Shared mobility in the new normal?

Reflecting on my blog post after last year’s CoMo Conference brings home to me just how much the world has changed. Pandemic, social distancing, face coverings, R-number were all things that were unheard of or vague and distant threats. For most of the last year we avoided non-essential travel and public transport patronage has suffered. But how has shared transport fared? And what might its role be in the ‘new normal’? CoMo held its 2020 conference online last month, exploring some of these questions and more. Here are some of my thoughts.  

Shared transport in the pandemic 

Shared transport operators stepped up in the early days of the pandemic, particularly seeking to support key workers to access jobs as people avoided public transport. Many bike hire schemes offered discounts and free rides to those working on the frontline. There was a huge growth in cycling over the Spring and Summer, with cycling rates in the week at 165% of pre-lockdown levels on average in the week and at 265% at the weekend during May and June, as people made the most of good weather and quiet roads. Shared bike schemes saw increased use, with Santander Cycles in London having its busiest ever day (on a normal working day) on Wednesday 24th June, with 51,938 hires. 

The UK Government accelerated e-scooter trials to support those who needed to travel. These are still in the early stages but initial results from Nottingham’s trial show that they are popular. In the first four weeks, 3,000 people registered to use the scheme, 19,000 rides had taken place, with over 38,000 miles ridden. And a key worker scheme will be launching soon that will provide an e-scooter on longer-term hire.  

Transport decarbonisation  

These facts, from Ali Clabburn at Liftshare, made me stop in my tracks. 50% of commuters drive alone and they are responsible for 82% of commuting emissions. Pre-Covid, commuting by car contributed 15 million tonnes of CO2 every year, 5% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Given we are seeing a return of car travel to pre-pandemic levels while public transport patronage remains lower, this could be exacerbated in the coming months and years. Shared, sustainable and public transport options are key to decarbonising our transport system. The Government is set to publish its Transport Decarbonisation Plan shortly and you can find our response to their consultation here. Richard Dilks from CoMo has also written about the role for shared transport in decarbonisation here: Decarbonisation: cutting edge ideas from the past – CoMoUK.  

Social inclusion  

Where it’s designed well, shared mobility can help to address challenges associated with social inclusion. In Portland, Oregon, the Bureau of Transportation worked with their e-scooter operator to ensure that low income areas were served and found high support for e-scooters amongst people of colour and low-income groups. It is also important to engage with disabled people in the design of shared mobility schemes to ensure inclusive design, enable the widest range of possible users and to mitigate any negative impacts for example around street clutter or riding on pavements. And as one operator suggested during the CoMo conference, the majority of people will not be using shared micro-mobility schemes, so making sure that these systems work well for non-users is important.  

Revenue funding and resourcing at transport authorities 

A theme that appeared throughout the CoMo conference is the need for cities and towns to develop a strategic and joined up approach to shared mobility as part of wider transport and spatial planning. However, declining revenue funding for transport, coupled with more than a decade of austerity that has stripped much of the expertise and capacity from local authorities, makes this a challenging prospect in many areas. If we want truly joined up, integrated planning for a sustainable and decarbonised transport future, then we need to invest in building capacity in our local and regional authorities to enable this. 

Shared mopeds 

Shared electric mopeds were a mode I was vaguely aware of, but presentations from operators during the CoMo conference brought them to life for me. And personally, I’m excited about them! The idea of being able to hop on an electric moped to make the last mile (or two) of a multi-modal public transport journey is attractive to me, and I think it could be a good gateway to car-free or car-light living. Though I would be slightly concerned that this would abstract from active travel trips, with potential negative health outcomes.  

A swiss army knife for personal mobility 

Finally, this phrase from Sandra Phillips from movmi really appealed to me: ‘a swiss army knife for personal mobility’. Having the right tool for the right job is what sells a swiss army knife, and we need the right modes and options for the right journeys. Shared mobility can offer multiple options in distributed locations, so you can hop on a shared bike or e-scooter when you arrive in a city on a train. Sometimes you might need to make a journey by car, but maybe if all the other tools or options are available then those car journeys are fewer and car club membership looks more attractive than owning your own private car? Taken together, we could see more agile journey patterns and more sustainable lifestyles as a result. 

You can catch up on all the presentations from the CoMo 2020 conference here: Conference – CoMoUK 

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group, and is on the Board of Trustees at CoMo

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

Six to watch on urban transport from the new Government

Early days but here’s six to watch that could be early indicators of the long term direction of the new government on urban transport. 

 
1. All the political big names love buses these days – if they can’t claim blood relatives in the industry they are making models of them in the evening. True love means long term commmitment though and if bus decline is going to be turned upside down then we need to see the bus get a bigger slice of the transport funding pie. So all eyes on the spending review to see the extent of reform and of any funding increase. We show how every pound of bus subsidy brings multiple benefits for departments across Whitehall here

2. Lots of talk both pre and post election on ramping up on devolution (and even talk about significant local government reform). But will Whitehall now really take the plunge and give up on its ability to pull the strings and take the credit? Particularly crucial if we are to see the ramping up of investment in transforming local transport in towns and cities will be getting some longer term stability on local transport funding. At present there’s excessive reliance on ad hoc competition funding which overall is inefficient and wasteful. Separate new funds for potholes, electric bus towns, cycling, superbuses, future mobility etc all make sense in their own terms. But they don’t make much sense if you are trying to plan local transport networks as a whole in an integrated long term way over time. What happens early on with local transport funding could set the tone for years ahead. 

 3. Talking of devolution we can now expect to see rail reform following on from the Williams Review. The PM has been strong in speeches about handing over more control over local rail networks. However the Williams Review team (as part of what is probably the most DfT captured of all the recent rail reviews) could hardly be more cautious – if not borderline negative. How this is resolved is key to whether or not metro areas are going to get the fully integrated, London-style urban transport systems that the PM has said he wants to see (more on this at the end of this piece). There’s more on the case for rail devo here.

4. Not so high profile, but rumbling along in the background, are government moves to establish a legal and regulatory framework that can cope with new mobility options, such as the transformation of the PHV sector, powered personal mobility devices (including e-scooters), connected and autonomous vehicles and so on. Urban transport authorities don’t want the overarching technical safety role but they do need a legal and regulatory framework which gives them the ability to strike the right balance in their areas between consumer benefits and the wider public interest. Between ‘sandboxing’ innovations and taking action if flooding of cities with new mobility options is causing wider problems such as for public safety, congestion or street clutter.

5. Post election everybody is talking towns. Good job last year when everyone else was writing very similar repetitive reports  about cities we put together the one and only report on how transport can help post industrial towns thrive. In short there are no magic bullets – it requires attention to local detail and joined up policies across transport and other sectors too. The report, blogs, infographics – all here

 6. One more thing. The biggest thing. The thing that is going to grow as we head towards the make or break international talks in Glasgow in November – which is the climate emergency. It’s likely in 2020 that this will lead to a ramping up of moves to electrify road transport. Which means we will need to move from the current cottage industry of charging infrastructure to something much more comprehensive. And for that we need a bigger top table of those who are going to bring it about – with the city regions given a seat alongside government, catapults, the vehicle manufacturers and the the energy sector. More widely, if we mean it about this is being an emergency, then it should change the way we look at everything – in particular how much sense it makes that bits and pieces of staggeringly expensive road schemes (which in turn are a guarantee of more car dependent sprawl) are still so dominant in transport spending when they are 100% non-compliant with a climate emergency and counter-productive in nearly every other way too.

 And in closing. We remain, as ever, so near but yet so far on urban transport. Take Liverpool city region as an example. There is a smartcard, there is an extensive urban rail network (with the UK’s most sophisticated new commuter trains due to enter service shortly), there is a bus network. It’s within grasp to bring this all together within the next five years into a single, modern and fully integrated network which will look and feel akin to the ‘one network, one ticket, one system’ that London and European counterpart cities takes for granted. Indeed it could be up there with the best of them (I wrote about this here). And not just in Liverpool city region but in other city regions too. What’s more the new government has said it wants urban transport in the metro areas to be more London. What happens with the six pointers above will give an early indication of whether this will be finally achieved, or remain a ‘so near but yet so far’.