When it comes to mobility, sharing is caring

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Could shared mobility be one of the missing pieces in the puzzle that is the future of transport? That was certainly the impression I got at the recent CoMo Collaborative Mobility conference in Birmingham, which brought together practitioners and policy makers working on shared cars, bikes and rides from the UK and abroad. I came away feeling inspired about the potential role for shared mobility in a sustainable transport future and here are some of my highlights and key takeaways.

Shared mobility inquiry

Professor Greg Marsden, of the University of Leeds, presented the findings of the Commission on Travel Demand’s Shared Mobility Inquiry. Car is still the dominant mode choice for travel in England, used for 61% of trips in 2017, and occupancy rates remain low, at an average of just 1.2 people per vehicle for commute trips. The average car is only in use for around 3-4% of the time and one third of cars do not move on a given day, suggesting private vehicle ownership is incredibly inefficient. Clearly there could be a role for shared mobility to make the way we use vehicles more efficient and allow us to meet policy goals around congestion, air quality and addressing the climate crisis, and the inquiry recommended further research and analysis of the potential for more shared mobility.

Shared asset model

Enterprise Car Club and Liftshare are coming together to create a shared asset model, looking at how car club vehicles could be used by Liftshare customers. One car club vehicle, which might be a pool car for an organisation, will have multiple uses at different times of day and for different audiences under a shared asset model. So it might be used for business travel during the working day, for commuting for multiple staff lift-sharing outside of working hours during the week or for leisure travel at the weekend. By joining these models up, vehicle occupancy can be increased using shared vehicles, creating multiple benefits.

Wandsworth way ahead

Nationally, around 1% of the population access vehicles through a car club, but in Wandsworth, London, one in seven drivers are car club members! There are four car club operators in Wandsworth and the high usage rates show that given the right circumstances and density of vehicles, then usage can increase.

Mobility hubs

Mobility hubs – physical places which bring together a whole range of transport and non-transport services – could enhance seamless journeys. Belgium is already implementing mobility hubs. Essential features include information screens, shared cars, cycling facilities and public transport, but additional features could include EV charging, package pick up and drop off, toilets, seating, water refilling, WiFi and phone charging. The provision of transport information in a physical location can have benefits for those who might otherwise struggle to access information, such as those without a smartphone. And it’s interesting to note that BP is looking to invest in mobility hubs, because assets such as petrol stations could potentially become less attractive in the future as fossil fuel vehicles are phased out.

Sharing for social inclusion

Shared mobility also has potential benefits for social inclusion. A recent study in Glasgow looked at how improving access to shared bikes could reduced barriers to cycling amongst a range of demographic groups, including those who are homeless, seeking asylum and unemployed as well as targeting women, those from an ethnic minority background and those living in the most deprived areas. Participants were given annual access to the city’s bike hire scheme for £3 and offered additional support including cycle training, group rides, route finding support and advice. An impressive 95% of participants felt they had experienced an improvement in physical and mental wellbeing as a result of the project and other benefits included increased confidence to cycle, improvements in social life, reduced spending on transport and ease of access to employment.

With 36 million empty seats commuting to work in cars in the UK everyday, we need to think seriously about how we change travel behaviour in order to address congestion and the contribution of transport to the climate crisis.

Dr Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group and a trustee of CoMoUK 

The unexpected joys of an unconference on transport

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Earlier this month I attended the second annual Transport Planning Camp, held in Manchester, which focused on addressing the climate emergency. I had never before been to an ‘unconference’ – for those unfamiliar, an unconference is a conference without predefined topics, where instead participants choose and drive the agenda – and I was a little wary of the open nature of the format. But honestly, it was absolutely brilliant.

The day started with everyone suggesting a session idea or topic for discussion by sharing this on a post-it note. These were then passed around the room and rated out of five, and those with the highest scores became sessions in the day’s agenda. There was such a varied collection of ideas and thoughts from passionate attendees that included organisations as diverse as local authorities, academics, transport consultants and environmental campaigners.

I wanted to take part in all of the parallel sessions, because they were all interesting and important topics! But I chose:

  • How do we get public support for tough decisions?
  • How do we avoid male, pale and stale?
  • Do we need new laws to tackle the climate emergency and what should they be?

Grasping the nettle

The first session’s discussion focused around how to encourage the public to accept difficult decisions and for me, there were a few key takeaways: We need to evidence why we are taking difficult decisions in order to address the climate crisis (and other challenges) and articulate this well, in particular, by explaining the potential benefits from changes in the long term. Creating a clear vision of a better future can help with this and showing how these tough decisions might contribute to heathier, happier, more liveable places can help. Community ownership of changes can also help to improve the acceptability of difficult changes, engaging with the community earlier and bringing them along on the journey.

Diversity in design

I’ve had plenty of discussions around diversity in transport in recent times, but this one was particularly energised by this video that had been doing the rounds on social media showing what a feminist approach to planning in Barcelona could achieve. And it demonstrates how because women tend to travel in more sustainable ways, using public transport and walking more often, ensuring that they are better reflected in the planning process could reduce the contribution of transport to the climate crisis.

It was great to share stories from different participants about their experience of working in transport and ideas about what works well. Most notably, measures that make our workplaces, and our transport infrastructure and cities, more inclusive, often make them better places for EVERYONE. We can foster kindness in the workplace (and the world!) and be good advocates for each other. I know in my own experience, when I am trying to make a point in a room full of men and struggling to be heard, when someone consciously makes a space for me it helps.

Legislating for change

Finally, we discussed whether we need new laws to tackle the climate crisis. And the answer seemed to be a resounding yes. Suggestions ranged from reforming current laws to ensure we meet targets, to more radical suggestions such as banning cars from city centres, banning fossil fuel vehicles soon and even banning all advertising! But there was a general consensus that we do need new policy and legislation to tackle the climate emergency.

I left the Transport Planning Camp feeling energised, which was good because I faced delays on the way home due to flooding. And that’s the point. Our transport system (and most of our other systems) are not only contributing to the climate crisis, they are not resilient to the impacts either. And the clock is ticking on our window of time to respond.

Dr Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

She is a co-author of the recent report Making the connections on climate

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.

Batlet station grab

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.