No, Cambridge should not be trying to innovate in public transport. Sometimes, boring is better

One of the prettier Cambridge colleges. Image: Getty.

Cambridge likes to style itself as a place where ideas are formed. “Cambridge ideas change the world,” according to the university.

And the city is currently having a lot of ideas about how to solve its traffic problems. The region’s metro mayor, James Palmer, is on record as supporting the idea of an underground rapid transit system for the city. Local campaign groups, business lobbyists and professors alike have weighed in with their ideas, and sketched out exciting maps of future transport systems.

But while the city supports copious innovation in electronics and biotech, it absolutely should not be trying to innovate in public transport.


Here’s why: Cambridge is really small for a city. The 2011 census put its population at 123,000, but the city is growing, so it’s perhaps 130,000 now. The current record holder for “smallest city with a metro system” is Lausanne, Switzerland – population: 146,000, but in an urban area of 400,000 – which has a light rail line and an underground metro line. The latter is less than four miles long, and cost around half a billion pounds to build when it opened in 2008. It’s also on a really steep hill: the metro allows people to easily travel between the upper and lower parts of the city. This is definitely not a problem that Cambridge has.

So, what could we do for Cambridge? Lots of people argue for trams. They’re fast, quiet, give a smoother ride than a bus, and the fixed infrastructure means that they raise property prices along their route, which can help with financing them.

For such a system to work properly, however, you’ve got to give it a dedicated route – or the trams will get just as stuck in traffic as the buses already are. That means closing a lot of roads in the city to cars, in order to make space for public transport.

Given we can’t find enough street space to give priority for buses on the roads into the city, it’ll be just as difficult for trams. Even worse: tram tracks are really not kind to cyclists. In a city where 29 per cent of the population cycles to or from work, disrupting cycling is going to be really counterproductive.

The “Isaac Newton Line” – a massive proposed light rail system with four underground stations in the city, with options to be extended all over the region (click to expand). If only money grew on trees. Image: CambridgeConnect.

“But wait,” say various armchair engineers, “we could have a tunnel!”

That’s true. We could have tunnels for trams in the city centre, and run them on the surface further out.

Now you’ve got a tram system with underground stations, so that’s more expensive to build, and also more expensive to operate (because underground stations are likely to need to be staffed for safety).  You’ve also got to work out where to put the portals.

Another Cambridge – the one in Massachusetts – has a tunnel for its trolleybuses, to allow passengers to interchange easily with the underground metro at Harvard Square. The ramps to the tunnel – which is only just below the road surface – are 100m long. If you wanted a tunnel under Cambridge, UK, you’d end up doing some serious demolition to make enough space.

 

The Harvard bus tunnel in Cambridge, MA: the northern approach ramp runs through a park, and the southern one is underneath the One Brattle Square shopping complex. Both require a strip about 100m long. Image: Open Street Map.

“Can’t we have a more innovative solution?” Well, step forward the Affordable Very Rapid Transit, or AVRT. This is the brainchild of John Miles, a professor of civil engineering.

He proposes a wheel-shaped network of tunnels, with a single central underground station, and connections to a series of sites around the periphery.

AVRT: here’s a sexy computer rendering of a non-existent eight-wheeled autonomous bus. Image: Connecting Cambridgeshire.

To save money, the tunnels will be single-track, with driverless vehicles shuttling back and forth between stations at each end. Passengers will be required to change at every station – because this will save on the cost of the signalling.

A map of the AVRT proposal: click to expand. Each of the blue lines is a tunnel served by vehicles shuttling back and forth, with no through connections. That central underground station is going to be an overcrowding nightmare as everyone tries to change between four different routes all at once. Image: Smart Cambridge.

Miles’ reports (vol. 1  and vol. 2 ) read a lot like he’s trying to reinvent the wheel from first principles. Many aspects of his design resemble the now-30-year-old Lille Metro, which isn’t even referenced.

There’s a very good reason why Cambridge should not spend any further public money on such schemes. There’s one thing guaranteed to be more risky and expensive than a new rapid transit system – and that’s a new rapid transit system based on entirely novel and untested technology.

Cambridge is simply too small to take the risk. It’s already been burned by the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, another grand experiment that ended up taking longer, costing more,  and looking like it’s going to be more expensive to maintain than previously thought.

So what should the city do? For a fraction of the cost of rapid transit, Cambridge could:

  • Build more segregated cycle lanes and cycle routes;
  • Use the mayor’s powers to take control of the local bus franchise, and give it sensible unified ticketing;
  • Extend frequent bus routes out to the surrounding villages, and reduce their dependence on park and ride and city centre parking;
  • Fund electric or hybrid buses to reduce noise and air pollution in the city;
  • Fund improvements to the rural heavy rail lines, giving a higher frequency service to nearby towns like Newmarket.

