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

COVID-19 funding gap filled… for now

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It would make no sense for Government to cut COVID-19 funding life support for light rail systems whilst it is rightly investing millions every week on expanding and renewing them.

 

This time, Government funding to close the gap caused by coronavirus on bus and tram had run out before a new funding deal was put in place. The deal (announced on 8 August) gives light rail in England outside London three months support before another funding cliff edge – with bus support now on a rolling deal with eight weeks’ notice of termination (but no clarity on what the criteria for termination might be). Meanwhile, the funding for additional public transport capacity (up until half-term) for schools came through just three weeks or so before the schools restart.

It’s clearly good that the Government is continuing to stand behind public transport financially. However, the way it’s being done is increasingly tangled with funding arrangements by mode and area becoming more divergent following the latest funding round. Transport for London, light rail outside London (not including Blackpool), buses outside London and national rail services are all now on funding deals on different time periods, and with different criteria (or no clear criteria) for decision making. Dealing with the consequences of last minute, cliff edge approaches to decision making (with all the cash flow and legal implications) also soaks up a phenomenal amount of time for our members and our staff.

The Treasury is also looking to scale back and escape from the COVID-19 funding arrangements as soon as they can – hence the short term nature of the deals and the deadline stand offs. This is scary stuff for transport authorities because there is little chance of patronage (and therefore income) returning to where it was pre-pandemic anytime soon – and the local authorities that stand behind transport authorities are underfunded for COVID-19 themselves. Any scaling back of funding support therefore could hit bus services in particular and hard. The reasons for this include that there’s only so much you can do at the margins to cut costs on light rail without shutting them down completely. Plus local transport authorities with light rail systems have all sorts of financial and legal obligations to the light rail systems that they own – which they don’t have for bus services, which are owned by somebody else. Other factors on bus include the return to normal de-registration periods for bus services, which combined with funding uncertainty or retrenchment, could trigger a wave of de-registrations of commercial services. The Government is also still looking to local authorities and transport authorities to continue to pay out on an indefinite basis concessionary travel reimbursement at pre COVID-19 rates (i.e. for concessionary journeys that are not currently being made). This is something which is not sustainable given the state of wider local government finances.

All of this casts not only a long shadow over the ability of transport authorities to plan ahead but also the Government’s longer term aspirations for urban transport and the ‘levelling up’ agenda. This includes the Prime Minister’s intent to turn around a declining bus sector with the £3 billion of additional Government funding which it announced prior to the pandemic. It also includes the millions that are being poured into renewing and expanding light rail systems which is happening right now. It makes no sense therefore to pull the rug from under public transport funding in the short term – if you are trying to build it up in the medium to long term. The way out of this conundrum could be the Spending Review and the national bus recovery strategy in the Autumn, which would be the logical point to build a bridge between an increasingly ragged emergency patch and mend approach designed to keeping the wheels turning on public transport for now and the more sustainable and robust  arrangements which will be needed in order to segue into supporting the Government’s expansionist agenda for public transport post COVID-19.

The stabilisers are off

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London Borough of Waltham Forest

 

To be clear, I’m all in with the active travel revolution set out in the Government’s new manifesto for Britain’s roads. How revolutionary is it? Very. Traditional street hierarchies turned upside down, only the best will be good enough on active travel infrastructure, go to sleep in Detroit and wake up in Delft. However, in one way not so revolutionary in that it’s the traditional centralised England approach of “we like what we’ve got in London so you need to do the same – chop chop, no backchat about the voters, and make sure nothing happens without our approval”. We are about to test whether this can work and in the way that it didn’t for road pricing for example. We are going to find out whether the populace has a universal latent desire to cycle which is about to be liberated – or creatures of habit who have enough on their plate without all this. More likely a bit of both which will play itself out in a form of street theatre. We are going to find out whether politicians in power locally (and almost as importantly, in many places in opposition) are going to be prepared to expend electoral capital on resisting any local backlashes (Waltham Forest being the shining example). We are also going to find out whether national politicians are going to stand behind the policy when the going gets tough locally and politicians of their own party are leading the backlash locally. And whether we can go from a standing start in many areas to ambitious transformation to high quality schemes which get it right first time.

So, if we are going to go Dutch (and not die trying), then there’s going to need to be more resources, both centrally (at Department for Transport and at the new Active Travel England), and locally. Not just capital but revenue too, in order to pay the people to design good schemes which communities can buy into. Wherever we can, we also need to be thinking more widely about ‘future streets’ when the opportunity comes from active travel funding. Because the street of the future need not only to be easier to navigate on foot or by bike, but also needs to be more climate resilient (shade and drainage), give buses priority, be sensitive to the needs of different types of disability as well as being responsive to a host of other legitimate outcomes too. The Headrow scheme in Leeds city centre is a good example of what I’m talking about – better for active travel but buses too, and also the opportunity was taken to put the pipes in at the same time for a district heating scheme – as well as street trees. All of which costs money, takes skills and resources and involves trade-offs.

