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

A first draft of the future?

 

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Once more unto the breach

Not all the details are clear at the time of writing but we do now have a funding support package for light rail and buses to see us through the next three months. Subject to the fine print this is very welcome, and one doesn’t want to seem churlish about a quarter of a billion pounds, but all this eleventh hour HMT brinkmanship about a funding deal they were always going to do anyway has used up time that could have been spent looking ahead to what’s coming next. And in this crisis, there’s always some kind of intractable problem coming up fast. Indeed, there’s a bit of a phoney war feeling at present. Although patronage is creeping up, public transport’s pariah status is by and large fending off mass breaching of social distancing limits – but what happens when the schools come back at greater scale? Where do you find the capacity to maintain socially distanced general and specific public transport for school children (especially given how peaky school traffic is)? And you may be able to show ‘bus full’ signs as you speed past adults but what about school children? And what about  Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport? And so the problems stack up one after the other. Making those problems more tractable is our homework this week.

A first draft of the future?

If we don’t seek to shape the legacy of COVID-19 it is going to shape us. So here’s some initial thoughts on a first draft of the future.

1. More people are going to walk and cycle for more trips during the COVID-19 crisis and afterwards. And this isn’t just a London thing. Places like Liverpool, Newcastle and Doncaster are joining in the road space reallocation race. City leaders have got religious about this. The temporary absence of traffic noise has meant that people can hear themselves think. And what they are thinking is – “we could just do this.” Fast forward a decade in a year. We can dream in Dutch and Danish. So let’s ride the active travel wave. But always be thinking about how the temporary and rudimentary can become the permanent and the thing of beauty. And in a way that works for everyone (including the bus user, the wheelchair user, our future selves facing greater climate extremes).

2. The permanent shift now taking place to more journeys being undertaken by bike and on foot is an unequivocal good thing. So I hate to throw shade on the active travel love parade but we still need to recognise that the car isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It really isn’t. It dominates trip share now and nearly everywhere. Even in London as a whole more trips are made by car than public transport or than by bike/on foot. London is Trafalgar Square but it is also the outer boroughs where you can drive down a street and look down from the upper deck of a world leading bus service and see that every house has a rubik cube of vehicles on the hard standing where the garden used to be. And that’s our world city. For decade after decade the UK has been rebuilding and refashioning lives and landscapes around the car leaving active travel and public transport with a Lilliputian mode share in the countryside, the edge lands, the suburbs and the towns. It is absolutely possible that active travel trips will increase – at the same time that trips by car will increase. Public transport’s current existential challenge is the car salesman’s opportunity – and they are raring to go. The modern car already looks like a bulked out bouncer. SUVs look like they could be fitted with advanced weaponry as standard and transport data points to the fact that bigger cars are more deadly when it comes to collisions – concerning when children behave like children, and act impulsively. If people wanted these kind of vehicles before a global pandemic I’m guessing they still will when the threat level has been raised and we have all got used to being in our bubble. Your name’s not on the list, you are not coming in. If the car is still king then let’s get occupancy rates up, electrify them toute suite, take road deaths as seriously as those from COVID-19 (if it’s face coverings for humans then it should be speed limiters for cars). And when we talk about transport let’s not always be thinking about city centres but think about providing alternatives to car dependency where we can in towns, suburbs and edgelands. We also need to broaden our transport planning minds by factoring in the interplay with broadband provision and the trip patterns that follow on from an expansion of home working.

3. As Oscar Wilde said, “each man kills the thing he loves”, and we are doing a good job of that in the short term as people heed the warnings and avoid public transport like the, er, plague. The question is how many of them are coming back – and which types of passenger? It seems unlikely they all will. The bus was in trouble before this started so looks particularly vulnerable. This is all exacerbated by a deregulated system outside London which would allow commercial bus operators to make money from a shrinking core network whilst abandoning more of the rest for a cash-strapped local government to pick up a tab they can no longer afford. Prior to all this the Government was planning a boost in mostly capital investment in bus which they would pick and choose to carry the HM Government coat of arms. The danger of this though is that in isolation it creates Potemkin villages of exemplary pilots but without the wider financial underpinning to stem decline or maintain provision once the initial burst of government support winds down. Time to face facts – to ‘save our buses’ we need consistent higher subsidies, lower and simpler fares. And we need to stop pretending that this is compatible with seeking to sustain the illusion that this is a commercial and deregulated industry (an illusion that finally evaporated when the lockdown began and the industry went from mostly, to entirely, dependent on public subsidy).

