Monday, 16 November 2020

Environment Monday - Changing the way we think about transport

2020 has been an unprecedented year for transport. There has been a huge decline in people's movement. We've seen a big increase in walking, a near total collapse of people using public transport and air travel and a marked reduction in car journeys, as people have been locked down. Meanwhile we've seen a massive increase in home delivery. I've long believed that the UK has an appalling track record of transport planning. It is nearly always driven by budget, special interest groups and expedience. There is little concept of taking a  holistic view and working out how the bigger picture fits together. If you look at some of the major schemes in the UK at the moment, you will see this exemplified. The government has embarked on a massive, short term fix for road congestion with "Smart Motorway" schemes, which in effect involve allowing people to drive on the hard shoulder and using technology to manage the risk to broken down cars. Then there is the HS2 rail project. Depending on which side of the divide you stand on, it will either lead to a massive increase in rail capacity, freeing up capacity on the rest of the network for freight and suburban commuter traffic or it will be a white elephant, with empty trains transporting non existent businessmen to meetings that won't be happening. Then there is Crossrail, which seems to exemplify the way the UK manages infrastructure projects. Years late, many times over budget and possibly serving a commuter market that has disappeared since it was devised. 

Lets start by looking at what the major users of our transport network are and what needs to be prioritised.

1. I started with school traffic, as this is largely what clogs our suburban roads for an hour each end of the working day.  There are three things to consider here. The first is whether we should be encouraging parents to drive miles for a school, where there is a perfectly good alternative on their doorstep. The second is, whetehr we should be encouraging children to walk or cycle to school. The third is whether the bus network is doing its job in facilitation the necessary longer journeys. I have long believed that education policy should be tweaked to remove as many unnecessary car journeys as possible for the school run. Human nature is always to want the best for our children, so a big part of this would be levelling up schools, so there is less desire to drive miles to get into the school with the best OFSTED rating. I don't believe that dumbing down schools is the way to go, I'd make the number of children walking to school part of the funding equation. The more who walk, the more cash the school gets. If there was a degree of self interest for schools in accomodating local kids, I believe this would lead to a big drop in parents making the school run, as schools tweak their admissions policies. As congestion and cars not moving is a big cause of pollution, this would make a massive difference. Where there is no alternative to longer journeys, buses usage should also be incentivised.

2. Local commuter traffic. In London, we have buses, trains, tubes, cycle lanes, walking and even river boats as alternatives to car journeys.I worked in Central London for 30 years and I'd never consider driving, as Thameslink provided a quick and mostly efficient means of transport. If I'd worked in High Barnet, then the opposite would have been true. We need far better radial links in London. The pandemic has changed the way many of us work. I do wonder what the rush hour will look like whenever the pandemic finally subsides. I doubt that the number of people working in offices will eve rreturn to the pre pandemic levels. Technology has been shown to work. Why would companies spend billions offices, when it is clear that people can work from home. I suspect that organisations like TFL will see huge stress on budgets, but London will still need a public transport network to function as a city. I suspect that it will need a different model to fund it, rather than the continual fleecing of passengers.

3. Regional people movements. Examples of this are young people travelling to Universities and colleges, football fans travelling to away matches, people accessing airports for holidays/coastal towns etc and attendance at conferences and other events. I choose these examples, as they all involve a large number of people accessing a specific area, often at a specific time. These flows are to some degree predictable and transport planning should be designed to ensure that this is done in the greenest and most sustainbable manner. We've seen many football ground developments in recent years, where public transport has had little or no improvement to deal with enormous growth in people movements. In Barnet, we've seen the development of Allianz Park for Saracens. It seems ridiculous that there is a largely intact disused railway line (from Mill Hill East) that could have been relatively easily reopened to accomodate match day traffic. This would serve a busy area with two major schools as well as the stadium. These are the sort of things that should be written in to planning permission for such schemes. I've always been amazed at just how poor interchange is in the UK between rail/airports/etc. Back in the 1970's we had football special rail services, providing cheap and accesible transport to major matches. Now we simply have extra traffic clogging the motorways. Often tube stations are actually shut for big events, such as the Notting Hill Carnival. This is not a signe of good management, it is a sign of atrocious forward planning. Every major people hub should have a proper traffic management plan, that constantly evolves and improves.

4. Local freight delivery. Ten years ago, there was no issue with traffic generated by delivery traffic. Now this is starting to become a significant part of the picture. The rise of services like Amazon have lead to exponential growth of deliveries. In urban areas, we see no reason why a significant proportion of this shouldn't be by bicycle. Many items are not heavy and there is no necessity for vans to deliver them. We'd like to see far more effort put into delivering sustainable parcels traffic. In a place like Mill Hill, there's no reason that parcels couldn't be sent on existing services, outside of rush hour, and collected by cycle couriers at stations. It is a total no brainer and would lead to significant improvements in air quality.

5.Regional bulk freight. Large, heavy items clearly need a portion of their journey to be by road. In some cases, it would be uneconomical to move these to rail, but there's no doubt that a lot more freight could be moved by rail, if the government had the will to make the investment. There are several disused rail routes that could easily and cheaply be reopened for freight services. There is currently a proposal to reopen a stetch of line between Matlock and Buxton, for aggregates traffic. This would shift many lorries on to rail and presumably would also add the option of increased local rail provision for the national park. We would like to see a national strategy for identifying such opportunities and using carbon taxes to incentivise such schemes. Once the investment has been made, the benefits will last for decades.

6. Isolated communities. There are still places in the Uk that have appalling transport links. These places generally are in terminal decline. Some are places that used to have decent public transport provision, but the Beeching cuts of the 1960's cut them off. There are plenty of communities that would greatly benefit from the reopening of these shut services. In recent years, the Scottish government reopened a section of the former Waverley route, rebranding it as the Border Railways. The traffic forecasts were very conservative and massively underestimated the demand for services. It is clear that the scheme should have been far more ambitious. If we want regeneration in a sustainable manner for these communities, we seriously need to make reopening these disused links a part of the plan. Light rail, hydrogen cell technology and digital signalling should make it easier and cheaper to get services back, that are non polluting and efficient. There are several schemes where trams are using the rail network for parts of their journey. We'd like to see non polluting hydrogen cell railcars used on such routes, as this would slash the need for expensive overhead electric cabling.

To sum up, we need to start planning our transport infrastructure with a degree of joined thinking. We need to stop doing things on the cheap, often after decades of debate. We need to encourage people to use the schools and services on their doorstep. We need deliveries to be done in a sustainable manner. We need to look at the infrastructure that we've let rot and see if it can be reprovisioned. We need better, safer scyle and walking routes. Where road transport is the only option, that should be recognised and motorists should not be penalised, but where there are other, more environmentally friendly options, I believe motorists should be surcharged for the priviledge.

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