This is the sound of the suburbs

“Child of the First War. Forgotten by the Second. We called you Metro-Land. We laid our schemes. Lured by the lush brochure, down byways beckoned. To build at last the cottage of our dreams, A City clerk turned countryman again. And linked to the Metropolis by train.”
Sir John Betjeman

It was the train that allowed the escape from the city to suburbs along its linear lines. Then the rise of the car allowed the suburbs to spread everywhere and the cities hollowed out because traditionally, for the British, a city was always a necessary evil. But over time those for whom the ubiquity of the suburban dream was a nightmare started to recolonise cities that in turn came back to life and tried to emulate urban living elsewhere in the world. British cities became fashionable and investable. And then as many of the suburbs started to fray at the edges as their infrastructure aged, the young and the wealthy moved into city centres and the poor moved to the suburbs (most people in poverty now live in suburban areas).

But, arguably, suburbs are now having their moment. Covid confined many people to their homes which became places where they both lived and worked. And even when restrictions were eased or ended, the working from home carried on. And if you are spending more time at home then why wouldn’t you want more space… and whilst we are it, a garden would be nice. Interesting too to see the hipsterisation of selected suburbs. Key elements of city living are there (the cafes and bars) without the need to live in city centres, spiked with innumerable anonymous speculative residential towers, and where you are never far from a bar but always a long way from a place to buy a pint of milk.

Suburbs. Most of us live in them. Most transport policy isn’t about them. It’s time more of it was. What approaches could we take to achieve this?

The ‘trains first, suburbs second’ rule that was the original model for suburban development is still true for some cities. Copenhagen’s ‘finger plan’ was developed in 1947 and visualises the city as the palm of a hand with the city developing along the five fingers. Each of the five fingers has its own rail line connecting it to the city. Between each finger are ‘wedges’ for recreation and agriculture. Later, a sixth finger was added to connect the city to Malmo, over the Oresund Bridge. Residential areas near stations in the core urban areas are built at densities of at least 40 residences per hectare. For the remaining stations, densities of at least 25 residences per hectare are required – which ensures that public transport services are viable.

I checked out the sixth finger when I was last in Copenhagen which does indeed organise itself along a driverless extension of the city’s metro system, with easy access to a nature reserve. You can see similar transit-based approaches for new suburbs in places like IJburg, Amsterdam (which I wrote about here) and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm. With a mass transit system in place these new developments allow for a ‘gentle density’ of residential homes where common services like refuse, car and bike parking, heating and cooling are collectively organised and, as far as possible, concealed .This leaves more of the streets available for people, including small people. On one residential street in Copenhagen the only car I saw was a pretend plastic one being peddled around by a child.

Meanwhile, in Britain, too many dull ‘cow pat’, car-dependent housing estates are sprawling all over. Research by Transport for New Homes of over 100 urban and greenfield housing estates of up to 10 years old showed that transport infrastructure investment added road capacity. Bus infrastructure was rarely given significant funding and only one new rail station was delivered.

We do have examples here in the UK of new transit-based suburbs. Most recently the Barking Riverside extension of the London Overground, without which the new mixed development which includes 10,800 homes couldn’t have gone ahead. Other relatively recent examples include Kirkstall Forge in West Yorkshire which opened up the development of a former industrial site to support a mixed development that includes over 1,000 homes. And there’s Maghull North on the Merseyrail Electrics network which opened in 2018 to serve adjacent housing development of 370 homes. Things get even better when the transport operator is the housing developer. When RATP redeveloped the Montrouge bus station in the south of Paris it rebuilt it as an underground vehicle maintenance facility for 183 vehicles with a new development overhead which included retail units, office space, 660 new flats and a nursery. The development also has green roofs creating 7,300 square metres of rooftop garden. Win-wins are a beautiful thing.

So much for new suburbs, what about the ones we have already built? There’s no one type of suburb and there’s no magic transport bullet that works for everything from areas of Victorian terraces to neighbourhoods of 1930s semis. Instead it’s more about drawing on a variety of initiatives that could lead to fewer suburban gardens being turned into climate un-resilient hard standing for a jigsaw puzzle of parked cars.

