Councils want to revolutionise transport networks – but to do so, they need money

A distinctly non-revolutionary bus, Milton Keynes. Image: Getty.

Even 15 years ago, catching public transport was a very different experience than it is today. You’d have been anxiously peering down your local road, waiting for a bus that never seemed to arrive on time, clutching the exact change for your fare in hand. Today, lots of people can relax and have a more comfortable journey, knowing exactly when the bus will arrive and having the choice to pay by smart card, contactless card or mobile ticket.

This positive change in everyday travel was made possible by developing new technologies – in this case, real-time information systems, microchips, wireless scanning and smartphone apps – and testing them in the real world, with the public and private sectors often working together on pilot projects.

Public transport smart cards were first piloted on buses in the Harrow area of London in 1994, by the predecessor of Transport for London. This early trial led to the introduction of the Oyster card in 2003, and since then smart cards have become widespread around the UK and across the globe in cities such as Sydney, Stockholm and Paris.

The next revolution

According to policy makers and industry leaders, the UK is once more on the cusp of a “revolution” in urban transport. For example, there is currently a big push to develop a new generation of connected and automated vehicles, commonly known as driverless cars.

Driverless cars are connected to the internet, to other vehicles and to urban infrastructure – forming the Internet of Things – all while needing little or no driver intervention. It’s still unclear how effectively these vehicles would operate in the bustle of a city centre, but research by UWE Bristol found that driverless vehicles could also improve mobility for elderly people who can no longer drive and live in rural areas.

The Gateway autonomous pod, trialled in Greenwich, London. Image: citytransportinfo/Flickr/creative commons.

New business models for transport sharing are also changing how people get around. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a smart phone enabled service, which makes using and paying for all travel possible from just one app. MaaS was pioneered in Finland – it’s now fully operational in Helsinki under the Whim app – and a pilot in the West Midlands began in 2017.

Just like purchasing a phone contract, the app allows you to choose from different plans, putting credit towards public transport, bike sharing schemes, car rental and taxis. MaaS could allow people to save on their monthly transport spending, and ultimately could offer a convenient alternative to owning a car.


Better for everyone

It’s up to governments to ensure that new technologies are harnessed for the benefit of the wider public. To do this, local authorities have to create their own visions of what towns and cities should look like in the future – with input from the public – and make sure that transport systems are efficient, environmentally sustainable and fair for all residents.

Technology can help to reach these goals, but government needs to steer the direction of innovation. In particular, local governments need to ensure that innovations such as driverless cars and MaaS don’t result in more traffic overall and the continuation of car-centric cities, and that they are affordable and accessible for all.

These visions must be linked to a programme of experimentation – for example, in the form of pilot projects to test the benefits of new technologies on the ground, before making bigger investments. To do piloting, local government needs to work together with private sector technology companies.

Yet there is one big thing stopping all of this: austerity. Local government needs to build and maintain capacity for innovation, and that takes considerable resources above and beyond the delivery of standard services. Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, central government has left local authorities cash-strapped.

Technically speaking, overall public spending on transport in the UK has actually grown since 2010 (alongside the nation’s overall debt). But the core revenue support grants to local authorities were cut by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2015, and the 2010 Transport Spending Review included drastic cuts to many local transport budgets.

As a result, local authorities have had to downsize their transport departments and even cease services. Council spending on supported bus services in England has reduced by 46 per cent since 2010-11, and the scale of the bus network has fallen to levels last seen in 1991. When basic transport functions cannot even be sustained, it’s no surprise that innovation is put on the back burner.

While some Department for Transport funding is still available for piloting, local authorities are investing vast human resources into competitive bidding for these increasingly lean funding streams. But based on my own research into transport innovation in Bristol, it seems that being reliant on short-term, project-based funding makes it difficult for local government to effectively learn from such projects.

Even if a project is successful, there is no guarantee that further investment will be available for scaling up. Further research on transport innovation in Manchester and Brighton and Oxford has also shown that, in the last decade, local governments have had limited capacity to experiment and reshape urban mobility systems.

A few local authorities, such Bristol City Council, have managed to build up a strong capacity for transport innovation through strategic leadership, dedicated teams and networking with other cities. But there’s no sign that more funding for transport pilots will be made available anytime in the near future. The government’s Future of Mobility Strategy continues to push heavily for driverless cars, but doesn’t include more resources for local government, who have overall responsibility for transport services in local areas.

New technologies have the power to improve travel across tried and tested modes of transport, such as buses, with immediate benefits for people across the UK. But for this to happen, local governments need to create a vision for their areas – and a cash injection to build innovation capacity is sorely needed.

The Conversation

Emilia Smeds, PhD Candidate in Urban Governance, UCL.

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

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.