Intercity – make the going easy

Maybe it’s been sorted now, but a few weeks ago if you travelled by rail from Newcastle to York and on LNER services, seat reservations were compulsory, on Cross Country you could sit anywhere and on Trans Pennine Express it was like full lockdown never ended – two metre distancing and the bare minimum of seats on offer per carriage. The exciting world of consumer choice now extends to the approach to a pandemic it seems. The railways’ bizarre bazaar of make believe ‘big four’ branding, pot luck fares and take your pick public health tactics looks like an increasingly strange and strained indulgence when the whole thing is an artifice propped up and puppeteered from Whitehall with public money. Never mind the legions of lawyers, economists and consultants that the taxpayer pays for to keep up the front of house pretence that the railways are a dynamic, competitive and private sector market. With patronage hammered by COVID-19 the fight back is going to be tough for rail as it is, so why waste time and money perpetuating this expensive fiction when you could cut through it all by recreating a national intercity network again. Guaranteed frequencies for the nations’ major cities on a more consistent basis, straightforward long distance fares and intercity a big player on the national travel scene again.  This is something that you could market and promote the hell out of, get your story straight for the twists and turns of the pandemic to come, and sell on the basis of the environmental credentials that people do care about rather than make believe identities that nobody cares about.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group 

COVID-19 and urban transport – the message, the money & the future

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The message

We’ve had the first weekend in England since the latest easing of COVID-19 and now the first working week has begun. Early signs are that public transport patronage is picking up sharply but it’s too early to say at the time of writing to what extent this will stretch the capacity of public transport which is already heavily constrained by social distancing.

However, the time is surely approaching when we can move away from a single national approach to messaging about the use of public transport (in effect based on London’s unique conditions) to one which can be fine tuned locally to take into account the capacity that may be available in very different geographies. We don’t want public transport which is too busy to be safe in some areas – but at the same time, it makes no sense for public transport to be running empty in other areas whilst the roads fill up with cars bringing road casualties and air pollution in its wake.

More widely, the top down approach to the response to COVID-19 leads to other problems too. Perhaps this was most starkly illustrated recently by the withholding of information about the full details of local COVID-19 infection data from those local authorities and Directors of Public Health who need that data to ensure local responses are as effective as possible. On transport, this top down approach has settled down into a consistent pattern which consumes vast amounts of time which could be spent more productively. First comes the speculation, probing and rehearsing different scenarios whilst we wait for key decisions to be made. Then an announcement comes largely out of the blue on a key issue (such as making face coverings compulsory on public transport). Often the announcement lacks all the guidance and information needed to implement it. So then there is the second guessing, probing and speculative implementation of policies at short notice whilst we await the full details. Then the details emerge – and then there is a process of reorienting policy and delivery around that. And so it goes on. This is time wasted that could also be spent looking ahead and planning in a more considered way for what the next operational challenge of the COVID-19 response could be. It’s also not effective overall either – as the UK’s poor record on its coronavirus response in comparison to other countries shows.

The money

The additional COVID-19 money runs out for light rail and bus (in England outside London) in less than a month’s time. Emergency funding for private operators of national rail services runs out in September. Transport for London’s additional funding runs out in mid-October. There are different rules and timescales for different modes – but all the funding deals were time limited and they are all approaching the end point. The funding deal for local bus and tram (outside London) being the first to expire. If the past is any guide to the future, then HMT will insist on taking it to the wire and find anyway it can to get public transport used to the idea of starting to come off financial life support in advance of the Autumn (when the hope is life will have settled down to a new normal which is closer to pre COVID-19 life than it is to the national lockdown). The trouble is, that with Government advising people to steer clear of a socially distanced public transport network, fares income has collapsed and it’s only the additional COVID-19 financial life support which is keeping public transport alive. And even when and if the messaging changes about the use of public transport and capacity is restored, it’s hard to see patronage returning to its pre COVID-19 rates any time soon, if ever (and certainly not by the Autumn).

Meanwhile, there is no money yet for the additional costs of getting kids to school in September, the Government is still expecting transport authorities to continue to pay bus operators for concessionary trips that aren’t being made and Merseytravel hasn’t seen any funding for its Merseyrail Electrics franchise.

Much angst lies ahead on funding – but much time wasted too on trying to keep the show on the road on the basis of short-term, cliff edge deals and complicated one-size fits all funding packages (this also compounds the time already wasted on operational issues set out above). This is why we continue to make the case for additional funding for bus to be devolved to transport authorities. We can then deploy it alongside light rail funding in an integrated way that meets local needs whilst at the same time replace a system which means we pay for bus journeys that aren’t being made with a system where we can support bus networks that are being provided.

The future

The big task ahead is to fuse a green recovery from COVID-19 with the decarbonisation agenda in a way that makes better places. The Committee on Climate Change recently reported to Parliament on how it thinks this should happen with its top five investment priorities being:

  1. Low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future.
  2. Tree planting, peatland restoration, and green infrastructure.
  3. Energy networks must be strengthened for the net-zero energy transformation in order to support electrification of transport and heating.
  4. Infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
  5. Moving towards a circular economy.

The opportunity that the lockdown brought to address number four by reallocating road space to active travel has been one of the most positive aspects of the last few months. But there are big challenges ahead in retaining and developing the levels of lockdown modal shift to active travel and in maintaining the road space reallocation momentum (including turning the temporary and rudimentary into long-term quality). But leaders at the local and national level have got religion about active travel – and that’s half the battle.

We are gearing up on number three on the list – as we need a coordinated approach to the electrification of transport (rail, bus, car, e-bikes) which integrates approaches to both the vehicles and the infrastructure to get the juice where it needs to be. City regions should have a key role to play in this and we are working with other bodies – like the Energy Systems Catapult and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership – to ensure that they do.

Transport can also play a role in priorities one and two – which we explored in our Making the connections on climate report looking at good practice from the UK and the wider world on how transport authorities and providers can decarbonise their own estate whilst improving its resilience through green infrastructure.

We can build back better from this crisis and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether we aim to play our full part.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group