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.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.