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.

Out and about in towns

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

It would be fair to say that I’ve covered a lot of ground, literally, in the 23 years which I have worked on transport in the West Midlands.

But it was during a recent secondment to the Urban Transport Group that I really hit the road (and rails) – travelling from Strathclyde to the West of England, and all city regions in between – while writing the report About towns: How transport can help towns thrive. Below are a few personal thoughts and reflections on what I’ve seen and heard as I’ve travelled the country for this project.

Firstly, like many urban areas the world over, the story of our towns centres around how people and places can make a living post-coal. Most of our city regions are on coalfields, and directly or indirectly depended on coal as they industrialised.

Some places have adapted, survived and are clearly on their way to prospering post-coal. There were signs of public investment and signs of private investment (the latter following the former perhaps); there were many examples of attractive high quality public realm; there were people busy going about their business, clearly with money in their pocket; and in some places a real sense of community spirit, or “gemeinschaft”, as the Germans call it.

Some places though are still struggling to achieve this change, with wealth fizzling out the further you travel from the buzz and activity of the regional centre. These places are characterised by unemployment, low education and skill levels, hollowed out high streets and low productivity – all of which, as our report argues, transport can help to overcome.

Thriving towns through transport

So how does transport help people in these towns lead more prosperous lives?

The overarching thought is that transport has a role to play as part of something bigger: concerted, long term efforts to make towns good places to grow up and live, good places for businesses to invest in and provide good work, and places where neighbouring towns and cities and the countryside, which are all just down the road, are within grasp of all residents.

One of the issues to tackle is how to get people to contemplate visiting our post-industrial towns in the first place. Negative perceptions need changing but can be changed. Trendy travel guides have details of many cities and towns across Europe and the US which, 20 or 30 years ago, many people would have said “really?”

What was striking was how first impressions matter. When you get off a train in an unfamiliar town, if you see graffiti, tatty information displays, or litter, you get a sense that this is a place that’s been left behind. In sharp contrast, when you step onto a platform at a clean, bright station or interchange where the people responsible clearly care, it can make a big difference to your initial reaction – you feel welcome.

Many of the towns I visited were once grand old places in their prime. Much of the new work that has come to these towns in recent years hasn’t seemed to emulate those proud places of old where there was clearly dignity of labour. The timeless phrase of trade unionism: “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” doesn’t seem to ring true for some of the new jobs which have been created in these towns on our coalfields. And there is a wider societal debate to be had on what are fair and acceptable levels of benefits for people not in work.

Beyond national legislation for statutory minimum wage levels, working conditions and benefit levels, transport has a role. It can help attract people to visit more interesting and attractive town centres. Transport gets workers to work and students to skills. It can get people in need of healthcare to doctors’ surgeries and all the other places where people need to connect up with one another. As significant local employers, transport organisations and businesses can be exemplary employers providing that fair pay for fair work, and act as anchor institutions, spending significant sums of money on local supply chains and support services.

The bigger picture

Taking a slightly wider look, a big challenge is to help people move across our city regions and towns to all the opportunities afforded by a bigger geography. And key to this is enabling movement in ways which don’t clog up our already congested motorways and main roads. We need cool, Scandinavian-quality designed, German-quality engineered, rail and rapid transit networks, which, while we’re at it, are integrated with decent local bus networks and are really easy and cheap to use through smart ticketing.

As well as this big investment, what is also striking is how important it is to get the smaller details right. I often found that local bus services in unfamiliar towns were a confusing mixture of different liveries, colours, numbers, tickets, rules and conditions. I needed to be bolder, or in receipt of a helping hand, if I were to venture across the threshold of one of these services.

I travelled extensively by rail as part of the project. My impression of rail in the UK from this experience is that we have a lot of rail services, with our main centres well joined up with regular services on the national rail network. What we don’t have is enough carriages, enough space for comfortable seating, and fast enough trains: some line speeds are dismal. What was also a bit irksome was that often trains would be a bit late, or a door wouldn’t work, or the coffee trolley wouldn’t accept cards that day – lots of little things that collectively add up – some operators seemed to be able to do these things consistently better than others.

As I worked on the project, a recurring thought I had was that it would be great if central, city region and local government were able to work together efficiently for the common purpose of inclusive growth and regeneration of our city region towns: a bit like some sort of painting of a picture. Central Government specifies the overall aims of the painting, the general theme of the work and the types of things to consider for the composition. The city region is then able to select the tools it needs and sketch the outline of the picture and put on broadbrush colours. The local level then completes the picture with the finer grain of detail, in accord with how a good picture will go down well with the local public.

It is this joined up approach that could put our post-industrial urban areas back on the map, and get people out and about in thriving and prosperous towns.

Jake Thrush is Associate Policy Advisor at Transport for West Midlands, and the primary author of the About towns report whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group

Our blueprint for urban transport can deliver transformational change

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus and Chair of the Urban Transport Group, offers his thoughts on our new report – Policy Futures for urban transport.

Over the coming few weeks the major political parties will be getting together to debate their policies for the next few years. Ensuring our urban economies can grow in a sustainable and inclusive way has to be a key part of those debates. We believe modern and efficient transport networks can be the link between policy objectives and delivered results.

Very few other services brings together – or facilitates the success of – the goals of many government departments and agencies. The Urban Transport Group calculated that in 2014 local bus services alone contributed to the policy goals of half of all government departments and 46 policy goals of those departments (41 outside of the DfT).

That’s why we are launching our latest Policy Futures vision – a blueprint that can lead to transformational change for everything from economic development, social mobility and inclusion through to creating the cities we will need for the future.

At its heart, the Policy Futures vision requires a national framework that brings together government and civil service at the national level with the urban transport authorities delivering services in their local areas. Potentially, the barriers between departments and agencies can be lessened so that the benefits that joined-up transport thinking might be realised – in such disparate policy areas such as health, employment and education.

Not only that, a national framework could also deliver real economic and budgetary goals – funding decisions for transport schemes and infrastructure can be streamlined and made more efficient enabling transport authorities to have more control over a more stable funding regime. A more focussed transport framework will unlock additional job opportunities by helping people get into work and increase the skills base of the population by easing access to education and training.

The Policy Futures vision has 16 specific policy changes we would like to see implemented – I won’t list them here, but we will be on hand at the Labour and Conservative party conferences to explain them in detail.

Our member authorities deliver vital urban transport services for millions of people  in the UK – and we hope to make their voices, and the voices of our members heard this party conference season.