This is the sound of the suburbs

“Child of the First War. Forgotten by the Second. We called you Metro-Land. We laid our schemes. Lured by the lush brochure, down byways beckoned. To build at last the cottage of our dreams, A City clerk turned countryman again. And linked to the Metropolis by train.”
Sir John Betjeman

It was the train that allowed the escape from the city to suburbs along its linear lines. Then the rise of the car allowed the suburbs to spread everywhere and the cities hollowed out because traditionally, for the British, a city was always a necessary evil. But over time those for whom the ubiquity of the suburban dream was a nightmare started to recolonise cities that in turn came back to life and tried to emulate urban living elsewhere in the world. British cities became fashionable and investable. And then as many of the suburbs started to fray at the edges as their infrastructure aged, the young and the wealthy moved into city centres and the poor moved to the suburbs (most people in poverty now live in suburban areas).

But, arguably, suburbs are now having their moment. Covid confined many people to their homes which became places where they both lived and worked. And even when restrictions were eased or ended, the working from home carried on. And if you are spending more time at home then why wouldn’t you want more space… and whilst we are it, a garden would be nice. Interesting too to see the hipsterisation of selected suburbs. Key elements of city living are there (the cafes and bars) without the need to live in city centres, spiked with innumerable anonymous speculative residential towers, and where you are never far from a bar but always a long way from a place to buy a pint of milk.

Suburbs. Most of us live in them. Most transport policy isn’t about them. It’s time more of it was. What approaches could we take to achieve this?

The ‘trains first, suburbs second’ rule that was the original model for suburban development is still true for some cities. Copenhagen’s ‘finger plan’ was developed in 1947 and visualises the city as the palm of a hand with the city developing along the five fingers. Each of the five fingers has its own rail line connecting it to the city. Between each finger are ‘wedges’ for recreation and agriculture. Later, a sixth finger was added to connect the city to Malmo, over the Oresund Bridge. Residential areas near stations in the core urban areas are built at densities of at least 40 residences per hectare. For the remaining stations, densities of at least 25 residences per hectare are required – which ensures that public transport services are viable.

I checked out the sixth finger when I was last in Copenhagen which does indeed organise itself along a driverless extension of the city’s metro system, with easy access to a nature reserve. You can see similar transit-based approaches for new suburbs in places like IJburg, Amsterdam (which I wrote about here) and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm. With a mass transit system in place these new developments allow for a ‘gentle density’ of residential homes where common services like refuse, car and bike parking, heating and cooling are collectively organised and, as far as possible, concealed .This leaves more of the streets available for people, including small people. On one residential street in Copenhagen the only car I saw was a pretend plastic one being peddled around by a child.

Meanwhile, in Britain, too many dull ‘cow pat’, car-dependent housing estates are sprawling all over. Research by Transport for New Homes of over 100 urban and greenfield housing estates of up to 10 years old showed that transport infrastructure investment added road capacity. Bus infrastructure was rarely given significant funding and only one new rail station was delivered.

We do have examples here in the UK of new transit-based suburbs. Most recently the Barking Riverside extension of the London Overground, without which the new mixed development which includes 10,800 homes couldn’t have gone ahead. Other relatively recent examples include Kirkstall Forge in West Yorkshire which opened up the development of a former industrial site to support a mixed development that includes over 1,000 homes. And there’s Maghull North on the Merseyrail Electrics network which opened in 2018 to serve adjacent housing development of 370 homes. Things get even better when the transport operator is the housing developer. When RATP redeveloped the Montrouge bus station in the south of Paris it rebuilt it as an underground vehicle maintenance facility for 183 vehicles with a new development overhead which included retail units, office space, 660 new flats and a nursery. The development also has green roofs creating 7,300 square metres of rooftop garden. Win-wins are a beautiful thing.

So much for new suburbs, what about the ones we have already built? There’s no one type of suburb and there’s no magic transport bullet that works for everything from areas of Victorian terraces to neighbourhoods of 1930s semis. Instead it’s more about drawing on a variety of initiatives that could lead to fewer suburban gardens being turned into climate un-resilient hard standing for a jigsaw puzzle of parked cars.

