How can we support towns like Batley?

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There are so many policy reports on transport and cities you could stack them up as high as the Beetham Tower. However, the pile of reports on transport and towns would struggle to get higher than the front step. Of course, getting big city transport networks right deserves attention. Wider city region economies, and indeed the national economy, won’t work if our biggest cities can’t move. However, the era is now over when all urban policy reports had to focus on cities. It is no longer okay for the de facto economic policy for post-industrial towns to be one of ‘trickle down’ from the growth of increasingly glossy and high rise city centres and for the message for towns to be ‘smarten yourself up, as realistically the best it gets is you may have the honour of becoming a dormitory town’.

The days of that approach are gone because city region mayors cover voting territories far larger than core cities, and because those places that felt left behind and unheard made themselves heard very clearly with the outcome of the European referendum. A sign of the times is that both the mayors of West Midlands and Greater Manchester now have specific towns policies and initiatives, and rightly so.

Last month we followed up our report, About Towns – How transport can help towns thrive, with a roundtable in Batley Town Hall to talk towns and transport with transport authorities and organisations, government reps, towns-focussed NGOs, academics and thinkers. It was a fitting place to have the event. Like so many of the many post-industrial towns in the city regions Batley has a history of graft, ingenuity, specialisation and boldness which has left behind a fabulous and dramatic built environment. In Batley’s case the town originally boomed out of the local invention of new cheap textiles (Shoddy and Mungo) which the world couldn’t get enough of. Indeed a magnificent avenue of showrooms (battered but mostly still there) was built from the station into the town. Among those who came to buy were representatives of both sides in various conflicts placing orders in bulk for their respective armies’ uniforms.

The attitude that ‘anything a city can do we can do too’ also persisted in towns like Batley well into the twentieth century. In Batley’s case some of the biggest stars in show business performed at the Batley Varieties in the sixties and seventies after a local magnate opened up this Vegas-inspired cabaret nightclub. Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt were among the stars who came to town. Heady days. But the Varieties is long gone, along with the textile industry.

So what can transport do to help the many towns like Batley thrive in the here and now? Perhaps the biggest lesson of our report is that standalone transport capital projects are unlikely to be enough on their own to turn a struggling town centre around. That’s not to say that building a high quality interchange isn’t the right thing to do, but don’t just build it and walk away. It needs to be part of something bigger.

There are some good examples in South Yorkshire (like Barnsley and Rotherham) and Tyne & Wear (South Shields) where new or improved stations or interchanges have been, or will be, tied into wider projects to locate new colleges or training facilities close to, or as part of, the transport development.

So the South Shields 365 Town Centre Vision includes a new transport interchange alongside a new railway skills academy for the Tyne & Wear Metro as well as improvements to the market place and a new central library. Making the new interchange into gateway and key component of a wider investment will bring footfall and a buzz.

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Ideally too capital measures need to sit alongside revenue measures to make the use of the public transport that serves these new capital schemes more affordable. So for example the ‘MyTicket’ offers for young people in the Liverpool City Region which offered unlimited travel for £2.20 a day led to a 142% increase in bus trips by young people.

The transport sector is also a significant employer in towns, including in distribution and logistics, taxis and private hire and on the buses. As a sector it can support people in towns by paying good wages, building skills and supporting career development.

The transport sector can also work with what have become known as local ‘anchor institutions’. This is a concept from the States which is that there are some large institutions which aren’t going anywhere else (usually, but not exclusively, public sector), such as schools and universities and which are therefore anchors for the local economy. They could be more so if they used their considerable purchasing power to buy more goods and services from local businesses.

The town of Preston is the most celebrated example of this approach so far in the UK with the council seeking to ensure that as far as is possible the local state buys local. Examples of this kind of approach in the transport sphere include the West Midlands Metro extension in the Black Country, where the scheme promoter is aiming for 80% of the project’s supply chain to be with local businesses.

Pulling back to the big picture, perhaps one of the best examples of thinking through a coordinated approach to maximising the benefits of new transport investment remains the Borders Railway. This rail reopening formed part of a much wider long term plan for revitalising the towns and places it serves through a long term, multi-agency strategy to create new transport hubs, provide new premises for small businesses, boost tourism and open up opportunity by providing access to employment and education opportunites.

At Batley Town Hall the fascinating roundtable discussion used our report as a jumping off point to range far and wide, including exploring how towns can adapt to an era where ‘transactional’ shopping is going online and the larger chains are pulling back to the biggest centres. Can towns trade on their strengths of manageable size and scale for walking around, an often very attractive built environment and a strong sense of identity to become places that offer something different and complementary to the cities, and something deeper than is available online? Their potential to offer a unique experience – with their own character, identity and local goods and services. Human places which offer opportunities for contact, kindness and connection in person which, in doing so, help to tackle loneliness and isolation. Places that are about doing rather than just buying. And not just the few towns which become the raw material for the incoming young, economically privileged and connected to energetically fashion into the next hipster haven – but the many more towns which more resemble hipster-free Batley.

