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.

 

Smart futures for urban transport: making it work for travellers and cities

Change isn’t coming – it is already here. Transformative technological change (allied with social change – the transition to a sharing economy in particular) is shifting the ground beneath our feet as big city transport authorities. Three areas in particular stand out. Firstly, the explosion of data which means that citizens can be far better informed as travellers about their options but also potentially have a greater say over decisions on transport. The planners evaluating the options for new services, infrastructure and facilities will also be far better informed about the implications of different options. Secondly, new vehicle technologies will mean that vehicles are smarter, greener and better connected. There is also the potential for them to become more autonomous. Thirdly, new means of paying for access to transport alongside new business models open up the potential for Mobility as a Service – where travellers can buy packages of mobility that can be used across all modes (including bike hire, car hire and taxis).

Better informed decision making, both individually and collectively, as well as transport systems which are smarter and cleaner, offers an exciting prospect. However, there’s more to getting the best from this smart future than just letting technology rip. For example the growth in the taxi market, fuelled by new business models, is bringing benefits to consumers but at the expense of growing traffic congestion. Who will ensure that those on the wrong side of the digital divide can still get around? How can we ensure that technology plays its full role in improving air quality and tackling carbon emissions?

Much of the debate on what we call ‘smart futures’ tends to be focussed on excitement around the technology itself. However, technology should not be an end in itself. It should be about making individual journeys easier whilst also serving wider public policy goals for cities – like cleaner air, inclusive growth and urban environments that people want to visit, invest in, live in and work in.

This is where the Urban Transport Group, and its members come in, and it’s what ‘Our Vision for Smart Futures’ that we launched today is all about.

A vision that commits us to recognising the pace of change and the benefits it can bring in the way that we work and operate; making sure that change makes travel simpler and easier whilst ensuring that change does not leave behind any sector of society or community or leads to unintended consequences that damage cities as a whole (such as more traffic congestion)

I hope that this vision statement will help remind national government, Transportation Network Companies and the tech sector that to get the best from smart futures we need a broader dialogue on smart futures on transport, one in which public sector transport authorities and wider city region government is integral.

Follow this link to download a copy of ‘Our Vision for Smart Futures‘.