Three new trends that could avert city gridlock

Gridlock in Paris, 2007. Image: Getty.

From London to Delhi, e-hailing companies like Uber and journey-planning apps like CityMapper are fast transforming the way people move around cities.

When you’re rushing to work and your home is miles from a train station, the bus is not due for 30 minutes and the city bike-hire scheme hasn’t reached your part of town yet, you are increasingly likely to reach for your smartphone to find the closest car-club vehicle, or to hail a taxi.

But what if we all did that to travel around our cities? Imagine the congestion and air pollution as people flock to cars.

So how do we fill the gaps in the public transport system without grinding our neighbourhoods to a standstill? How can our kids get to school without also getting asthma? Even if everyone uses electric driverless vehicles, what would that do for the sheer number of cars in our cities? With the greatest urban migration in history expected over the next 20 years, increasing the number of people living in cities from 3.5bn to 5bn, the stakes are high.

We were among those who produced the first global study to track this new wave of innovations in transport technologies, and our conclusions are bold. There are three major opportunities for city governments to use new technologies to take the battle out of your trip across town.

Firstly, trip-planning and ticketing smart-phone apps can make it easier for passengers to use real-time information to plan and pay for their journeys – seamlessly hopping from tube to bus to e-taxi, to car-sharing, cycle-hire or walking. Better information is proving the driving force behind changes in the choices we are making. In Los Angeles for example, the Go-LA app not only offers all the many options for getting from A to B, it lets users compare the time, cost, health benefits (calories burned) and climate emissions involved.

Secondly, fleets of on-demand electric minibuses could replace underused traditional bus routes in less densely populated areas on the edge of cities. Transport authorities are under pressure to meet demand while controlling operating costs. Buses, tubes and trams are often the most efficient and clean mode of urban transport, but only if a lot of the seats are occupied.


Modelling of four Greater London bus routes found that, even with the additional cost of purchasing electric minibuses and routing software, the scheme could make a profit in 4 years and cut climate emissions and nitrogen pollution by up to 99 per cent.

Thirdly, e-hailing can help passengers cover the first and last mile of their trips to and from public transport stations. Evidence from the USA shows use of public transport drops by up to 90 per cent when passengers need to walk more than half a mile to the nearest transport stop. Cities that have subsidised e-hailed shared electric taxis to and from transit hubs have improved residents’ access to public transport, boosted ridership and fare revenues, and reduced the number of lengthy journeys people take using private cars into the centre of cities. Subsidies can be targeted at those most in need.

The research by the Coalition for Urban Transitions argues that better data could enable city governments to use on-demand electric minibuses and e-hailed taxis to fill the gaps in mass transit systems. If managed well, these new technologies can help to channel people towards mass public transport hubs, cycle schemes and walking options. Ultimately, the aim is to move people away from private cars by improving the efficiency and experience of other transport options.

There is one take-home message:  both the public and private sectors need to understand the potential and risks of these rapidly emerging technologies, and plan for them. Banning e-hailing companies or autonomous cars from city streets, as many have done, ultimately won’t fix transport systems. City halls and national governments need to prepare regulation that ensures transport systems, as they evolve, are safe, convenient, fair, affordable and sustainable. And they need to consider whether and how public-private collaborations could deliver better services for urban residents.

If cities can do this, innovations in mobiIty services could help liberate our cities from gridlock and air pollution – rather than compound the problem.

Louise Hutchins is an advisor to the Coalition for Urban Transitions, former special advisor to the Ecuadorian government and led Greenpeace UK’s energy campaigns. Julia Thayne is the Director of Urban Development for the Siemens’ Center for Cities in the Americas and co-author of the report. 

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.