Cities, as major drivers of the UK economy, have rightly been the focus of much of the debate about urban transport policy. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of the many post-industrial towns which also form part of wider city regions. And with the move to city region mayors and the outcome of the EU referendum, greater attention is now being given to how towns can realise their potential.
The UK’s 900 odd mid-sized towns are home to 9m people, around 13 per cent of our total population – so it’s time for towns to be given their share of the policy spotlight.
The Urban Transport Group has sought to do this in its new report About towns, which highlights how transport initiatives can play their part in helping them to thrive. Here are eight ways in which better transport can help post-industrial towns.
1. Reinforcing civic pride and identity
Post-industrial towns are often characterised by a history of innovation and graft, and the exceptional quality of some of the built environment that has survived is testament to their achievements. Towns can reflect and capitalise on this unique built environment by reinvigorating stations and public transport interchanges which bolster and reinforce local identity as landmarks or symbols of a town’s industrial past or its future ambitions. Huddersfield’s grand neo-classical railway station, for example, is a monument to the town’s rich textile heritage, impressing upon visitors who path beneath its columns.
Stations also have wider uses for community purposes and local enterprises. The revitalisation of derelict spaces in Scotland’s Kilmarnock Station, for example – complete with bookshop, event space and café – has transformed it into a vibrant community hub and led to passenger growth. It has also been part of the wider revival of the town centre, including links with a new town centre college campus.
2. Reinvesting as ‘anchor institutions’
Transport organisations can also act as local ‘anchor institutions’, using their considerable purchasing power to procure goods and services from local suppliers, and, in doing so, make a significant contribution to towns’ economies. Midland Metro Alliance, which is behind the extension of the West Midland’s tram network, is doing just that, aiming for 80 per cent of the project’s supply chain to be from local businesses.
3. Opening up access to jobs
Transport is vital in enabling people to find and sustain work in and beyond towns: after all, commuting accounts for the second highest number of trips the average person make each year, after shopping.
But aside from ensuring the provision of transport to and from jobs, there is also a need to overcome financial and perceptual barriers. Job Access Schemes, which provide information on how to get to job interviews, as well as support for the cost of travelling to interviews and new jobs, exist in a number of UK towns.
4. Providing access to education
It’s hard to improve your skills or education if you can’t physically access the colleges, campuses or universities which provide them. And a staggering 72 per cent of students take the bus to college.
Where the further education sector has located new facilities in town centres close to new public transport interchanges – such as in Rotherham – It has breathed in new life and vibrancy by making education highly accessible. Fares initiatives for young people have also proved successful, with the ‘MyTicket’ offer leading to a 142 per cent increase in bus journeys by young people in the Liverpool city region between 2014 and 2017.
5. Offering access to social and leisure activities
Given that most journeys are for other reasons than work or education, transport is key to ensuring that people in towns can travel for social and leisure purposes. The 12-mile circular New Town Trail for pedestrians and cyclists in the Scottish towns of Irvine and Kilwinning is one such offer, taking in many local landmarks and areas of interest including castles, nature reserves and a country park.
6. Opening up investment opportunities
Towns that are “open for business” require good local transport connections. The Kingsway Business Park in Rochdale – built by the public and private sector to provide a site to boost local employment – has access to the M62, a new Metrolink stop, a Local Link flexible bus service, as well as walking and cycling routes.
Additionally, transport investment can benefit towns when it is considered as part of wider cross-sector initiatives such as employment and education. Nexus, which operates Tyne and Wear’s Metro, has begun building a £8.4mn learning centre in South Shields town which will deliver rail training for its staff, and boost skills and access to jobs for the local community.
7. Meeting housing demand
With rising pressure to build more homes, joining up housing and transport strategy is vitally important to ensure new homes foster the kind of lifestyles which support the viability of towns, rather than draw people away from them. Known by the American term ‘transit-oriented development’, a number of towns are embracing this approach of situating high-density housing near transport hubs which can make them more attractive to residents, limit urban sprawl, and reduce car dependency and congestion.
8. Improving health and wellbeing of residents
Creating pleasant, attractive and safe street environments within towns can improve the health and wellbeing of residents; so does ensuring they can access work, learning and social opportunities, as well as healthcare facilities.
Transport can play its part in creating healthier towns by providing more space for walking and cycling, creating inviting public spaces for people to linger and interact, and offering transport options that reduce noise and air pollution – and which are affordable, too. NHS England is creating 10 ‘healthy new towns’ across the country, where the design of the built environment is being linked to the provision of health care services to combat the challenges of obesity, dementia and community cohesion.
At the same time as highlighting these examples of what transport can do, the report’s overarching message is that flagship, capital investment schemes are unlikely to be enough on their own. It is different types of initiatives, knitted together under a coordinated approach, that are needed if towns are to truly thrive.