If Labour really want to solve Britain’s transport problems, they should redirect road funding to buses

Mmmmmm buses. Image: Getty.

Good policy has three elements: it correctly identifies a problem, it finds an adequate solution, and it ticks both those boxes in a way that can command enduring popular support.

Labour has a new transport pledge: to cut train fares by a third by redirecting funds from the Department for Transport’s road-building budget towards further subsidising train fares. The problem is correctly identified: successive British governments have become addicted to building more and more roads, which stokes further demand to use them, which increases the amount of car journeys – and the only way the United Kingdom can meaningfully meet even the Conservative Party’s 2050 zero-carbon target, let alone Labour’s much more ambitious 2030 pledge, is to sharply reduce the number of individual car journeys in the United Kingdom.

Electric vehicles can reduce the carbon footprint for essential journeys, which will largely be the preserve of deliveries to private homes and businesses, and to people such as carpenters and plumbers, whose jobs cannot be adequately delivered by public transport alone. But private consumption is going to have to reduce, which means drastically increasing the availability and quality of public transport – and discouraging, via the removal of hidden subsidies, the use of car ownership.

What about the solution: those subsidised train fares? Well, this bit isn’t as good. Why? Because while increasing the availability, quality and frequency of train journeys is part of reducing the number of individual journeys by car, it is only a part, and it is the part that takes the longest to do. High Speed Two, a vital part of increasing the capacity of the United Kingdom’s railways, is going to take decades. In addition, train travel will never be able to solely replace car ownership alone. Other modes of public transport will play a bigger role.

The argument being put about by some, that the subsidy is bad because it targets “middle-class” or middle- to upper-income voters, is I think a bad one. Ultimately we all urgently need everyone, regardless of where they are in the income distribution, to take fewer individual car journeys and to use public transport more. That will likely involve a degree of subsidy. We, in any case, have been intensely relaxed about – in common with the rest of the democratic world – large subsidies, both overt and hidden, towards personal car usage.

The problem is that this subsidy isn’t being targeted at the most effective agent of reducing car ownership around – buses – but is instead being spent on trains.

Governments could and should do more in terms of increasing railway infrastructure, but in the short-term, the easiest, quickest and most effective way of doing that is by spending more money on bus journeys. This sounds obvious, but it bears repeating: it takes a matter of months to get a new bus on the road. It takes considerably longer to increase train capacity. British trains are already over capacity, which is why they are almost always so crowded. The United Kingdom badly needs to fix this, but in order to hit all three parties' climate targets, the immediate solution of buses is require. Bus journeys are, any case, always going to form the backbone of a decent public transport system. Labour should instead divert these funds into cutting bus fares, not train fares, by a third.

Doing this would build on the already very positive direction of travel in Labour's transport plans, of diverting funds to buses and away from cars and road-building. Vehicle excise duty will go towards providing free bus travel for the under-25s - a crucial demographic because if you don't start using a private car, then successive governments don't have to spend ages working out how to wean you off it. Another large chunk of the roadbuilding budget has been diverted into not only reversing cuts to bus routes since 2010, but to effectively double the UK's bus services. 

So why, given Labour already has a very serious offer on buses, not give people commuting by train a little bit extra? In addition to the issues already discussed, there are other reasons why, in Labour's shoes, I'd be putting my fare subsidy on buses not trains. 

It comes back to the third part of the equation: is this a policy solution that can command enduring public support? I use the word “enduring” for a reason: decreasing train fares is obviously going to be popular. But if you want the level of system change necessary to reduce our carbon footprint, you need it not just to be popular today but in a year’s time, and indeed for it to be so popular that it commands cross-party consensus. In the short term, because of the longterm neglect of railway infrastructure and the pressure on existing services, it's not clear if you can increase the number of people commuting by train - and those who do commute will do so in increasingly crowded conditions in the short term, potentially triggering a backlash. 

The advantage of using the money freed up from the roads budget to subsidising bus fares is that the benefit is swift and immediate – over the course of a parliament, you will see real shifts from car ownership to bus travel. The more popular and widely-used alternatives to car ownership are, the harder they are to unpick. We can see this in London, which, because of its far more advanced and widely used bus system, was the only public transport system in the United Kingdom to survive the 1980s passion for deregulating and defunding bus services almost unscathed.

So Labour has correctly identified the problem: but if it wants to meet its climate targets, it is bus fares, not train fares, that it should be further subsidising.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.