For example, in Berlin, the city has got a grip on what, up until now, what has mostly been nothing more than an increasingly tiresome Powerpoint pitch (Mobility as a Service). They have been installing mobility hubs across the city (suburbs included), complemented by the city’s mobility app ‘Jelbi’. Jelbi allows users to buy public transport tickets as well as access over 40,000 shared vehicles including bikes, cars and e-scooters. Large Jelbi stations are located at S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations and offer hire, return and charging of cars, bikes and scooters and are also stops for taxis and on-demand shuttles. Other policy clubs in the golf bag include those households that can own their own push bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters which, alongside public transport and mobility hubs, start to provide a viable alternative to multiple car ownership and a way of reducing car use.

But let’s not kid ourselves. If the car is king of trip share in the country as a whole then it is emperor in many suburbs. In these circumstances even a doubling of public transport use isn’t going to make much of a dent. So, we are also going to need to transition to both zero emission cars and to improve the low levels of car occupancy that we have in the UK. Pre-pandemic there were 36 million empty seats travelling during the morning commute every day – an average of just 1.2 occupied seats per car. The average car or van in England is only driven 4% of the time. Large public and private sector employers are probably the easiest place to start in getting serious about lift sharing, car clubs, car pooling and peer-to-peer sharing.

Meanwhile, all those electric vehicles are going to need a power supply whilst the housing stock itself also needs to be decarbonised. There are some opportunities here to look at these twin challenges more holistically – including community microgrids where local generation of energy (from heat pumps, solar and turbines) and management by sophisticated technologies allows you to play tunes with energy generation and storage. This includes powering a household’s electric vehicles and mobility devices (as well as using them as battery storage).

And then there’s climate resilience. Is it any wonder our cities get so hot and flood so easily with all that concrete for roads and hard standing for vehicles?

When we talk about transport policy we are usually talking about cities but if we are serious about decarbonising transport we need to decarbonise transport in the suburbs too. The suburbs were made by transport in the first place and with the right transport policies we can remake them for a world that needs to decarbonise – fast.

The Good Life: The role of transport in shaping a new and sustainable era for suburbs can be downloaded HERE.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine

Cost of living crisis – what will the impact be?

In Germany you will be able to buy a pass for all regional and local public transport for nine euros a month for each of June, July and August

Is the cost of living the new Covid in terms of the impact it’s going to have on patronage and travel trends? If it’s too early to say yet what the medium and long term implications of Covid will be, then that’s certainly true of rising energy prices and all the other inflationary pressures. But let’s speculate anyway.

Usually a squeeze on living costs leads to a squeeze on discretionary travel. In other words a squeeze on the very leisure market that has been seen as public transport’s best hope for growth. At the same time the cost of living crisis could lead to a modal shift to public transport – if the public transport price is right. If it isn’t, then electric cars and push bikes could be the main beneficiaries.

Whilst the Department for Transport has focused on encouraging people to make one-off cheap, discretionary long distance rail trips (via its recent sale of discounted advance purchase fares), other countries have gone for something more universal, more bread and butter. In Germany you will be able to buy a pass for all regional and local public transport for nine euros a month for each of June, July and August. Yes you read that right – nine euros on any public transport vehicle (except the very fast ones) for a month. Northern Ireland has frozen public transport fares and the Republic of Ireland has cut fares by 20%.

There could be fares cuts on a more patchwork basis in England too – given that there is Bus Service Improvement Plan revenue funding available for that in some areas. Mayors too are pressing for simpler and cheaper fares. However, it could well be a mixed picture with different modes doing different things at different times – as well as fares rising elsewhere (and often from a high base).

On the other side of the coin the cost of living crisis could also deter measures to raise the cost of motoring as the politics of doing so gets harder still.

Also in the mix are the key post-Covid trends that have still to play out. Concessionary travel remains well below what it was pre-Covid with Covid concerns and changed habits likely factors. The return to the office remains sluggish as the private and public sectors continue to wrestle with where their new hybrid ways of working should land. And as the return to the workplace continues will there be more combining of leisure and work trips as people add on nights out and shopping to the working day? If travel and patronage trends are uncertain then so is the funding. The last tranche of Covid-related funding expires at the end of September – before BSIP and City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement funding kicks in (for those places that get it). It clearly makes no sense to cut bus networks one month and try and build them up again a few months later – so will there be a way of bridging the gap? All in all a messy picture – but that’s the world these days.

Return to Planet Freight

Seven years ago I paid a visit to Planet Freight for one of these columns (PT104) off the back of a report we produced called Delivering the Future – new approaches to urban freight. Then I asked if freight is from Mars is public transport from Venus – given the different policy worlds they inhabit. So in seven years what’s changed and what hasn’t?

