Early January inevitably means the annual rail-fare increase, marked by rallies against the quality of service and the ever-increasing cost of a ticket. And it may not be long before cities learn that they have breached their legal nitrous dioxide (NO2) limit, which measures air quality and pollution. That is all forgetting roadworks, pot-holes, buses and bike lanes – all of which, and more, present a range of challenges and headaches for cities and transport authorities alike.
So when the political leaders of UK cities were asked to name some of their main economic priorities, it’s no wonder that transport featured fairly highly. That’s because not only do late trains and gridlocked roads make for disgruntled commuters; congestion and bad quality public transport systems can also have an impact on city economies, making them less attractive as places to live and do business in.
Our survey of city leaders, published in December, offered some insight into what city leaders, in particular, are prioritising when it comes to the biggest challenges for transport in their area.
Transport infrastructure and provision: Of the following options, what are the top three priorities for developing or expanding transport services and infrastructure for your area over the short to medium term? (Please select three)
Their way, or the cycle superhighway?
Roads are a top priority, with over half of leaders choosing this option. With car use remaining high across many cities, this is unsurprising – and whether its road works or road quality, leaders are no doubt accustomed to complaints from constituents. But more interesting perhaps is the second-highest chosen ‘modal shift,’ selected by just under half of leaders. This refers to encouraging individuals away from car use towards public transport, or more active travel such as cycling or walking.
That this comes second is telling. While leaders can’t necessarily take their focus away from roads (which, of course, buses use as well) they are no doubt keen to deliver a city transport system that offers more choice for their constituents as well as potentially better access to public transport, less congestion and improved air quality.
Station to station
While addressing transportation within their city is a high priority for leaders surveyed, 43 per cent also had their eyes on rail connections beyond their boundaries.
Arguments for improving inter-city rail travel are not new. Political leaders, as well as others, are often heard lobbying for more investment in rail networks outside of London and the South East, suggesting that the criteria for investment are skewed towards the south, and spend-per-head is far too varied between different parts of the country. That the leaders do see rail connections between their city and others as among their largest priorities reflects these highly politicised debates.
From an urban economic perspective, however, Centre for Cities has long argued that while good-quality inter-city transport connections are important, this should not overshadow the more essential links within cities, which are more likely to be used to a commuting population every day.
It is promising that leaders did tend to place more emphasis on their internal transport systems, but as inter-city rail travel takes ever higher precedence publicly, leaders will be obliged to make choices that reflect public discourse.
At a time when funding for services are highly pressured, and with economic uncertainty ahead, leaders had better keep their focus on maintaining and enhancing integrated bus networks to allow as many people as possible to access jobs and opportunities within the city, in a way that reflects the local economy.
There are tools at cities’ disposal to make the kinds of transport improvements they desire. For metro mayors, and to the benefit of the authorities within those regions, the Transforming Cities Fund and the Bus Services Act mean both cash and opportunities to coordinate and integrate the bus network at the appropriate city region level. For other places, financing options such as the Workplace Parking Levy is a ready-made option for further their goals around public transport improvements and modal shift.
As ever, cities and city-regions, in particular, should all seek authority over the full transport network in their area – just like Transport for London – to help further coordinate those systems, offer integrated ticketing at a set price and even introduce road pricing, in order to reduce congestion.
City leaders have been clear about where their priorities are, and all leaders selected areas that would improve transport systems within their city, not just connecting into others. While all of these improvements are important, the priority for cities should first be within their boundaries, to improve their residents’ access to jobs and services, and to reduce congestion and pollution which makes a city less desirable. The more national policymakers turn their focus and limited funding to integrating urban transport systems, the more easily leaders can put these priorities into practice.