It’s not as exciting – but it’s much lower risk and much higher reward. Cambridge may be the best place to innovate for many industries, but public transport definitely should not be one of them.

Mike Prior-Jones is a Cambridge-based engineer.

Why not read these related articles? Are trams really better than buses? What is bus rapid transit – and why doesn’t every city want one

 
 
 
 

Could more cities charge employers for parking spaces to help fund local infrastructure?

Look at all that lovely, empty space. Image: Getty.

As government budget cuts continue to bite and competition for funding increases, it’s becoming harder for UK cities to secure the money needed to build or maintain good quality infrastructure. For example, Sheffield’s Supertram network faces a £230m funding gap, and could close unless transport executives can raise the funds to renew the network.

But if central government won’t provide funding, there are other ways for city authorities such as Sheffield to generate income for much needed transport infrastructure. One idea is a workplace parking levy, which is a charge placed on all workplace car parking spaces within a specific boundary.

The premise is simple: each year, the business who owns that space must pay the local authority a set amount of money. Businesses may chose to pay this themselves, or pass the charge on to their employees through car parking fees. The money collected from the levy is used to help fund transport projects within the local area, while also encouraging commuters to shift away from cars and onto other modes of transport.

Pioneer cities

After being adopted in Australian and Canadian cities, the levy was first introduced to the UK in 2012 in the city of Nottingham. During its first year, the charge raised £7m and has continued to raise funds since. The money has allowed Nottingham to keep up its contributions to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that was used to pay for an expansion of the city’s tram network, along with other important transport improvements.

Currently, the cost per space stands at £402 per year, although there are some notable exceptions to the charge: businesses with fewer than 11 spaces don’t have to pay, and there’s no charge for emergency services and disabled parking.

Other cities have begun to follow Nottingham’s path. Both Oxford and Cambridge have made steps towards introducing their own versions of the levy to fund transport improvements.

Manchester considered the levy as a tool to help improve the city’s air quality, although a proposal was recently rejected by the city council on the basis that the levy would need to be applied across the whole of Greater Manchester to work. Sheffield made a small reference to the potential use of a levy in its recent draft transport vision, although it’s not clear how well developed these plans are.

Together with colleagues from the universities of Nottingham and Southampton, I’ve undertaken research which included interviewing a range of key people from Nottingham’s city council, the local tram operator, the Chamber of Commerce, as well as politicians and managing directors of several Nottingham-based businesses, to find out what made Nottingham’s workplace parking levy a success.


Recipe for success

For one thing, Nottingham is a politically stable city. Labour are the dominant party within the local council and have been since 1991, so councillors are less concerned about suffering electoral losses in response to a poorly received policy, and more confident about implementing more radical ideas.

Nottingham’s boundary is also tightly drawn, which meant that deciding where to apply the charge was more straightforward. Manchester’s experience shows that larger cities may have more difficulty in determining who is subject to the charge.

Initially, some businesses saw the charge as a “tax” on them and opposed the policy; media reports at the time warned of businesses leaving the city and moving to nearby economic centres, such as Derby. But there is no evidence to suggest that these worries have materialised in the longer term.

Identifying a piece of infrastructure, such as a tram system, that will be built using funds from the levy also appeared to be an important argument to “sell” the charge to sceptics. So although there was opposition to the workplace parking levy, there was also a lot of support for the tram expansion and the benefits this could bring.

An opportunity to invest

The workplace parking levy offers cities an opportunity to collect and invest large amounts of money in their own infrastructure; or to leverage even greater amounts of money from other sources, which might otherwise be unfeasible.

For Nottingham, a large part of its success is based on the fact that it preemptively used the money raised through the workplace parking levy to leverage significant finance from the UK government, through the PFI deal. To secure these funds to pay for the tram expansion, Nottingham agreed to commit to repaying 35 per cent of the value of the PFI (estimated at £187m). The council has used the levy on an ongoing basis to help it meet these costs.

The experience of Nottingham and other pioneer cities shows that while the workplace parking levy is based on a rather simple premise, introducing one is not a simple process. There will undoubtedly be opposition; the local authority may need to work hard to emphasise the benefits, in order to adopt the policy. And of course, every city and town is different, so there’s no single path to success.

But as local authorities continue tightening their belts in response to ever more challenging budgets, it may not be long before we see more places taking steps to introduce their own workplace parking levy.

The Conversation

Stephen Parkes, Research Associate, Sheffield Hallam University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.