Seven years ago freight worked on its own terms (stuff got where it needed to be) even if at the same time it didn’t work (lorries kill cyclists and pump out carcinogens). Overall though it worked well enough (and in a commercial and adaptive way) for the downsides to be brushed under the carpet and for government to largely leave it alone. However, last year freight suddenly stopped working so well. The driver shortage meant that stuff didn’t always get where it needed to. This has benefited railfreight which needs rather fewer drivers to move the same tonnage.

Rail freight’s fortunes rise and fall largely with the fortunes of the bulk commodities that it relies on. With King Coal dethroned, aggregates and containers have been taking its place. And yet this still continues to leave many large urban centres and markets devoid of any rail freight whatsoever. For example, Bradford is the seventh biggest city in the country yet it has no active rail freight facilities. This is partly because in the UK railfreight is mainly about a few companies battling it out on cost over who gets to move bulk freight, whereas in countries like Switzerland and Germany they are still investing to ensure that there are more places where you can move smaller amounts of freight by rail. Which in turn helps explain why rail has a much bigger market share for freight in those countries than in the UK.

Over the same period London broke ranks and stopped tolerating the collateral damage from having an ‘efficient’ road haulage sector. Despite the crude ‘lowest common denominator’ opposition of the trade bodies for the sector, London has pressed on with ratcheting up both vehicle standards and enforcement of safety and emissions. The rapid acceleration in the availability of green, safety and logistics technologies is also helping the sector clean up its act (especially for the larger players), however the degree of illegality in the industry remains shocking. In 2018/19 the percentage of Light Goods Vehicles issued with a prohibition on mechanical grounds was 49%, and 70% for overloading. Operating illegally is not only dangerous, it is also unfair competition given the high safety standards that rail adheres to.

Meanwhile, the white van economy continues to grow (further supercharged by the pandemic) – not just for deliveries but also for trade. This in turn has led to several air quality zone plans running into trouble as the costs of making the growing battalions of vans compliant has collided with the politics of not doing so. The rise and rise of the van also has implications for the battle for road capacity and kerb space – something which the bus sector also has an interest in of course.

Driver shortages (people don’t want to spend their nights sleeping in a lorry cab) mean relying on road haulage to the extent we do now looks less practical (and as environmentally unwise as it ever was). This big change in the dynamics of the freight debate makes the case for a more interventionist approach (to freight). Especially given that the kind of nudges we have seen in the last seven years haven’t been enough to move the dial sufficiently towards the less intrusive, greener, skilled and safer sector that is increasingly the norm elsewhere in the economy.

An interventionist approach that would move that dial would have two main elements. Firstly, investment in the capacity of rail freight and inland waterways (including in terminal and distribution sites). Secondly, making road haulage pay its way in terms of its wider safety, road maintenance and environmental costs would help make it safer and greener but also make rail freight more competitive on price. It could also help further accelerate the booming cycle logistics sector. And it could also make economic what currently isn’t – which is more urban freight consolidation centres to reduce the volume and impacts of deliveries by road in urban centres. Perhaps the biggest difference in seven years is that the debate about freight and logistics has opened up more. It is no longer an afterthought at the end of wider transport strategies. But there’s still a big gulf between passenger transport and freight – big interventionist policies on the former are the norm – but not yet on the latter.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

The article first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

Bus safety shouldn’t be an afterthought

The National Bus Strategy for England has an opinion about everything; from bus shelters to bus numbers – it knows best. However, there’s one topic where it is curiously quiet. And that’s bus safety. Or perhaps I should say dangerously quiet, given the yawning gulf that now exists between the approach taken in London and Northern Ireland on bus safety and the approach taken elsewhere in the UK. Or indeed, more widely, the approach taken to rail, maritime and aviation safety in the UK compared with bus in Great Britain outside London. In these places, and for these modes, there is a clear across the board structure for safety leadership and a transparent data driven approach to analysis, action and targets for reducing risk and accidents.

For some time we’ve made the case to the Department for Transport for reform to bring the safety regime for buses up to scratch – and that the starting point should be a review of current arrangements to benchmark them against best practice. We got nowhere on this so we’ve sought to fill a gap (that it shouldn’t be up to us to fill) by commissioning such a review ourselves – from Loughborough University’s Transport Safety Research Centre.