Part of the answer to this could be providing more support for people like our host at the town hall, the outgoing mayor, and Batley born and bred, Cllr Gwen Lowe. Gwen is also the chair of the Friends of Batley station which is where we went after the roundtable for lunch at the community café she and the Friends have worked tirelessly to establish in what was a very run down station. It’s not been easy to get as far as they have in getting the café in place, as well as a garden in tribute to murdered local MP Jo Cox, alongside other improvements (like a painted mural in the subway).

Over lunch Gwen told us about the challenges, setbacks and slow progress in getting the railway to pull together to provide consistent support in helping them to make the improvements they are volunteering to make to the station (as well, as on a more positive note, about how the work of the Friends has helped make Batley feel better about itself in general, and those who have been active in the Friends in particular). It wouldn’t take much from big organisations to put some rocket boosters on the work of the Friends so that they could give Batley the welcoming, friendly, greener station it needs.

And that perhaps echoes one of the big themes of the day itself. Towns can help themselves – but they need big institutions (including the transport sector) to think more carefully, and work more collaboratively, in order to support them.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

Northern Ireland is getting ahead

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Of the four main constituent parts of the UK, only one of them saw bus use grow last year. It is the same one on track to having a smart and fully unified ticketing system across all forms of public transport, and which has also seen the use of its rail network double in 10 years. That’s Northern Ireland, where after decades of being sidelined as car dependency took hold, public transport is back.

The posterchild for the new found assertiveness and visibility of public transport in Northern Ireland is Belfast’s new Glider BRT system which spans the city east to west with a branch into the Titantic quarter of the city’s docklands. As a visitor to Belfast you can’t miss this striking new addition to Belfast city centre’s imposing street grid. Residents have taken to it too – it’s winning over passengers and raising the wider status of public transport in the process.

Glider works because it’s been thought through. It’s on-street and unguided but this format for BRT works in Belfast because of the specifics of the road network and the geographies served. These artics don’t get to give their rubbery midriffs much of a work out because the roads they serve are mostly straight, which makes the experience of using Glider feel more rapid transit. Some of Belfast’s roads are not just straight they are also wide enough to slot bus priority in without too much fuss (the city centre’s streets are also, helpfully, on a grid pattern). Where the roads narrow as they pass through inner city communities, getting bus priority in was trickier – however, rather than attempt to barrel bus lanes through for the benefit of suburbanites, the opportunity was taken to renew local streetscapes, giving local high streets a boost in the process.

If the overall concept has been thought through then so have the details. Stops were reduced and standardised to be more like tram stops. All ticketing is off-board. The vehicles themselves are no nonsense Belgian Van Hools which iron out the bumps in the road for passengers. The smoother ride gives more of a rapid transit feel. They also have air con. Because having big windows to gaze out of is lovely, but being trapped inside a rattly greenhouse – not so much.

The off-board ticketing also has some interesting beneficial side effects. Firstly, it makes dwell times shorter and more regular in duration, removing the background annoyance of the stop-start nature of conventional bus travel – making the experience more like rapid transit. It also means that passengers who don’t like that kind of thing can avoid the interaction anxiety which comes from having to negotiate with a driver in front of an audience. Yet, at the same time human interaction, in less theatrical form (unless you are fare dodging), is retained in the form of roving teams of jovial inspectors.

The well thought through concept and the well thought through details mean the whole adds up to a lot more than the sum of the parts. It’s what FirstGroup’s FTR should have been and wasn’t – despite the hype and sycophancy from the trade press, Department for Transport and so on that greeted its launch at the time. This isn’t plonking fancy new bendy buses on the streets, and walking away – it’s a whole new Belfast thing. People say they are getting the Glider rather than saying they are getting the bus. Suburban shopping centres are giving Glider the credit for higher footfall. Before it was implemented the media said all that bus priority would lead to is the shuttering up of local traders. Yet now look at Ballyhackamore – on a Glider route and voted one of the best places to live in the UK. And it’s also doing its bit for bringing communities together as some people from nationalist communities have been travelling on it across to unionist parts of town, and vice versa. Some of them for the first time in their lives.

If Glider stands out in the city centre, there’s something else that’s striking to those used to the messy, shouty state of play in many GB city centres (with all those different buses in different colour schemes proclaiming the merits of tickets you can only use on their services). It’s the calm and order in Belfast of the interlocking network of bus services which serve the city and Northern Ireland more widely. Metro for frequent urban Belfast services, a new high spec ‘Urby’ network for longer distance commuters, Ulsterbus for local services across Northern Ireland and then the Goldline coach network for fast services between towns and cities. It’s an easy to understand network which experienced overall growth in patronage last year.

