Cost of living crisis – what will the impact be?

In Germany you will be able to buy a pass for all regional and local public transport for nine euros a month for each of June, July and August

Is the cost of living the new Covid in terms of the impact it’s going to have on patronage and travel trends? If it’s too early to say yet what the medium and long term implications of Covid will be, then that’s certainly true of rising energy prices and all the other inflationary pressures. But let’s speculate anyway.

Usually a squeeze on living costs leads to a squeeze on discretionary travel. In other words a squeeze on the very leisure market that has been seen as public transport’s best hope for growth. At the same time the cost of living crisis could lead to a modal shift to public transport – if the public transport price is right. If it isn’t, then electric cars and push bikes could be the main beneficiaries.

Whilst the Department for Transport has focused on encouraging people to make one-off cheap, discretionary long distance rail trips (via its recent sale of discounted advance purchase fares), other countries have gone for something more universal, more bread and butter. In Germany you will be able to buy a pass for all regional and local public transport for nine euros a month for each of June, July and August. Yes you read that right – nine euros on any public transport vehicle (except the very fast ones) for a month. Northern Ireland has frozen public transport fares and the Republic of Ireland has cut fares by 20%.

There could be fares cuts on a more patchwork basis in England too – given that there is Bus Service Improvement Plan revenue funding available for that in some areas. Mayors too are pressing for simpler and cheaper fares. However, it could well be a mixed picture with different modes doing different things at different times – as well as fares rising elsewhere (and often from a high base).

On the other side of the coin the cost of living crisis could also deter measures to raise the cost of motoring as the politics of doing so gets harder still.

Also in the mix are the key post-Covid trends that have still to play out. Concessionary travel remains well below what it was pre-Covid with Covid concerns and changed habits likely factors. The return to the office remains sluggish as the private and public sectors continue to wrestle with where their new hybrid ways of working should land. And as the return to the workplace continues will there be more combining of leisure and work trips as people add on nights out and shopping to the working day? If travel and patronage trends are uncertain then so is the funding. The last tranche of Covid-related funding expires at the end of September – before BSIP and City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement funding kicks in (for those places that get it). It clearly makes no sense to cut bus networks one month and try and build them up again a few months later – so will there be a way of bridging the gap? All in all a messy picture – but that’s the world these days.

Return to Planet Freight

Seven years ago I paid a visit to Planet Freight for one of these columns (PT104) off the back of a report we produced called Delivering the Future – new approaches to urban freight. Then I asked if freight is from Mars is public transport from Venus – given the different policy worlds they inhabit. So in seven years what’s changed and what hasn’t?

Seven years ago freight worked on its own terms (stuff got where it needed to be) even if at the same time it didn’t work (lorries kill cyclists and pump out carcinogens). Overall though it worked well enough (and in a commercial and adaptive way) for the downsides to be brushed under the carpet and for government to largely leave it alone. However, last year freight suddenly stopped working so well. The driver shortage meant that stuff didn’t always get where it needed to. This has benefited railfreight which needs rather fewer drivers to move the same tonnage.

Rail freight’s fortunes rise and fall largely with the fortunes of the bulk commodities that it relies on. With King Coal dethroned, aggregates and containers have been taking its place. And yet this still continues to leave many large urban centres and markets devoid of any rail freight whatsoever. For example, Bradford is the seventh biggest city in the country yet it has no active rail freight facilities. This is partly because in the UK railfreight is mainly about a few companies battling it out on cost over who gets to move bulk freight, whereas in countries like Switzerland and Germany they are still investing to ensure that there are more places where you can move smaller amounts of freight by rail. Which in turn helps explain why rail has a much bigger market share for freight in those countries than in the UK.

Over the same period London broke ranks and stopped tolerating the collateral damage from having an ‘efficient’ road haulage sector. Despite the crude ‘lowest common denominator’ opposition of the trade bodies for the sector, London has pressed on with ratcheting up both vehicle standards and enforcement of safety and emissions. The rapid acceleration in the availability of green, safety and logistics technologies is also helping the sector clean up its act (especially for the larger players), however the degree of illegality in the industry remains shocking. In 2018/19 the percentage of Light Goods Vehicles issued with a prohibition on mechanical grounds was 49%, and 70% for overloading. Operating illegally is not only dangerous, it is also unfair competition given the high safety standards that rail adheres to.

Meanwhile, the white van economy continues to grow (further supercharged by the pandemic) – not just for deliveries but also for trade. This in turn has led to several air quality zone plans running into trouble as the costs of making the growing battalions of vans compliant has collided with the politics of not doing so. The rise and rise of the van also has implications for the battle for road capacity and kerb space – something which the bus sector also has an interest in of course.

Driver shortages (people don’t want to spend their nights sleeping in a lorry cab) mean relying on road haulage to the extent we do now looks less practical (and as environmentally unwise as it ever was). This big change in the dynamics of the freight debate makes the case for a more interventionist approach (to freight). Especially given that the kind of nudges we have seen in the last seven years haven’t been enough to move the dial sufficiently towards the less intrusive, greener, skilled and safer sector that is increasingly the norm elsewhere in the economy.

