The local transport forecast is…

After a summer of huge economic and political uncertainty – Brexit, a new Prime Minister/Cabinet, upheaval in the Labour party and continued reports of tragedy abroad – perhaps we can excuse local transport not being a policy priority. Yet even in the more stable times of last Autumn, local transport was a poor relation. (See my blog on Chancellor George Osbourne’s last spending  review.)

So it seems timely to make a case for local transport now, in advance of Philip Hammond’s first budget in November. Perhaps that is what the Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT) thought when they published a briefing called Fix It First last week. It describes the benefits of investing in local transport rather than big infrastructure projects when money is tight:

  • There are more jobs in road repair than in road construction.
  • Fixing roads is more popular than building new ones.
  • Local projects can be delivered quickly with tangible results, e.g. recent challenge fund programmes.
  • The unemployed are more likely to find jobs if they have ways to travel to job opportunities.
  • Encouraging more walking and cycling more often would lead to a physically fitter population – saving major healthcare costs.
  • Improved public realm can attract private investment.
  • Most small-scale new rail stations/lines opened in recent years have exceeded forecast use.
  • Investing in new buses would support UK manufacturing, as they are usually made in the UK.
  • Greener buses would improve local air quality, quickly and cheaply.

There are plenty more reasons than those above and many examples of successful local transport investment. The most local and most innovative changes are happing in people’s pockets – journey planning, ticketing, on-demand services. No wonder I’ve long been a fan of local transport solutions.

This isn’t to say I’m categorically against major infrastructure projects. I see some benefits to HS2, even if I’m not sure they necessarily outweigh the costs. And I’ve admitted in the past that I greatly appreciate the convenience of Heathrow and do not mind the price of noisy planes overhead. I even have occasional mixed feelings about new roads projects. There is some irony in my finding the briefing by following a link in a ‘Welsh’ news item, as one of the ‘white elephant’ infrastructure projects CfBT list is the M4 ‘relief’ road south of Newport. Surveying and assisting in the modelling for said relief road was one of my first projects as a graduate transport planner, back in 2003. It’s hard to be untainted.

However, if all this focus on national infrastructure schemes is at the expense of local improvements, I completely agree that it is money poorly spent. Even in a globalised world, most of our travel for economic activities or social ones occurs at the local level. This is where transport planning can impact on the quality of people’s lives. From public health to access to jobs to better environments in which to live and work, spending on local transport makes a difference.

Local leaders know this, and therefore, as well as reallocating pots of capital and revenue, we should call on the new Government to continue or even accelerate devolution of transport powers and funding sources to local governments. Perhaps once cities and counties can fund their own local transport to an adequate level, central Government will be able to consider its plans for national infrastructure projects. But let’s hope they think about the local transport forecast first.

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