4. The biggest policy challenge of 2020 will be how to fuse an effective post-COVID-19 economic strategy with the urgent need to further accelerate carbon reduction trajectories. Given the grid has been greening at an astonishing rate, the most obvious route one is to crack on with the electrification of transport. This would create good green jobs and slash carbon emissions – a national endeavour that is easily understood. Meanwhile the easiest way to prevent carbon emissions is not to do things that we don’t have to do and which we know will make things worse. Bloated road programme I’m looking at you.  And as a bonus all the money being spent on it which could be spent on something useful and relevant to the 21st century instead. Meanwhile, just as cars aren’t going to disappear, neither are aeroplanes. Now is the chance to drive some hard green bargains with the aviation sector in relation to their overt and hidden subsidies – and to stop the free for all in airport expansions driven by junk flights and the revenues from acres of long stay parking fees.

5. Given the scale of the challenge of COVID-19 (both right now and through the recovery phase) city regions need to be able to act decisively and at scale. At present they are bogged down in a morass of ad hoc funding competitions (some still on pre-COVID-19 autopilot) and siloed funding streams overseen by a distracted Whitehall, as well as being pinned down by a lack of decision making power. So on funding there’s a need for significant streamlining, consolidation and long term certainty. And on powers more local rail and bus decision making should come down from the national level whilst there is also scope for powers that currently sit at the District level that could, as in London, sit at the city region level (such as taxi licencing and the strategic road network). The review of the legal and regulatory framework for new mobility should also ensure city regions have the powers to innovate and to contain (on wider public interest grounds) as they see fit.

After all if we can’t be bold now – then when?

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

Guidance unlocked – but not the funding

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In the last week we have been sharing across the UTG network about how best to safely operate public transport networks where demand in some cases is already bumping up against, or exceeding, its socially distanced capacity. If the return to work becomes more pronounced this week then these challenges will become more acute. We have also been sharing how best to communicate to travellers if they should be using public transport at all, what they can expect if they do, and how we need them to work with us once on board in order to keep everybody safe.

As of Wednesday we have the basic framework from Government (in the form of national guidance) on how they want us to do this.  But given the guidance is general rather than prescriptive we are working with DfT, CPT, RDG and UKTram on what it should mean in practice to seek to get consistent approaches across the modes and regions of the UK. Or if not always consistent then at least a headsup in advance on where different approaches might be taken and why.

Meanwhile the funding situation remains as inconsistent and unclear as ever.

So to recap on where we are. National rail operators got all their costs covered the same day as the lockdown began. Private bus operators were next via a complex and convoluted two stage system. Stage one being national and local government paying out for everything they were paying bus operators for before COVID-19 (whether those services are being provided or not) and secondly an additional grant for those services that operators are actually providing. Our tram and light rail systems finally got a funding deaI (though well short of the full costs of keeping them going) seven weeks after the lockdown began. Transport for London got a deal last week, though not enough to keep them going indefinitely, and with strings attached. Merseytravel are still waiting for a deal on their exposure on the devolved Merseyrail Electrics concession.

Meanwhile, most of the above was designed for the lockdown phase when services were low and so was patronage. Restart means ramping up services as rapidly as possible whilst patronage (and thus revenue) remains low because of social distancing. That’s going to be more expensive. Other than a commitment (in very general terms) from Government to fund the immediate costs of starting up light rail and bus services (getting engineers in to ensure the buses and trams are ready to roll) we have nothing from Government on covering the COVID-19 funding gap for the recovery stage. Which is why last week we wrote an open letter to Baroness Vere on the urgent need for greater financial certainty. Otherwise something has to give sooner rather than later. For private bus operators it is their ability and incentive to ramp up services at the pace everyone would like them to do. For us it will be hard choices between covering the costs of our tram and light rail services or continuing to pay out for concessionary travel reimbursement to commercial bus operators (especially when those journeys are not being made at present because of COVID-19).

It’s also worth noting that despite the scale of the crisis, and the concomitant need for a coordinated approach to public transport provision in conurbations (which have the populations of small countries) that transport authorities outside London continue to be bypassed on the funding flow for the main form of public transport (the bus). One reason why we have made detailed proposals to Government for a new, enhanced and devolved format for bus funding for the recovery phase which we believe would be more legally robust (no more paying for things that aren’t happening), provide better value for money and secure bus companies’ ability to provide the safe networks that local communities need. It would also provide a sound basis for transition to happier future days when we are able to safely encourage people to use the bus more indiscriminately and in greater volumes again.

Finally on funding – we remain unsighted on when and how the £250 million for active announced with a flourish over a week ago will be allocated to transport authorities. By and large councils and our members are cracking on regardless with temporary road space reallocation. But clearly it would be a lot easier if we knew what the overall funding was for each authority (and if any conditions are being attached) so we could plan these projects most effectively. And it would also get those local authorities shifting who perhaps are less enthusiastic until the cheque is received rather than edging closer to the envelope somewhere in Whitehall.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group