For example, in Berlin, the city has got a grip on what, up until now, what has mostly been nothing more than an increasingly tiresome Powerpoint pitch (Mobility as a Service). They have been installing mobility hubs across the city (suburbs included), complemented by the city’s mobility app ‘Jelbi’. Jelbi allows users to buy public transport tickets as well as access over 40,000 shared vehicles including bikes, cars and e-scooters. Large Jelbi stations are located at S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations and offer hire, return and charging of cars, bikes and scooters and are also stops for taxis and on-demand shuttles. Other policy clubs in the golf bag include those households that can own their own push bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters which, alongside public transport and mobility hubs, start to provide a viable alternative to multiple car ownership and a way of reducing car use.

But let’s not kid ourselves. If the car is king of trip share in the country as a whole then it is emperor in many suburbs. In these circumstances even a doubling of public transport use isn’t going to make much of a dent. So, we are also going to need to transition to both zero emission cars and to improve the low levels of car occupancy that we have in the UK. Pre-pandemic there were 36 million empty seats travelling during the morning commute every day – an average of just 1.2 occupied seats per car. The average car or van in England is only driven 4% of the time. Large public and private sector employers are probably the easiest place to start in getting serious about lift sharing, car clubs, car pooling and peer-to-peer sharing.

Meanwhile, all those electric vehicles are going to need a power supply whilst the housing stock itself also needs to be decarbonised. There are some opportunities here to look at these twin challenges more holistically – including community microgrids where local generation of energy (from heat pumps, solar and turbines) and management by sophisticated technologies allows you to play tunes with energy generation and storage. This includes powering a household’s electric vehicles and mobility devices (as well as using them as battery storage).

And then there’s climate resilience. Is it any wonder our cities get so hot and flood so easily with all that concrete for roads and hard standing for vehicles?

When we talk about transport policy we are usually talking about cities but if we are serious about decarbonising transport we need to decarbonise transport in the suburbs too. The suburbs were made by transport in the first place and with the right transport policies we can remake them for a world that needs to decarbonise – fast.

The Good Life: The role of transport in shaping a new and sustainable era for suburbs can be downloaded HERE.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine

Making the case for transport authorities

“Underneath all the commercial activities of the board, underneath all its engineering and operations, there is the revelation and realisation of something which is in the nature of a work of art … it is in fact, a conception of a metropolis as a centre of life, of civilisation, more intense, more eager, more vitalising than has ever so far been obtained.”
Frank Pick, the first chief executive of London Transport (December 1935).

At a recent UITP meeting of mostly European transport authorities it was revealing how much in common many of those attending had. We were in the 80% club (patronage plateauing somewhere in the 80% range of pre-Covid). Our national politicians simultaneously (for climate and cost of living reasons) want better public transport, but (for Covid deficit reasons) also want to reduce financial support. In addition, national governments are increasingly dropping fares cuts initiatives from the sky without having thought through the rationale or how they will be funded. All of which means that budget crunches are coming for many transport authorities with little sense as yet of how they are going to be resolved. The wide-ranging consistency in these immediate challenges was the background for the launch of a new Urban Transport Group/UITP report that makes the case for empowered transport authorities for metropolitan areas as the best vehicle for tackling challenges like these.

A big part of the case for metro area transport authorities is that they map on to real travel, cultural and economic geographies, at a scale whereby they can develop capacity, expertise, reputation and corporate memory. This allows them to deal with the bad times (like Covid or fiscal squeezes) as well as be ready to move quickly to capitalise in the good times (for example, when there is the political will for traffic restraint or public transport expansion). More widely they are also best placed to make the inevitable trade offs that will need to be made (given finite resources) on service provision and investment without bias to one mode or another or one sub-area or another.

Critically too, although they need to be fiscally responsible, they also have a public interest remit. It’s not just about the bottom line – it’s also about making the places they serve more prosperous, fairer and greener. All of this also gives them a spur to innovate, which they are too rarely given credit for (in the UK, for example, it’s transport authorities who were ahead of the private sector on everything, from low floor buses, to Oyster and zero emission buses).

The job that transport authorities have had has never been easy but the report argues that it has now become more complex and difficult than ever. Not so long ago a bus was a bus, a tram was a tram and a bicycle was a bicycle. Now there is both blurring of the edges between the modes (from tram-trains to e-bikes) as well as a growing range of new formats for mobility (such as e-scooters) and new business models for their provision (such as Bolt). At the same time, in fits and starts, vehicles are becoming more connected and autonomous as well as greener and cleaner.

