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

Are we moving to nano management?

In the summer there were high hopes that COVID-19 would be a short war in which the worst would soon be over and victory was in sight. Having won the war, we could then go onto win the peace by making some of the wartime measures (like a big shift to cycling) part of the new society we would build. Pre-war objectives were still firmly in place – plugging left behind towns back into the rail network, a green new start for the bus, levelling up and a green recovery. FDR’s New Deal was name-checked as the territory we were moving into. In some ways the mood was expansive and optimistic.

However, as the COVID war drags on it feels like horizons have shortened to getting through the slog of trench warfare with the virus until the point at which we can drop the vaccine A-bomb on it. There’s less energy around to think about the post-COVID world – including what the macro economic policy is going to be. Instead we seem to be entering a more claustrophobic world of micro-economics, narrowed horizons, central control and fragmented approaches.

Before I say why, I want to disagree with those that argue that HMT involvement in transport decision making is always a bad thing. In my discussions with HMT over the years they often take a far more clear headed and rational view than the Department for Transport. For example, HMT have seen the case for bus support but never understood the rationale for pumping that money into poorly regulated monopolies instead of a contracted system where they could see what they were getting for their money. By way of contrast, DfT tends to be siloed by mode and within each silo the default position (with honourable exceptions) is to act as the envoy within wider government for whatever the current status quo or controlling interests are within that sector.

However, the problem is that at present not only is the macro-economic approach to the crisis unclear, the scale of it has meant the Treasury has reverted primarily to bean counting mode as it attempts to keep the hurdles high for access from various parts of the economy or society for a COVID bail out, whilst simultaneously seeking to keep the hurdle low for ending that bail out as soon as possible.

This means we now have two Government departments (DfT and HMT) crawling over the detail of funding for each mode in isolation – and where there is a political backdrop (which there is with Transport for London) we also have Number 10 too.

Meanwhile, unlike the heady days of the summer when councils were told to move fast to turn capacity over to active travel, local government is now being told it must jump through numerous hoops on local traffic schemes as the government in effect wants to second guess decisions on paving stones and the position of white paint on high streets from Penzance to Peterlee. And whilst long term multi-year funding for big national infrastructure (like the climate-deaf and bloated national roads programme) appear to be intact, the one-year horizon of the Spending Review means that longer term funding for local public transport and active travel is curtailed. In short, on local urban transport we are in danger of moving from micro management to nano management.

Come fly with me?

The second lockdown is a further hammer blow to airports and the aviation industry. And that’s creating a lot of ripples for the economy and for land transport policy which we perhaps haven’t been thinking enough about. Prior to the crisis it was the norm that everywhere needed an airport – even if it was more status symbol than somewhere that tempted many planes to drop down out of the skies to touch down. And if a place already had an airport – it needed to be bigger, a lot bigger. If you have an airport what follows is a cluster of brown or greenfield development springing up around it. And if you have all that then you need new and bigger roads – and better public transport links. Before you know it you have an ‘aerotropolis’ (be it big or small) and local transport investment plans end up with big chunks netted off for improving links to the local airport.

But the boom times are over. Airport expansion plans are by and large dead or on hold. And there is a sense those airports which are pressing ahead with their growth proposals are only doing so to get permission in the bag rather out of any conviction that they will need it any time soon. The industry’s emergency landing is also taking place at a time when climate concerns are taking off – especially with Joe Biden now in the pilot’s seat in the US.

More widely, Britain may have given up on a state-driven attempt to dominate the jet age decades ago and the supersonic era started and finished with Concorde (the Apollo moonshot of aviation) but Aerospace is still one of the sectors that keeps us in the global economic premier league. It employs over 100,000 people directly, and over 220,000 indirectly. It’s also one of the UK’s largest exporters adding around £2.8bn annually to the UK balance of trade. All of this plays out not just in the economies of places near to the big airports (from Whythenshawe to Hillingdon) but in aerospace towns and cities like Derby and Preston.

So what might this mean for policy change? Any bailouts for the aviation industry should come with green strings attached, including on the fuels they use and also in relation to a shift in policy on rail.

I’ve said before that I have no idea, why, if the railways are now effectively state-owned and planned, all you would do with that opportunity is keep puppeteering the waxy corpse of rail privatisation with its cacophony of make believe brands in the pointless pretence that there is some kind of dynamic competitive market. And at the same time you are doing this why would you simultaneously let an infrastructure company with a reputation for insularity and unresponsiveness creep into the role of deciding what passengers and places want from their railways?

Why not instead use the opportunity to re-create a coherent national branded intercity network again, part of whose remit would be to eliminate domestic air travel wherever possible? This is what we are already seeing as part of airline bailout deals and wider transport policy in places like Austria where, as part of the national flag carriers bail out package, the airline is required to cut its domestic emissions by half by 2050 and to end flights where there is a direct train connection to the airport that takes considerably less than three hours. As a result, there are no flights anymore between Vienna and Salzburg but instead there is a first rate rail service.

Indeed, the Austrians are becoming the train daddy of Europe. When state operators like SNCF and DB trashed what was an extensive and inter-connected night train network in western Europe, Austria heroically kept the night train concept going by filling some of the gaps. They did this long enough for governments across Europe to realise the extent of the folly that had been committed and to pledge to start to reverse the process.

Meanwhile, as COVID and its consequences adds another layer of anxiety and procedure to air travel (and more businesses realise less flights are necessary for staff) then it will be some time, if ever, before passenger numbers return. Quality may also make a comeback over quantity as prices rise and packing people into cramped terminals and planes becomes less acceptable. Economic and transport plans predicated on an exponential rise in airline passengers may also need a rethink. It may be that securing, decarbonising and civilising the existing aerotropoli (and the jobs that depend on them) becomes more of a priority than further expansion.

Perhaps too we will see a more planned approach to airport capacity in order to safeguard the economies of those reliant on what we already have rather than the decades long cagey game of chess as the big airport operators manoeuvre and scheme for the approval of ministers and planning inspectors whilst the passing of the years grinds down the resistance of those under the flight paths. Will we also see a move away from turning airfields last used by RAF bombers into departure points for a limited repertoire of junk flights where most of the revenue comes not from the crazy cheap ‘what climate crisis?’ fares the airlines charge, but from the long stay car parks and the on-site retail.

We shall see. But one thing is for sure, less contrails in the skies will require more thinking about what happens to the runways, roads and rails below.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

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