Another green transport world

swissrail

The weather is losing some of its British reserve. Changing from introversion to extroversion. Records are now there to be broken – and regularly. The hottest, the wettest, the most extreme. As the weather intensifies we need to expand the capabilities of transport infrastructure and its supporting built environment to cope.

We have a problem though – which is that we have already built our transport system. The wiring, the drainage, the track were built for a world that’s gone. Or as ScotRail’s Alex Hynes recently (and succinctly) told the Railway Industry Association’s Annual Conference in London last week: “The railway in this country can no longer cope because of climate change.”

Note that Alex is talking about now, not some time in the future.

This has massive implications for transport investment – implying that investment isn’t just about expanding capacity it’s also about making sure the capacity we already have can function as the weather becomes more technicolour and less monotone.

It also requires a different way of thinking about transport infrastructure. We need to make it spongier because at present we have too much rain bouncing off hard urban surfaces and then racing into drains (joining that which is pouring off deforested hillsides), to form implacable surges of flood water which overwhelm flood defences before submerging great tracts of land (and its transport infrastructure). As rainfall becomes more intense then this is going to happen more frequently.

In the heroic modernist engineering age the answer to this (as to most things) would have been to build more large objects and pour more concrete – in this case larger flood defences and bigger drains. It’s what the Netherlands used to do – but now things are changing. It’s always worth looking at the Netherlands, given how much of their country is situated below sea level (their water boards are one of the oldest democratic institutions on the planet).

Go to Rotterdam and they have built a huge water tank above the underground car park of Rotterdam Centraal’s rebuilt station to first capture, then hold and then slowly release excess rainfall. Within a short walk of the station you can also find water parks (which feature recessed areas which can be used to hold water when rainfall is intense), urban farms on spare railway land (which in normal circumstances would be wasteground), formerly buried watercourses opened to the sky and plenty of green roofs. The aim of this approach is not the traditional one of deflecting the water (with the danger that somewhere else takes the hit) but to temporarily detain it until the weather calms down.

Now there are clearly good reasons why the Netherlands is taking this kind of strategic approach to climate adaptation on rainfall. There are also some good examples of initiatives in the UK on adaptation and decarbonisation of the built environment (from Accrington’s eco-station to London’s eco-bus depot in West Ham). But given the scale of the challenge we also need to get more strategic – because as well as joining the dots on adaptation we also need to join the dots on climate between transport and energy.

Photo credit - Edmund Sumner.jpg

(Photo: Edmund Sumner)

It was very sobering to see a piece by Roger Ford in a recent edition of Modern Railways showing how disappointing diesel trains are on carbon emissions when compared with air travel. Most striking of all is that our main provider of long distance cross country rail services (the Voyagers) are only 50% better than a plane for a journey of London to Edinburgh dimensions. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands and Switzerland, because they electrified their rail networks to a far greater extent decades ago, they are better able to promote the hell out of its climate credentials today. They can do this with a clean conscience because their trains are powered by clean and renewable energy (in the Swiss case mostly by their own hydro power plants).

The public doesn’t really give a monkey’s in the UK about the corporate branding we use to sell train travel these days. However, people do care about the climate – and a proper climate strategy for public transport would be cracking on with electrification so we can sell rail travel on that basis. Electrification should also be part of a broader systematic national sustainability strategy for rail.

Again, as a comparator, the Swiss railways are part of a wider ‘Exemplary in Energy’ initiative which brings together the Swiss Government with key state-owned entities and major national and regional organisations (including Swiss Post, Swisscom and Services Industriels de Genève, a major utilities provider) who are working together to achieve a binding action plan to improve energy efficiency. The initiative comprises 39 joint measures in three action areas, plus a series of specific measures determined by each organisation individually. Among the energy measures the Swiss railway are taking include ‘green wave’ systems to give drivers extra information to reduce unnecessary stopping and starting and new tech that optimises when train heating and point heaters switch themselves on and off. The annual reports show how each of the organisations involved are delivering on their commitments. It’s this kind of transparent and coordinated approach which means you can market the sustainability benefits of public transport off the back of having its environmental credentials in order.

As well as taking a strategic approach to joining the dots on climate at a national level we also need to do the same at a city region level. In our new report on this topic we feature two cities that we think are ahead of the curve – Munich and Nottingham. We argue that one of the reasons they are doing more is a greater level of municipal control over both public transport services and utilities than is the norm in their respective national contexts. This means it’s been much simpler for these cities to join the dots on climate – as they can just do things rather than have meetings with other organisations with completely different priorities about maybe, sometime, never doing things. So already both cities are powering their public transport systems with renewable energy provided economically by their own energy company (trams in the case of Nottingham and trams plus the wider urban transit network in Munich).

Another green public transport world is possible and sometimes you get glimpses of it. Like Stockholm’s wondrous new tram-centric, eco-housing development at Hammarby Sjöstad or Berlin turning a redundant railway goods yard and an entire disused airport into parks, or travelling on trains powered by the turbines you can see from their windows. An optimistic take on the future goes like this. It’s about doing all the right things on transport, energy and the built environment – and doing them all at the same time. You are going to love it.

Download the report Making the connections on climate: How city regions can join the dots between transport, energy and the built environment.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

Getting beyond the MaaS hysteria

MaaS Movement cover social size

I don’t know about you but I’ve seen more than enough Power Points by now explaining with breathless excitement what Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is – as if no-one had ever heard about it before. And as if frequent repetition of the phrase in itself has alchemic properties which render immaterial base considerations as economics. So in the report we recently published on MaaS, we’ve tried to get beyond the MaaS hysteria and delve deeper into the real issues on turning the considerable potential of the concept into reality on the ground.

However, first it’s worth acknowledging how understanding of what people mean when they say Mobility as a Service has shifted in recent years. When this clumsy technocratic phrase (which unfortunately we are all now stuck with) first emerged it was commonly understood to mean the purchasing of packages for access to public transport combined with different forms of vehicle hire and sometimes bikes. It has since morphed to include portals for access to information and purchase of individual trips, and further evolved into the potential for the creation of ‘walled gardens’ where international corporations seek to ensure that you always go to them for transport information and payment (thus seeking to reproduce the monopoly platform model that has ultimately proved so profitable for Airbnb, Amazon, Google et al).

So far, despite all the fervour and theology about MaaS, what’s been achieved on the ground so far is rather less clear cut. At scale take up of MaaS (as originally defined as packages of mobility) is difficult to find. Indeed, we are at a point where the future of MaaS is still to be determined. It could be a system that steers people towards greater use of cars or away from them. It could make travelling easier for all, no matter their income, disability or location, or it could make mobility easier for tech-savvy, city centre dwellers and harder for those who are already excluded and marginalised. It could be a great concept that takes off at scale or one that people don’t need or want in practice.

Our report identified three factors that will determine the future of MaaS. The first is the topic that nobody seems to want to talk about when it comes to MaaS – which is money. The challenge for MaaS (where this means packages of mobility) is how you price the package at a rate where all the different providers involved make a return at a price the punters are willing to pay. Not easy unless either the public sector or the private sector is prepared to take a hit to ensure that cost is kept low.

A purely private sector-led MaaS could be prepared to burn cash in the short term in the hope of establishing a profitable monopoly in the long term. A purely public sector-led MaaS may be willing to do the same because the outcomes are worth the costs.

And then there’s the awkward question of how many people want to buy a package of mobility in the first place, rather than pay as they go – and who are they? Not clear yet. However, I always remember speaking to the person who runs the MaaS offer in a German city where the transport authority has been doing what is now described as MaaS for years and he said he thought it was good to be able to offer it, but it’s a niche product. He said most people will get a taxi when they want one rather than pay up front for access to taxis they may not use. One radical viewpoint on the economics of MaaS is that the real breakthrough would be to fuse MaaS with the pricing of road use to put paying to use your own car on contested and congested road space on the same app and pricing framework as for public transport, taxis and car hire.

The second make or break for MaaS is access to data. This factor is much more commonly covered in the debate on MaaS – so I won’t go into detail here. But with data now commonly seen as the earth’s most valuable commodity there are some big questions around how you get to the point of ‘if I show you mine will you show me yours?’

The third determinant is around the extent to which wider environmental, transport and social goals are encoded into the objectives of MaaS schemes. So, alongside the consumer benefits of a MaaS scheme to what extent does it relate to the wider goals that cities have to become healthier, greener, fairer and more prosperous places? For example, will MaaS schemes encourage people to make more short journeys on foot or by bike (good for public health and for reducing road congestion) or will they subtly promote the use of modes which can be more readily monetised for profit (such as taxis). The same risk is there for public transport if MaaS schemes promote taxi and hire car use at the expense of buses in particular.

Another big question is the extent to which MaaS schemes will also enable everyone in a city region to access opportunity or whether they default to targeting wealthier, city centre living early adopters?

If MaaS is about more than just those who already have the luxury of choice on transport (and much else besides), how could it be adapted to provide affordable options to low income groups?

Or how could it be used to precisely target information about transport options that work best given the nature of a person’s particular disabilities?

And in relation to this to what extent could MaaS dovetail with the concept of Total Transport to also incorporate currently silo-ed provision of social services, education and non emergency patient transport services to provide a more efficient service overall?

How MaaS evolves may also vary between the very largest city regions in the world and the rest. The world cities are those where the impacts of the big tech ‘platforms’ are being most widely felt. The world cities also have the most clout and resources to assert themselves if they so wish. At a time when housing costs are already the number one public concern in many of these cities, Airbnb is turning precious private and public housing stock into quasi-legal flop houses and pouring more petrol onto the flames of extreme financialisation of housing in the process. Meanwhile, on transport there is evidence that Uber and equivalents can eat into mass transit use (particularly in the US). And now there is the potential (depending on how MaaS develops) for Californian corporations to usurp the city’s role as trusted and impartial provider of transport information and access in the process, they are potentially also extending their control into cities’ transport planning role. In short, the world cities have some big decisions to make about the big tech platforms.

In the UK the role that second tier city regions play on MaaS may also be a product of their different circumstances and aspirations as they may well be hemmed in by their, as yet, limited influence over the core of any MaaS offer – public transport. This role could also be hampered by the hollowing out of local government by recent national administrations which means the resources that even some of the larger city regions have at their disposal to engage with issues like MaaS are highly constrained. However, we still suggest ‘five tests for good MaaS’ in our report that could be a useful frame for any urban area to think about MaaS:

  1. Does it incentivise public transport use?
  2. Does it reduce congestion and pollution?
  3. Is there a culture of openness/data sharing?
  4. Is it socially inclusive?
  5. Does it encourage active lifestyles?

Whether we are on the verge of a MaaS movement, or experiencing MaaS delusion, is not yet clear. But what is clear is that city regions will have a key role to play in determining whether MaaS is fool’s gold or the real thing.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

Sociable housing meets public transport – 10 things I learned in Eindhoven

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The UK has a housing crisis. Not enough of the right kind of homes in the right formats in the right places and at the right price. We can and must do better and part of this means making better connections between transport and housing (and professionals working in these two sectors) in order to get more of the right kind of homes in the right places, especially more homes which are readily accessible by public transport, cycling and walking. In pursuit of this aim, this summer I took part in the Academy of Urbanism’s annual congress (in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands) on the theme of affordable housing.

You can download a full report on the ten things I learnt at the event here – including how you may soon be able to print your own house; why social housing is back in the UK and why this could mean more opportunities for infill transit orientated development could happen; where in the world the most revered cities are on housing (spoiler alert – they are also great on public transport!); and how tired conventions around what a house should be are set for some overdue disruption.

My biggest takeaway? On housing, every country is, to some extent, a prisoner of its past and in the UK that past has put us in a difficult and moribund place. However, at the same time, change is here. The political damage and popular dissatisfaction that extreme financialisation of housing is causing is also now placing limits on further commodification. This has also helped contribute to the comeback of public, social and sociable housing. All of which means there are big opportunities out there to do everything at the same time to create great places to live, which are both environmentally and sociably sustainable. And of course, transit oriented.

Read the full report.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group