And that’s just one dimension to the growing complexity. More widely we live in an urbanising world, putting incredible pressures on those cities which are growing fast in terms of resources, energy, housing and transport. We also live in a warming world where we need to both deal with the consequences and slow down that warming. All of which means that the professional sectors dealing with energy, transport and the built environment can’t continue to inhabit separate silos. For example, you can’t have electric buses without green energy infrastructure and you can’t fully decarbonise transport without decarbonising transport’s built estate.

So what are some of the key contemporary challenges that both existing and potential transport authorities are facing in the second decade of the 21st century and how are they doing it? Here’s four:

Let’s start with where we came in – funding. Transport authorities can find ways of blending different and new funding sources because they can earn the trust needed to do so through scale, capacity, capability, and track record. There’s a very wide range of mechanisms for doing this which transport authorities round the world are already using. Land value capture and property development is big in South East Asia whilst in the US local taxes on everything from fuel to mansions are widely deployed. There are big tech solutions like road pricing in Gothenburg (used to fund a new cross-city rail link) to more prosaic parking charges in Sydney. Given the squeeze on national budgets from Covid, metro areas are going to need to raise more themselves – and empowered transport authorities are a good vehicle for ensuring the proceeds are wisely spent.

On climate there are difficult choices to be made around how to balance spend on reducing carbon emissions with improving climate resilience. At the UITP meeting where the report was launched there was a presentation from Paris on the vast programme of works being carried out to protect public transport from the increasing risks of a major flood, which could take out much of the Metro for an extended period. Transport authorities are in a good place to make the difficult decisions about how much to spend on expanding the network compared with protecting what’s already there from climate risks.

On fairness and social justice, because of their wider public interest remit, there is an expectation that transport authorities should be pioneering ways of ensuring that both their own organisations and the decisions they make reflect the full diversity of the areas they serve. New York’s MTA is one example of a transport authority doing this in practice through its concerted efforts to ensure more of the contracts it lets go to women and minorities-owned businesses (the most successful programme of its kind in the US).

On new technologies, mobility and business models the job of transport authorities is to balance consumer benefits with protecting the wider public interest. The classic example of this is where new entrants flood the market with a new mobility format (such as dockless e-scooter or bike rental offers), which some travellers respond to positively but which can cause wider safety and urban realm issues in relation to use and parking (for example, for disabled people).

Singapore is a good example of how a transport authority can take a sophisticated and agile approach. The Singapore Land Transport Authority’s approach to new forms of mobility and business models is to ‘turn disruptions into opportunities’ by creating a regulatory framework which is flexible and facilitative to allow businesses to thrive. But the LTA is also not afraid to act decisively where necessary, including on requiring data and on clamping down on excesses in the dockless bikes market when operators wouldn’t do it themselves.

At their best the sum of a transport authority is far more than the parts. Reflecting the quote from Frank Pick at the start of this article, they can reflect and enhance the identity of the places they serve through being the respected custodians of their design traditions (from the Montreal Metro to London’s red double decker buses) and by maintaining a strong and consistent corporate identity. They can also support public art and cultural events and provide wider civic and commercial leadership in the investment, procurement and organisation decisions they take. In short, they can add to the allure of the places they serve for visitors, investors and residents.

Transitioning to a fully empowered transport authority can be difficult where one doesn’t currently exist – as inevitably it will take on powers currently held elsewhere. Without strong political backing a stepping stone approach may be needed, but the case for transitioning is stronger than ever. And as the world becomes more uncertain and the challenges facing urban transport become more complex I hope this collaboration between UITP and UTG can help provide those considering the future governance of their urban transport networks with the arguments and evidence they need to take the next step.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine

Bus safety shouldn’t be an afterthought

The National Bus Strategy for England has an opinion about everything; from bus shelters to bus numbers – it knows best. However, there’s one topic where it is curiously quiet. And that’s bus safety. Or perhaps I should say dangerously quiet, given the yawning gulf that now exists between the approach taken in London and Northern Ireland on bus safety and the approach taken elsewhere in the UK. Or indeed, more widely, the approach taken to rail, maritime and aviation safety in the UK compared with bus in Great Britain outside London. In these places, and for these modes, there is a clear across the board structure for safety leadership and a transparent data driven approach to analysis, action and targets for reducing risk and accidents.

For some time we’ve made the case to the Department for Transport for reform to bring the safety regime for buses up to scratch – and that the starting point should be a review of current arrangements to benchmark them against best practice. We got nowhere on this so we’ve sought to fill a gap (that it shouldn’t be up to us to fill) by commissioning such a review ourselves – from Loughborough University’s Transport Safety Research Centre.

