Posts Tagged 'transport'

The election debate: What you need to know about transport in the UK today

Authors and academics Jon Shaw and Iain Docherty give their view on the Coalition government’s performance in the area of transport. With some strong investment on the inter-city infrastructure, it’s not all bad news, but they suggest we should be asking our UK General Election candidates some tougher questions about their plans for developing international links and putting local transport control back in the hands of its passengers…

Iain Docherty

Iain Docherty

Jon Shaw

Jon Shaw

Has transport has been slowly but surely creeping up the political agenda at Westminster? When we first sat down to startwriting The Transport Debate in 2010, just after the last election, the prospects weren’t particularly encouraging.

As a policy area, transport had for a long time been largely forgotten. Spending large sums of money even to stop the quality gap between Britain and other European countries getting any more glaring had been anathema to successive ministers.

Over lunch one day, a Treasury official explained to us that if the UK could achieve about the same GDP as France without a TGV system, a comprehensive motorway system and a very rapidly expanding programme of urban tram re-openings, why bother spending the money?

Five years on, it all seems rather different. It’s not particularly fashionable to praise the Chancellor, especially in academic circles, but the view that we might well be better off if we do invest heavily in our transport networks seems to have gained traction in Whitehall since George Osborne took over.

Inter-urban infrastructure

High speed rail development UK Photo credit: Wikipedia

High speed rail development UK Photo credit: Wikipedia

Despite the worst economic downturn for generations, we are witnessing the most investment in our railways for, well, generations.

Crossrail and Thameslink are being taken through to completion; HS2 has been supported enthusiastically; hundreds of miles of electrification have been approved; thousands of new train carriages have started to arrive; the ‘Northern Hub’ is being built and a raft of major station improvements (e.g. Reading, Birmingham New Street) are progressing nicely. New tramlines are opening up in Nottingham and Greater Manchester.

Photo credit

Photo credit: Lewis Clarke

On the roads we have witnessed a revitalisation of reasonably large-scale road building and a medium-term funding commitment to the newly created Highways England. ‘Smart motorways’ are cropping up all over the place and a network of ‘Expressways’ – upgraded ‘A’ roads with controlled access and grade-separated junctions – has been announced.

Looking to the future we now have on the table more new roads, Crossrail 2, further railway electrification, a new western rail connection to Heathrow and an ambitious proposal including HS3 to link up the cities of the North of England. We of course will have to wait and see if these and other vaunted schemes ever see the light of day, but we’d be tempted to lay a tenner on at least some of them coming to fruition.


It is not entirely clear why transport investment has all of a sudden become fashionable again (we quite like the story about George Osborne’s dad coming back from Japan waxing lyrical about the quality of their railway system) but, whatever the reason, we should celebrate it while it lasts.

Although our transport system is functional, it is by any number of measures poor in relation to those of, say, Germany, France and the Netherlands. We are probably in a minority among our colleagues in embracing the DfT’s current road building proposals, but surely there is no excuse for perpetuating a poor quality inter-urban road network.

The trick will be to ‘lock in’ the benefits of better roads – less congestion, more reliable journey times, a reduction in pollution and so on – so that traffic is not induced onto improved sections. In any event, we should remember that the amount of rail investment dwarfs that being spent on new roads.

Does all of this mean that we’re going to be popping up in one of those election adverts on YouTube giving an academic thumbs up for Dave, George and the troops? Not exactly.

The truth is that neither Coalition party would like the message we’d have to give them. Even after all the hard work, after all the ‘difficult decisions’ that have enabled transport investment to take place while cuts are made elsewhere, Coalition ministers have only got the their approach at best one third right. That’s 33%. We’d fail a student for scoring less than 40%.

International links

As geographers, we can think of the problem as one of scale. Building lots of new inter-city infrastructure is certainly helping to make good past mistakes at the national level, but there’s been precious little happening to promote our international links.

Take of queue Heathrow Photo credit:

Take off queue Heathrow Photo credit: PhillipC

The only discernable policy making for aviation has been the decision to set up the Davies Commission. This is a shameful fudge.

The government should long ago have decided either to build new runways (Labour supported expansion at Heathrow) or to have a more ‘sustainable’ aviation policy by forcing the airports to work more efficiently (bigger planes, fewer short haul flights and so on). Perhaps better still, it could have decided to do both. In the context of previous governments’ ceaseless dithering, putting everything on hold for five more years is an abrogation of duty.

Local transport

And outside of London, at the local level there’s arguably an even bigger problem. Investment in our provincial urban transport networks has fared worse over the years than our inter-city ones. Assuming people’s final destination lies beyond the main railway stations, local transport in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and so on will become swamped with the hugely increasing number of passengers disgorging from new HS2 and other electric trains. And this will be on top of the rise in demand associated with population growth in each of these centres.

We might think Manchester’s and Nottingham’s trams are great – and indeed in the British context they are – but they are pretty small beer in relation to what others take for granted. Consider also that there is not one English city outside of London with an underground network, and most provincial centres except maybe Birmingham and Manchester have rather under-developed urban rail networks by the best European standards.

While our Second City has a patched-together Victorian urban rail system on a single light rail line, Frankfurt, its smaller twin, enjoys nine S-Bahn and several other urban lines (including a cross-city tunnel with trains every two minutes), 11 tramlines and fully nine underground lines.

English urban transport systems are mainly the preserve of deregulated bus services with their ever-changing routes and fares – and, in Liverpool, virtually no priority on the road network.

There are moves afoot to introduce smart ticketing across the large conurbations, and to regulate the bus network in Tyne and Wear and maybe Greater Manchester. Perhaps the large private bus companies are starting to realise that their effective control over local bus policy might be coming to an end. How novel that the passenger rather than the shareholder might be placed at the centre of urban transport operations.

Transformation of transport investment

Cyclists at Hyde Park corner roundabout in London Photo credit: wikipedia

Cyclists at Hyde Park corner roundabout in London Photo credit: Wikipedia

We have seen from across the Channel how it is possible to change the direction of transport policy. Like Britain, France used to be heavily reliant on the car but over the course of the last 40 years – no-one is suggesting change of this magnitude can come quickly – has completely transformed the focus of its transport investment, predominantly (but not exclusively) to benefit the public modes.

Transport for London is now into the second decade of a transformational investment strategy, but some of the seeds for what’s happening at the national level were sown only a couple of years before Gordon Brown was ejected from Number 10.

The Coalition has been delivering on a commitment to significantly improve inter-urban railways and roads, but is it realistic to expect the next government to continue this and get to grips with aviation and local transport? Given the need for heavy investment across the country’s public services in a climate of continued austerity, despite all the recent good progress we are not sure we’d lay a tenner on that just yet.

#GE2015 #whyvote #imvotingbecause

REPLACEMENT_The transport debate [FC]The transport debate by Jon Shaw and Ian Docherty is available for purchase from our website here (RRP £14.99). Don’t forget Policy Press newsletter subscribers get a 35% discount when ordering through our website. If you’re not a subscriber yet why not sign up here today and join our Policy Press community?

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

The 7.39, mobile communication and train travel

REPLACEMENT_The transport debate [FC]What people do with their time on the train has suddenly become the subject of some rather animated discussion following the airing of the BBC drama The 7.39 this week. Whilst we’re not aware of any research into the prevalence of illicit relationship formation during the morning commute (!), in the last few years academic attention has turned to wider questions about how people structure their lives around the journeys they make. As part of this, we’ve begun to challenge some longstanding assumptions about how and why we travel in the ways that we do. Particularly important is the revolution in information technology represented by smartphones, tablets and the mobile internet, which is transforming our travel choices. There is even some emerging evidence that being able to remain connected to friends and families (not to mention s/he at the other end of the carriage studiously avoiding eye contact but with whom you have just spent the night) online whilst travelling is now more important to many people than owning a car, something that could have profound implications for future transport policy. As it might also do for the future prospects of middle aged property executives with a habit of leaving their phones lying around.

Jon Shaw and Iain Docherty’s The transport debate, which explores transport policy in the UK by following the journeys of another fictional suburban couple as they go about their everyday lives, is now available from Policy Press.

The importance of creating space for walking and cycling

Dave Horton

Dave Horton

by Dave Horton, co-author of Promoting walking and cycling: New perspectives on sustainable travel

Serious and sustained promotion of walking and cycling would transform our everyday lives. The streets where we live, the journeys we make, the places we go – all would become steadily more full of people and less full of cars. It’s a compelling vision, and an easily obtainable one – if policy and practice starts, then continues, to prioritise walking and cycling above the car as means of making short trips in urban areas.

Many people like cycling but ride only when they consider it safe, easy and convenient. When urban space is re-organised away from the car and towards people, including people riding bicycles, people will walk and cycle far more of their short journeys, journeys which although they’d rather not, they often currently make by car. The scale of the changes required to achieve this revolution in everyday transport exceeds what’s being done in most places in most of the world so far, but there are places where walking and cycling have been made easier than driving, places which provide insight and inspiration.

Cities across the globe are pushing cars from their centres, creating space for people to walk and cycle and enhancing quality of life. And through serious, sustained investment in the bicycle as the best means of local transport, the Netherlands has become the world’s most cycle-friendly country. What’s been done there can be done everywhere; but it requires political vision and commitment. Everyday life based around bicycles instead of cars would build a happier, healthier society and benefit everyone, including those who don’t cycle.

Promoting walking and cycling: New perspectives on sustainable travel explains why more people don’t make more of their journeys on foot and by cycle, and sets out what needs to change for them to do so. Many people want life less dominated by cars; this is how we get there.

Promoting walking and cycling by Colin G Pooley, with Tim Jones, Miles Tight, Dave Horton, Griet Scheldeman, Caroline Mullen, Ann Jopson and Emanuele Strano is publishing on 21 August. Order your copy here with 20% discount.

Public transport – an update

Well, the end of November has come and gone, and, miraculously, we still have a bus service through my village!!

In some respects, I am heartened by this as an example of how ‘people power’ can have an effect, with many passengers signing our petition, and, probably more importantly, individually expressing their dissatisfaction to the bus company, local authority, parish council and local MP.

Depressingly, though, it appears that political machinations may also have had a part to play, as only a couple of days after the announcement of the revision of the planned ‘service changes’, which arose as a result of a meeting between the local authority’s transport committee representative and the bus company, plans for a 2-year study to consider the feasibility of an Integrated Transport Authority for the Greater Bristol area were also dramatically thrown out, by the same transport committee representative and his counterparts in the other two unitary authorities that surround Bristol. Could it be that compromises to the planned cuts were offered as a bargaining chip by the bus company to counteract the prospect of a severe curtailment in its power and influence in the future under an ITA? (There was also a strong rumour that another operator had expressed an interest in providing buses along an extended route which would have represented better service and better value for money for passengers.)

What was particularly noticeable, in the immediate aftermath of the decision, was the alacrity with which the latest changes to the services were publicised – all of the players scrambling to take maximum credit for ‘a creative solution to this problem’ on their websites and in the local press – a striking contrast indeed to the silence surrounding the original proposals …

Jo Morton
Production Editor, The Policy Press

Traffic jam: Ten years of ’sustainable’ transport in the UK – A timely analysis of the UK government’s sustainable transport policy 10 years after the publication of A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone.

Public transport – where is the ‘service’?

This is my very first blog ever, but I’ve been pushed onto my virtual soapbox by an insidious movement by a certain bus operator that has a near-monopoly on public transport in the region to cut all the commuter services to and from my village into Bristol, and to do so without consultation and with minimal publicity (the notice about withdrawal of these services was hidden away in a flyer and on their website, buried deep among a long list of (mostly minor) ‘service changes’).

And if, despite the bus company’s best efforts, passengers do actually get to hear that these services are to be axed, does the company respond to letters and emails of protest or requests for an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision? It’s now 14 days since I first contacted them, and I am still waiting … and the experience of my fellow passengers seems to be depressingly similar.

Am I being cynical, or is there a deliberate strategy of non-communication here? Why expend time and effort answering correspondence about a service you don’t wish to continue to provide, especially when you deduce that most users will still continue to swell your coffers as they are forced to use the more inconvenient alternatives (at the same cost, or greater) also provided by yourselves? (The only other possibility being to abandon public transport (and any green credentials) to join the miserable shuffle nose-to-tail down the ‘single occupancy’ lane into Bristol.)

This failure to provide effective public transport services that meet local demand is a situation that has been created by government policy, and one in which the local councils collude by awarding contracts to the large, national operators on the basis of low costs rather than the guarantee of service to local taxpayers.

In the meantime, all I can say is: bring on an Integrated Transport Authority for the Greater Bristol Area operating under a Quality Contract that would allow the authority, rather than a self serving private contractor, to determine what services are to be run, on which routes and how often.

Jo Morton
Production Editor, The Policy Press – while I can still get in to do the job(!)

Traffic jam: Ten years of ‘sustainable’ transport in the UK – A timely analysis of the UK government’s sustainable transport policy 10 years after the publication of A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone.

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