Funding, sharing, recovery & legacy – a weekly blog post on urban transport and the COVID-19 crisis

Here are some Sunday morning reflections on where things stand for urban transport on the COVID-19 crisis as we prepare to begin another busy week.

1. We have done everything the Government has asked of us during the crisis – now we need the Government to stand behind us

The Government’s overall strategy has been helicopter drops of cash for households, business and local government, accompanied by relaxing of the legal and regulatory framework so that cash can be deployed by the recipients as soon as possible in order to keep the overall show on the road. This has been followed by sub-sectoral support. For transport, rail was first to go, with quasi re-nationalisation, leaving railway people free to get on with the job of running a core service. For bus (where bus deregulation makes life more complicated), we have already had phase one which is local and national government maintaining the funding flows they control for concessionary fares, supported services and fuel subsidies (BSOG), whether or not those services are being provided or not. Phase two should be ready to roll early this week (which broadly speaking will be additional payments for operators on the basis of the service they are actually providing). The idea is that in return for maintaining a level of public support that seeks to compensate for lost income from passengers, operators will do the right thing (provide an essential network based on where essential workers are and where they need to get to) in a collaborative way with transport authorities. And at the same time, that they won’t do the wrong things (like go ahead with planned fares rises). It’s early days yet on how well this plan will work in practice over the coming weeks – but it’s definitely a good thing that the Government has made additional funding support to maintain bus networks an early priority. And on the ground, private sector bus operators and public sector authorities and their staff are working hard to make it work and to provide the essential network that essential users need.

However, so far public sector transport authorities are not seeing any of the additional funding (other than at the margins). Additional funding for local government goes direct to councils not transport authorities and the extra funding for rail and bus goes to the private sector providers not the public sector transport authorities. And it’s not just those private sector providers that are haemorrhaging patronage (and therefore income) – the same is happening on our tram and light rail systems (like Manchester Metrolink and the Tyne and Wear Metro). Merseytravel is also financially exposed on its Merseyrail Electrics rail franchise and as the provider of a World City integrated public transport network, TfL is losing income on an altogether different magnitude.

At the same time as losing income on their own systems, transport authorities are also making good the lost income of private bus operators (through continuing to pay for concessionary travel and supported services, etc). And all authorities are losing revenue from rent, advertising and broken contract clauses (as projects are put on pause because of the virus). This can’t go on. Especially as this isn’t just about maintaining an essential service for essential workers in the here and now, it’s also about being in a fit state to crank services up when we come out of lockdown. Plus, being able to resume the kind of investment programmes and service improvements that will be needed to tackle problems that haven’t gone away in the meantime – like climate change and the levelling up agenda.

So a big part of our work in the week ahead will be making the case to Government for the funding deal transport authorities need. On this, we have had very good engagement with the Department for Transport Local Transport (who we know are working incredibly hard to move at pace). But to unlock the funding, the work we are doing with them needs to land at Treasury and be seen by Government as a whole as priority.

We have done everything the Government has asked of us in responding to this crisis – now we need the Government to get behind us.

2. Shared approaches to the crisis

The other big job we have (as we have been doing throughout the crisis) is networking between our transport authority members so they can share approaches. We do this through a series of rolling telecons with groups leading on light rail, bus, communications, staffing, active travel, legal and finance, as well as our overarching Board level co-ordinating group (which meets at least three times a week). As a complex coordination job this is working well.

3. Recovery and legacy

The task of winding down networks rapidly but matching them to the needs of essential workers (all whilst protecting staff and seeking to ensure social distancing and securing the funding and legal framework to do this) has been, and remains, an enormous operational and practical challenge. At some stage this process will go into partial and then full reverse (and then be partially or fully reversed again depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds) which will bring with it new operational challenges, which we are turning our attention to. There are also the wider and enormous long run ramifications of this transformation on all our lives for transport planning (from the future of the daily commute to whether this experiment in mass behaviour change will normalise or inhibit the kind of behavioural change that climate targets imply). Shaping the best legacy we can from the crisis is something that our Assistant Director, Becky Fuller, is leading on and that our transport planning group will be addressing in their first telecon next week.

Another week of tough challenges and long hours begins, but put into perspective by the news that five London bus drivers have died from the virus and the dedication of front line staff at our member organisations in keeping core public transport networks running.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

 

Tackling transport challenges, together

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People will always need to travel to places. So, there is a strong consensus around the need for high quality, integrated urban public transport networks that can support the greener, healthier and more prosperous city regions that we want to see. But the big question is how to sustain a public transport offer when passenger numbers are falling, congestion is rising and resources continue to reduce?

Cooperating in partnerships, with operators and local authorities, and working closely with other regions as the Urban Transport Group, to exchange intelligence and expertise, is one of the ways we can try to achieve more with less. But we need to recognise that responding to the challenges facing us isn’t a case of one size fits all. On the contrary, to stimulate growth, more than ever we now need to understand local markets, and their demands and needs, in order to meet them.

Investment is critical: investment in research into public travel patterns and preferences; investment in attractive infrastructure; and investment in people and embracing diversity, to sustain a strong industry workforce that strengthens the transport skill and knowledge base to generate new ideas and take a fresh approach.

Collective insight and analysis can help policy makers and providers offer modes of transport that are competitive with, or even better than, the alternative. Everyone’s familiar with the climate rhetoric, but more needs to be done to make the grass look greener if travel behaviour is to change. It’s about increasing awareness around the impact an individual’s travel choice has on the whole community, and the benefits an efficient and integrated public transport network can bring to all – by reducing congestion on roads, for bus users and car drivers, whilst contributing towards cleaner air and a healthier community.

Research shows that using public transport helps to integrate physical activity into a daily routine, because most walk or cycle to and from bus, tram or train stops. This is an easy way to try and achieve the British Heart Foundation’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. People who travel by bus, tram or train are ‘happier’ too, according to a study from the University of East Anglia – simply because they have more time for mindfulness, to relax and to concentrate on themselves.

Among other factors, we’re working against a rise in car ownership, a shift in people’s expectations for more bespoke and on demand services, fare prices, increased online shopping, different work patterns and reduced investment. All of this impacts on public transport. Given this environment, it’s vital that transport leaders influence and shape what’s in their backyard and maximise every opportunity to affect change. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is supporting Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority in a bid for the Transforming Cities Fund, combining public transport improvements with a wider development and growth plan. Part of this would see investment in a cleaner fleet of buses. They’ll run on the most polluted corridors around the region, connecting people to employment and education, whilst contributing to air quality and congestion issues. It’s a step in the right direction. As is our Active Travel campaign, encouraging people to make small changes to the way they travel to bring big benefits for themselves and their environment.

In times of less resources, the way ahead is to share them. Together we can tackle the challenges to transform public transport. Today, and for future generations.

Stephen Edwards is Executive Director at SYPTE and the new Chair of Urban Transport Group

Read Stephen’s biography here

Transport should be at the heart of new developments – and here’s how

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What is transit oriented development?

You might not instantly recognise this American term, but if you’ve been to the new development north of London’s King’s Cross station, then you’ll know what one looks like. Although still not fully completed, this once unused industrial site represents a flagship transit oriented development – the principle of putting public transport front and centre in residential and commercial developments, with the aim of maximising access by public transport, encouraging walking and cycling, and minimising the need to own and use private cars. With its shops, restaurants, offices (Google is located here), public sector organisations (Camden Council has offices here) and excellent public realm – all located within striking distance of plentiful transport options such as rail, tube, buses and active travel infrastructure like cycle superhighways, it certainly fits the bill.

Transit oriented development is not only found in large world cities. Northstowe, in Cambridgeshire, is part of the NHS Healthy New Towns programme, which aims to encourage active lifestyles and incorporate healthcare facilities into new town developments. Good public transport options are available here via the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway and the nearby Cambridge North Railway Station. And in West Yorkshire, a new railway station at Kirkstall Forge outside of Leeds, is part of a new transit oriented development which, on completion, will provide over 1,000 new homes, 300,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet of retail, leisure and community facilities, including a school – all just a six minute ride train journey from the city centre.

Our new report – The place to be: How transit oriented development can support good growth in the city regions – looks at how ‘Transit oriented development’ can help meet housing demand and reduce car-based urban sprawl, and provides examples like these, and many more.

For instance, Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, is a transit oriented development which prioritises walking and cycling by having low speed limits. The area is served by a high frequency tram and all homes are within 400 meters of a tram stop. This integration of sustainable transport means that car ownership is low, at 150 cars per 1,000 residents, compared to 270 for Freiburg as a whole.

So, integrating public transport into new developments, along with providing urban realm that encourages walking and cycling, can help us move away from a car based sprawl approach to delivering new housing, one which locks residents into car-based lifestyles and exacerbates the challenges of congestion and poor air quality in our cities. We’ve identified seven key success factors for transit oriented development schemes in our new report, including: integration of public transport, support for walking and cycling and discouraging car ownership and use, high density development on brownfield sites, integration of services and the involvement of the public sector. You can see these in our new infographic below (which can be downloaded here).

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But how exactly do we go about achieving such developments, and overcome some of the barriers?

Our members – city region transport authorities – have an important role to play, as they are often some of the biggest land and property owners in the cities they serve. In order for them to make transit oriented developments happen, they need:

  • a national planning framework that favours transit oriented development rather than car-based low density sprawl
  • a national funding framework with more options for ensuring that value uplift from new developments can be used to improve transport connectivity – like we have seen with Crossrail in London and in places like San Francisco’s Bay Area. In particular, we need a joint programme of work between city regions and national Government to examine the issues, and develop the options, on land value capture mechanisms.
  • more influence over land held by agencies of national Government which would be prime sites for transit oriented development schemes. We’d like city region authorities in England to have the same veto powers over Network Rail land sales that the Scottish Government currently enjoys.
  • more devolution of powers over stations where a city region transport authority has the ambition and capacity to take on those responsibilities.
  • measures to improve the planning capacity of local authorities in order to respond effectively, rapidly and imaginatively to opportunities for high quality transit oriented development.

As our Chair Tobyn Hughes notes, transit oriented developments are “an idea whose time has truly come”… but if we are to embark on a new era of transit oriented developments, and realise the benefits they can bring, we must overcome these obstacles. We hope that by following these recommendations, we can usher in this new era.

Clare Linton is Researcher at Urban Transport Group

(Picture top: R~P~M via Flickr)