An interventionist approach that would move that dial would have two main elements. Firstly, investment in the capacity of rail freight and inland waterways (including in terminal and distribution sites). Secondly, making road haulage pay its way in terms of its wider safety, road maintenance and environmental costs would help make it safer and greener but also make rail freight more competitive on price. It could also help further accelerate the booming cycle logistics sector. And it could also make economic what currently isn’t – which is more urban freight consolidation centres to reduce the volume and impacts of deliveries by road in urban centres. Perhaps the biggest difference in seven years is that the debate about freight and logistics has opened up more. It is no longer an afterthought at the end of wider transport strategies. But there’s still a big gulf between passenger transport and freight – big interventionist policies on the former are the norm – but not yet on the latter.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

The article first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

Transport planning beyond the default male

There is little doubt that – consciously or not – our transport networks have traditionally been designed for men, by men. Specifically, men who are white, able-bodied, unencumbered by children or other loads, men who are simply trying to commute into work and back again, otherwise known as the ‘default male’. The needs of women, parents and children – or indeed anyone outside that template – are all too often given scant consideration, if they are considered at all. 

Evidence of the ‘default male’ is everywhere in public transport – the poorly lit route from the railway station; the limited space for buggies and wheelchairs; the impossibility of dropping the children at school and making it to work on time; the lack of space to comfortably stow shopping on the bus; the convoluted and lengthy journeys between suburbs that would be a cinch by car; the narrow pavements; the lack of taxis with infant seats. 

For a long time, as a female user of public transport – and latterly as a parent – I accepted these inconveniences as simply how things were. I had internalised the need to be constantly vigilant, to avoid certain routes, certain people, to keep myself safe. I muttered, embarrassed as my buggy tipped over on the bus, due to the weight of the food shop teetering precariously on the handles, having no other place for it to go. I resigned myself to taking two buses each way to take my children to play dates in other parts of the city. How annoying that this seat is not comfortable for my body, that I can’t reach the overhead luggage rack on the train. 

Things crystalised for me when I came across the work of Caroline Criado-Perez, and her book ‘Invisible Women’. All those inconveniences and compromises formed a pattern. It opened my eyes to the gender bias not just in transport, but all around us, and that it doesn’t have to be this way, we don’t have to put up with it. We can change it – men and women together.  

Perez is keen to point out, that often this male bias is not intentional. It can simply stem from a lack of knowledge, a lack of data, about how other people experience the world and what their needs are. Few would deliberately set out to exclude people. To begin to illuminate these blind spots, we must shine a light on the rich diversity of people’s experiences.  

This is one of the goals of ‘Gender on the Agenda’ a webinar series that we are sponsoring alongside Mott MacDonald. Hosted by Landor LINKS, the series aims to explore gender in relation to transport and planning. It recognises that, as a sector, we have a responsibility to recognise, respond to and overcome the challenges that the current system presents to women (and indeed others who don’t fit the ‘default male’ mould) to create networks that are accessible, safe and attractive for all. 

The fundamental connection between transport and social inclusion has been a key focus for us at the Urban Transport Group over the years. The extent to which transport meets the ‘4 As’ – is it Available? Affordable? Accessible? Acceptable? – is crucial in determining people’s level of access to opportunity. The webinar series is a chance to examine those aspects through the lens of gender. 

Two sessions have been held to date, one on why transport is not gender neutral and one on how technology and innovation can support inclusive mobility. The next, taking place on 23rd November, will explore making streets and public space work for everyone. More will follow in the coming months.  

So far, two themes have come out very strongly – the need for better data, and the need for better representation.  

In respect of the former, it is no secret that the current transport network is set up to support the idea of the male bread winner, commuting into the city and returning home. The work of Ines Sanchez De Madariaga, who spoke at the first Gender on the Agenda event, made it clear that women’s travel patterns are much more complex.  

Women are more likely to trip chain. They are more likely to have primary caring responsibilities for children and other family members, for example, an elderly parent in another suburb. They are more likely to be responsible for the logistics of food shopping, escorting people to medical appointments, to clubs and activities. Madariaga describes this as the ‘mobility of care’ and, taken together, these trips exceed commuting trips. And yet commuting trips are what our transport networks are planned around. We need to get better at making these trips visible, valuing them, and making them count in transport planning terms. We also need to better understand people’s lived experiences.  

These are issues we would like to explore further as UTG, examining, for example, what data we collect as a network, what is valued in appraisal, what gaps exist and what this means for what transport solutions are prioritised and who benefits or misses out as a result. 

The second key theme is representation. Having worked in transport for 13 years, I have seen first-hand that our sector is dominated by white, able-bodied men, particularly at decision making level. Women account for just 21% of the transport workforce. It is an issue that our members are keenly aware of and one which we’re working together on by, for example, sharing good practice and developing practical tools and resources. A more diverse workforce brings different perspectives, new ways of thinking beyond what we and ‘people like us’ have experienced. Ultimately it means we can provide the best possible service for the communities we serve.  

It is worth highlighting that this is not a niche issue – women account for half the population. It is a serious problem if our transport networks don’t work for them, even more so given that women are more likely than men to rely on public transport and walking to get around. We hope that the Gender on the Agenda series will throw a spotlight on women’s experiences and how these can be better represented and accounted for. It’s time to move beyond the default male – will you join us? 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group 

Change is happening fast – what’s next

Electric Metroshuttle 3

Now we are the Urban Transport Group the pace is picking up with more invitations to speak at more conferences and events. Which also gives the opportunity to hear from others and tune into what’s going on out there in a host of areas, from skills to tech and streets to logistics. With the future speeding up many of these events had more verve than they might have had a few years back. After all, one year ago no electric double deckers, five years ago no Uber, 10 years ago no iPads, smartphones, Facebook or Twitter. With transformative change happening so quickly – what’s next?

Reach Change is happening fast – what’s next here