The report makes for concerning reading but it boils down to the fact at a national level, we don’t have the data and analysis to drive safety policy on bus, and even if we did there’s no single body to act on the analysis in a coherent and proactive way at the national level. As one of those interviewed for the report said: “It just doesn’t feel joined up.” All of this adds up to a safety regime which is fragmented and reactive rather than coherent and proactive. That’s not to say there isn’t good practice and sharing on bus safety in England, but the under-resourced sum is less than the parts. In my professional lifetime, the DfT has done not much more than tinker with the bus safety regime leaving it to do the best it can with minimal resources.

In effect Transport for London has been left to fill the vacuum on leadership and standard setting on bus safety with its Vision Zero target of no one to be killed or seriously injured on or by a London bus by 2030 and its comprehensive and transparent approach to analysis of risks followed up by programmes to tackle them, from its ground breaking bus vehicle safety standards to its data-led approach to reducing passenger injuries due to slips, trips and falls. And from advanced emergency braking to its in-depth work on the sounds that electric buses can make, it’s TfL that has become both the defacto national research and development centre and leader on bus safety.

Meanwhile, it seems that if there is to be any significant change in the safety regime for buses in GB outside London then it will be a by-product of other forces at play. The government’s enthusiasm for creating a framework by which autonomous vehicles can operate (alongside the stalling in road casualty reductions more widely) has led to a consultation on establishing a road collision accident investigation body to bring roads more into line with the body that exists for rail.

This is welcome. But for the investigation branch to work we also need something similar to the other safety bodies that rail has – so while the Rail Accident Investigation Branch investigates crashes, the Office of Rail and Road is the health and safety regulator and enforcement authority for the railway. Meanwhile the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) enables and informs safety leadership. Part of its job is to gather data to understand better how the industry is performing and enable it to identify emerging issues as early as possible, so action can be taken. The work of the RSSB allows the rail industry to work together as a single system to reduce risk as much as possible, and enables better safety decisions to be made, and means that safety investment can be targeted to where it is needed most. It’s the proactive, looking ahead function that RSSB provides for the rail industry that is missing for bus in particular.

If there were to be an overarching safety body covering bus then there are pros and cons around whether this could be wrapped up within a national transport safety body, or whether there could be a roads or bus specific body. But the Loughborough report found support for such a body in principle. If such a body had the capacity to receive a much wider range of accident, risk and incident data than the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency currently does – and was able to analyse it and act on it – the safety regime for bus would start to look more like good practice.

The National Bus Strategy has dragged many elements of poor practice, and areas of bus provision which need to improve, into the spotlight but left the bus safety regime to stagnate in the margins. But shouldn’t any responsible strategy for any industry have improving safety as a core objective rather than barely an afterthought?

Buses are coming home

Wales (population 3.2 million) wants all its buses franchised. Greater Manchester (2.8 million) and Liverpool City Region (1.5 million) are well down the road. West Yorkshire (2.3 million) and South Yorkshire (1.4 million) have triggered the process. London (8.9 million) and Northern Ireland’s (1.9 million) buses are already under public control. That’s nearly 22 million people in areas of the UK where bus services are under public control or somewhere on the road to it. Meanwhile, Stagecoach has thrown in the towel on trying to block bus franchising in Greater Manchester and the secretary of state for transport, Grant Shapps, has said how delighted he is that franchising in Greater Manchester is going ahead and that it’s the way forward.

After facing years of disdain for vigorously making the case that this key public service should be run in the public interest I look forward to the next stage with everyone saying they were never really against it in the first place. Though reading the Stagecoach (of ‘we would rather drink poison’ fame) press release on their failed legal challenge it looks like this phase has started already. As they say – everything comes to he who waits.

I’m an Edinburgh fan myself

Having spent a few days in Edinburgh I’m an even bigger fan of Lothian buses than I was before. Every single bus feels like it’s brand new. I’ve never ever been on a grubby one. I love the municipal dignity of the fleet – both the interiors and the exteriors. Maroon for urban, green for rural. And now you can tap and go that’s the last remaining layer of hassle removed. It’s the only city I can think of, other than London, where the bus feels like a mass transit system (especially with those tri-axle double decker giants) used by all sections of society. Get the basics consistently right and you have an urban bus network that people will respond to.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece originally appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine