of Rotterdam Centraal’s rebuilt station to first capture, then hold and then slowly release excess rainfall. Within a short walk of the station you can also find water parks (which feature recessed areas which can be used to hold water when rainfall is intense), urban farms on spare railway land (which in normal circumstances would be wasteground), formerly buried watercourses opened to the sky and plenty of green roofs. The aim of this approach is not the traditional one of deflecting the water (with the danger that somewhere else takes the hit) but to temporarily detain it until the weather calms down.

Now there are clearly good reasons why the Netherlands is taking this kind of strategic approach to climate adaptation on rainfall. There are also some good examples of initiatives in the UK on adaptation and decarbonisation of the built environment (from Accrington’s eco-station to London’s eco-bus depot in West Ham). But given the scale of the challenge we also need to get more strategic – because as well as joining the dots on adaptation we also need to join the dots on climate between transport and energy.

Photo credit - Edmund Sumner.jpg

(Photo: Edmund Sumner)

It was very sobering to see a piece by Roger Ford in a recent edition of Modern Railways showing how disappointing diesel trains are on carbon emissions when compared with air travel. Most striking of all is that our main provider of long distance cross country rail services (the Voyagers) are only 50% better than a plane for a journey of London to Edinburgh dimensions. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands and Switzerland, because they electrified their rail networks to a far greater extent decades ago, they are better able to promote the hell out of its climate credentials today. They can do this with a clean conscience because their trains are powered by clean and renewable energy (in the Swiss case mostly by their own hydro power plants).

The public doesn’t really give a monkey’s in the UK about the corporate branding we use to sell train travel these days. However, people do care about the climate – and a proper climate strategy for public transport would be cracking on with electrification so we can sell rail travel on that basis. Electrification should also be part of a broader systematic national sustainability strategy for rail.

Again, as a comparator, the Swiss railways are part of a wider ‘Exemplary in Energy’ initiative which brings together the Swiss Government with key state-owned entities and major national and regional organisations (including Swiss Post, Swisscom and Services Industriels de Genève, a major utilities provider) who are working together to achieve a binding action plan to improve energy efficiency. The initiative comprises 39 joint measures in three action areas, plus a series of specific measures determined by each organisation individually. Among the energy measures the Swiss railway are taking include ‘green wave’ systems to give drivers extra information to reduce unnecessary stopping and starting and new tech that optimises when train heating and point heaters switch themselves on and off. The annual reports show how each of the organisations involved are delivering on their commitments. It’s this kind of transparent and coordinated approach which means you can market the sustainability benefits of public transport off the back of having its environmental credentials in order.

As well as taking a strategic approach to joining the dots on climate at a national level we also need to do the same at a city region level. In our new report on this topic we feature two cities that we think are ahead of the curve – Munich and Nottingham. We argue that one of the reasons they are doing more is a greater level of municipal control over both public transport services and utilities than is the norm in their respective national contexts. This means it’s been much simpler for these cities to join the dots on climate – as they can just do things rather than have meetings with other organisations with completely different priorities about maybe, sometime, never doing things. So already both cities are powering their public transport systems with renewable energy provided economically by their own energy company (trams in the case of Nottingham and trams plus the wider urban transit network in Munich).

Another green public transport world is possible and sometimes you get glimpses of it. Like Stockholm’s wondrous new tram-centric, eco-housing development at Hammarby Sjöstad or Berlin turning a redundant railway goods yard and an entire disused airport into parks, or travelling on trains powered by the turbines you can see from their windows. An optimistic take on the future goes like this. It’s about doing all the right things on transport, energy and the built environment – and doing them all at the same time. You are going to love it.

Download the report Making the connections on climate: How city regions can join the dots between transport, energy and the built environment.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.