All of this is possible because, firstly, the vast majority of public transport services in Northern Ireland are provided by Translink (a state-owned corporation). And, secondly, Translink is carrying out its remit, which is not to use a monopoly position to manage decline but to get out there and ensure that public transport plays its part in delivering the wider objectives Northern Ireland has for a thriving green economy based on healthy communities.

The end of decline management is also exemplified by the transformation of Northern Ireland’s rail network. In the sixties Northern Ireland was no more immune to the brutalising of its railway system than the rest of the UK – leaving some districts without any rail service at all. Until the early 2000s this residual rail service was the domain of veteran English Electric ‘thumper’ units which dolefully and noisily trundled their way around a bare minimum of trackwork. When, finally, approval was given for new trains it unleashed an astonishing growth in passengers – a doubling in 10 years.

Meanwhile, bringing the whole rail and bus shebang together are two major projects. The first is a rebuild of the current hub of both Northern Ireland’s rail and bus network at Great Victoria Street. It’s starting to feel its age and both the bus and rail terminals are struggling to cope with surging demand; so much so that some rail services can’t be squeezed into it – such as the Enterprise rail service to Dublin. Everything is going to change, including the name (it will be rebranded within a broader regeneration site known as Weavers Cross), when it becomes a new, more spacious interchange topped off with a significant commercial development.

The second major project is the modernisation of transport ticketing. There are already 28 million smartcard journeys annually and nearly half a million active smartcards. As the modernisation project is rolled out across more types of services and ticketing projects, Northern Ireland is one of the frontrunner territories in Europe for achieving smart, simple and fully integrated ticketing across its entire public transport network.

Finally, layered on top of everything is a marketing campaign that stresses the intrinsic advantages of public transport for both the individual traveller and Northern Ireland as a whole. The predominance of the car culture in Northern Ireland (and the consequent tendency of Belfast to gridlock) can be an advantage here – as you are starting from a clean slate with a fresh proposition. The aim is to make public transport a credible answer for policy makers looking at where best to invest in tackling wider social, environmental and economic goals and for individuals’ travel needs. ‘Get on board’ as the strapline has it.

Northern Ireland really isn’t so different from the rest of the UK to make it an invalid comparator or to make lessons untransferable and the rest of the UK really needs to start looking at what Northern Ireland is doing on public transport. Because whilst you weren’t looking – they got ahead of you.

Jonathan Bray is Director of Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

Tackling transport challenges, together

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People will always need to travel to places. So, there is a strong consensus around the need for high quality, integrated urban public transport networks that can support the greener, healthier and more prosperous city regions that we want to see. But the big question is how to sustain a public transport offer when passenger numbers are falling, congestion is rising and resources continue to reduce?

Cooperating in partnerships, with operators and local authorities, and working closely with other regions as the Urban Transport Group, to exchange intelligence and expertise, is one of the ways we can try to achieve more with less. But we need to recognise that responding to the challenges facing us isn’t a case of one size fits all. On the contrary, to stimulate growth, more than ever we now need to understand local markets, and their demands and needs, in order to meet them.

Investment is critical: investment in research into public travel patterns and preferences; investment in attractive infrastructure; and investment in people and embracing diversity, to sustain a strong industry workforce that strengthens the transport skill and knowledge base to generate new ideas and take a fresh approach.

Collective insight and analysis can help policy makers and providers offer modes of transport that are competitive with, or even better than, the alternative. Everyone’s familiar with the climate rhetoric, but more needs to be done to make the grass look greener if travel behaviour is to change. It’s about increasing awareness around the impact an individual’s travel choice has on the whole community, and the benefits an efficient and integrated public transport network can bring to all – by reducing congestion on roads, for bus users and car drivers, whilst contributing towards cleaner air and a healthier community.

Research shows that using public transport helps to integrate physical activity into a daily routine, because most walk or cycle to and from bus, tram or train stops. This is an easy way to try and achieve the British Heart Foundation’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. People who travel by bus, tram or train are ‘happier’ too, according to a study from the University of East Anglia – simply because they have more time for mindfulness, to relax and to concentrate on themselves.

Among other factors, we’re working against a rise in car ownership, a shift in people’s expectations for more bespoke and on demand services, fare prices, increased online shopping, different work patterns and reduced investment. All of this impacts on public transport. Given this environment, it’s vital that transport leaders influence and shape what’s in their backyard and maximise every opportunity to affect change. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is supporting Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority in a bid for the Transforming Cities Fund, combining public transport improvements with a wider development and growth plan. Part of this would see investment in a cleaner fleet of buses. They’ll run on the most polluted corridors around the region, connecting people to employment and education, whilst contributing to air quality and congestion issues. It’s a step in the right direction. As is our Active Travel campaign, encouraging people to make small changes to the way they travel to bring big benefits for themselves and their environment.

In times of less resources, the way ahead is to share them. Together we can tackle the challenges to transform public transport. Today, and for future generations.

Stephen Edwards is Executive Director at SYPTE and the new Chair of Urban Transport Group

Read Stephen’s biography here