The report makes for concerning reading but it boils down to the fact at a national level, we don’t have the data and analysis to drive safety policy on bus, and even if we did there’s no single body to act on the analysis in a coherent and proactive way at the national level. As one of those interviewed for the report said: “It just doesn’t feel joined up.” All of this adds up to a safety regime which is fragmented and reactive rather than coherent and proactive. That’s not to say there isn’t good practice and sharing on bus safety in England, but the under-resourced sum is less than the parts. In my professional lifetime, the DfT has done not much more than tinker with the bus safety regime leaving it to do the best it can with minimal resources.

In effect Transport for London has been left to fill the vacuum on leadership and standard setting on bus safety with its Vision Zero target of no one to be killed or seriously injured on or by a London bus by 2030 and its comprehensive and transparent approach to analysis of risks followed up by programmes to tackle them, from its ground breaking bus vehicle safety standards to its data-led approach to reducing passenger injuries due to slips, trips and falls. And from advanced emergency braking to its in-depth work on the sounds that electric buses can make, it’s TfL that has become both the defacto national research and development centre and leader on bus safety.

Meanwhile, it seems that if there is to be any significant change in the safety regime for buses in GB outside London then it will be a by-product of other forces at play. The government’s enthusiasm for creating a framework by which autonomous vehicles can operate (alongside the stalling in road casualty reductions more widely) has led to a consultation on establishing a road collision accident investigation body to bring roads more into line with the body that exists for rail.

This is welcome. But for the investigation branch to work we also need something similar to the other safety bodies that rail has – so while the Rail Accident Investigation Branch investigates crashes, the Office of Rail and Road is the health and safety regulator and enforcement authority for the railway. Meanwhile the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) enables and informs safety leadership. Part of its job is to gather data to understand better how the industry is performing and enable it to identify emerging issues as early as possible, so action can be taken. The work of the RSSB allows the rail industry to work together as a single system to reduce risk as much as possible, and enables better safety decisions to be made, and means that safety investment can be targeted to where it is needed most. It’s the proactive, looking ahead function that RSSB provides for the rail industry that is missing for bus in particular.

If there were to be an overarching safety body covering bus then there are pros and cons around whether this could be wrapped up within a national transport safety body, or whether there could be a roads or bus specific body. But the Loughborough report found support for such a body in principle. If such a body had the capacity to receive a much wider range of accident, risk and incident data than the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency currently does – and was able to analyse it and act on it – the safety regime for bus would start to look more like good practice.

The National Bus Strategy has dragged many elements of poor practice, and areas of bus provision which need to improve, into the spotlight but left the bus safety regime to stagnate in the margins. But shouldn’t any responsible strategy for any industry have improving safety as a core objective rather than barely an afterthought?

Buses are coming home

Wales (population 3.2 million) wants all its buses franchised. Greater Manchester (2.8 million) and Liverpool City Region (1.5 million) are well down the road. West Yorkshire (2.3 million) and South Yorkshire (1.4 million) have triggered the process. London (8.9 million) and Northern Ireland’s (1.9 million) buses are already under public control. That’s nearly 22 million people in areas of the UK where bus services are under public control or somewhere on the road to it. Meanwhile, Stagecoach has thrown in the towel on trying to block bus franchising in Greater Manchester and the secretary of state for transport, Grant Shapps, has said how delighted he is that franchising in Greater Manchester is going ahead and that it’s the way forward.

After facing years of disdain for vigorously making the case that this key public service should be run in the public interest I look forward to the next stage with everyone saying they were never really against it in the first place. Though reading the Stagecoach (of ‘we would rather drink poison’ fame) press release on their failed legal challenge it looks like this phase has started already. As they say – everything comes to he who waits.

I’m an Edinburgh fan myself

Having spent a few days in Edinburgh I’m an even bigger fan of Lothian buses than I was before. Every single bus feels like it’s brand new. I’ve never ever been on a grubby one. I love the municipal dignity of the fleet – both the interiors and the exteriors. Maroon for urban, green for rural. And now you can tap and go that’s the last remaining layer of hassle removed. It’s the only city I can think of, other than London, where the bus feels like a mass transit system (especially with those tri-axle double decker giants) used by all sections of society. Get the basics consistently right and you have an urban bus network that people will respond to.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece originally appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine