No News?

In these post-election months, I was looking forward to writing a blog about the new Government’s plans for transport. The problem is, there isn’t much to write about.

A few weeks ago, there was the less-than-surprising revelation that Network Rail wasn’t meeting its targets for the £38billion plan of network improvements. So new leadership has been appointed and that big programme announced before the election will be reviewed and scaled back. This is all well and good, but it’s more of an un-news story than a news story in terms of transport planning.

Then there was the announcement by the Airports’ Commission of its recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow. This didn’t receive the level of attention I expected. Knowing the likely political fall-out, Downing Street refused to make ‘a snap judgement’ and the BBC reported that a formal government response was unlikely to be forthcoming until the Autumn. Which meant even the NO campaign only bothered grumbling briefly.

(For my response to a key NO tenet:

So that is why I was looking forward to this week’s budget. The first of the new Government. And what do I get? Not much.

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport @ciltuk managed a mere seven bullet points.

Three of these were to do with investing in England’s northern cities. The reinforced Government commitment to a form of devolution to cities and, on closer inspection of the budget document itself, potentially to counties too is welcome. I’ve expressed my support of devolved powers before in and I admire @CentreforCities research and advocacy.

However, the new rival to Transport for London, Transport for the North includes not only the band of cities from Liverpool to Hull, and even Hull could be geographically questionable, but also Newcastle. What a challenge to create a cohesive transport system that works for central Manchester or Leeds and also bridges the wide rural expanses between city regions? And with only £30 million of additional funding over 3 years. I’m not sure what it’s in addition to, but that doesn’t compare well with the £10 billion of transport investment promised to London during this Parliament. Perhaps that’s why the key measure for TfN to deliver is apparently ‘seamless oyster style ticketing across the system’. Meanwhile, London keeps one step ahead, moving from Oyster Card to bank card, with other Southeast cities like Reading soon to follow suit.

Otherwise, investment in local transport infrastructure includes a few extra, named pinch point projects, a few more new rail stations promised, and funding for road maintenance. Walking, cycling, active transport, public realm; none of these are mentioned at all. There’s the vehicle excise duty changes, frozen fuel duty, capped rail fares. Old news at best. But nothing about addressing the imbalance between continued support for concessionary bus fares for the disabled and elderly whilst the bus services they use are slashed or shrinking.

I hope locally-run transport in mayorally-responsible authorities will be a bit more ambitious and a bit more innovative than the Budget suggests. There are plenty of examples to follow – see or for some ideas.

But that’s assuming sufficient funding, appropriate responsibility, the removal of obstructive business interests, and the mayors themselves are all in place. Which looks to be a slow process. In the meantime, again, there is little for a transport planner to get excited about.

I hear Osborne has more to say next week. Housing and planning look to be big news, but how about transport?

An Agenda Item for Paris

Had you heard of Vanuatu before Cyclone Pam recently brought the tiny archipelago nation to the world’s attention? Most people would say no. But I would say yes. Not because I’m a bit of a geography buff, although I am, but because it was mentioned in something I read about small island nations and their concerns about the impact of climate change and their susceptibility to sea level rise and natural disasters and the commitment they want to make in reducing carbon emissions.

In the same imaginary file in my brain are the commitments of city mayors around the world to reduce emissions. These commitments are often far more ambitious than those of the nations in which these cities reside. There is plenty of city-to-city networking going on too, again independent of national governments.

But then the major impacts on the cities, like the impacts on small islands happen at the ‘small’ level. Small in terms of land area, ratio of coastline to area, local identities. Not necessarily small in terms of population or cost.

Remember Hurricane Sandy?

I wrote a seminar paper for a professor studying the impacts of climate change on urban infrastructure that predicted the flooding of the subway tunnels. That was in the last millennium. The concerns about the compound effects of sea level rise and the increasing numbers of violent storms are not new.

There is a somewhat new urgency about negotiations, however, leading up to the Paris summit. It’s as if we are running out of time to make those serious commitments at a national level. We must look to Vanuatu and other frontrunners like Costa Rica for inspiration on how to change our ways or at least the amount of our carbon emissions. And fast.

Did you know that Costa Rica has generated all of its electricity from renewable sources for the first 75 days of 2015 so far?

But that was electricity, not energy. Which brings us to what this blog has to do with transport. Campaigning, as the Guardian currently is to eliminate dependence on dirty power plants is all very well and good, but that only includes energy used as electricity. What about transport? Or heating?

Ignoring the latter as outside my field of expertise, let’s focus on transport. I know that electric cars have come a long way, electric trains are spreading across the UK and there are a number of low emission and no emission bus fleets out there. There are also many good reasons for people to travel sustainably even if they don’t believe in climate change; it was the subject of one of my first blog posts: Yet how far can technology and changing travel behaviours take us? They don’t remove the fact that people want to move around, that not just lifestyles, but livelihoods demand it and that can use a lot of energy.

Especially if they want to move long distances. And there is the elephant in the room. The airplane. I’m a big user myself, as I describe in my blog post about how my entire family lives three thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. So I’m thrilled that the first solar-powered airplane is up and flying. But I’m still not convinced that technology or personal choices will make enough impact with enough speed.

This is an international issue. From Vanuatu to Costa Rica, or New York to New Delhi. Perhaps not only London and the southeast of England need an Airports Commission, but the world as a whole. Carbon taxes added to ticket prices by individual countries or paired countries could make the situation worse, making it cheaper, for example for people to purchase indirect flights that take them hundreds of miles and tanks of fuel in the wrong direction only to fly back on themselves.

So if we want to keep flying, the only way to improve efficiencies and manage demand is to review it at the highest level possible. I hope the issue of international air travel is on the agenda for Paris anyway. If not, well, then, may I suggest it?