Whilst the desire to upgrade and enhance the rail offer for the North is welcome and not before time, along with an emphasis on simplified and best value ticketing, I fear that insufficient attention has been paid to the potential for behavior change, active travel, transport data and novel forms of transport to make an impact on the plans for the road network, which potentially renders them inappropriate or irrelevant.
There are 5 mentions of the word ‘cycling’ in the entire report. With a welcome emphasis on improving access to good quality jobs and currently average commutes of 15km, it is sad to see that the plans for road upgrading do not specifically mention designing-in safe cycle ways. Safe –and convenient - cycleways are essential to enable a broader spectrum of people to take up cycling.
The strategy implies that cycling is a leisure and lifestyle concern. However, it goes without saying that switching a percentage of peak hour or commuting traffic out of cars to cycling and walking could have a major impact on improving congestion on the major road network (and therefore for travel times for freight and those who have no option but to drive).
Cycling and walking are part of the strategy to reduce car use (and congestion and emissions) so ensuring safe routes for those switching to active travel should be part of the overall strategy.
Novel transport and behavior change
Whilst roads should be maintained and improved for all, the strategy should recognize that new forms of transport are changing attitudes and new usage profiles are emerging. For instance:
Lift and ride sharing – new digital models have made these practical for large workplaces experiencing congestion and parking issues (eg LiftShare, Faxi).
Bus hailing – new ‘corner to corner’ bus routes that operate over fixed areas rather than on linear routes with buses summoned by app. They use algorithms to optimize routes and minibuses for efficiency (eg ArrivaClick, GoMetro, SimplyConnect). They have already shown a substantial shift from cars and taxis to public transport for different passenger profiles.
Across the north we see rail connectivity between urban centres but slow and laborious public transport journeys between smaller communities. We no longer have large employers with closely located workforces – we have many SMEs which need skilled people who need to commute and often families where both partners work in different directions. Those using the cars to commute on some of our most congested roads (for instance the M62) do so largely because the public transport offer is so desperately inadequate not between urban centres but at either end of the journey.
Novel transport (and indeed safe attractive active travel) has the potential to deliver people to rail hubs smoothly and efficiently, enabling multimodal journeys without the time penalties currently associated with public transport.
Whilst innovation and improving passenger experience is mentioned in the strategy, it would benefit by specifically focusing on innovative transport which can reduce congestion, emissions and parking requirements.
Autonomous and connected vehicles will be part of transport long before 2050. This will enable practically everyone to be conveyed without driving licences – potentially opening the roads to a vastly greater number of users. The Strategy should seek to shape the way that autonomous vehicles will be used on our public infrastructure.
The strategy should urgently look at pan-area licensing of autonomous vehicles to facilite business models that optimize the network.
This brings me to the most worrying deficit in the strategy. There is no strategy for the collection and use of transport data across the region. Whilst the report acknowledges that there is the potential to use more data from mobile devices and MaaS, there is no specific demands to require transport operators to share data with local authorities or TfN.
We are already seeing novel transport operators like Uber, Mobike and Ofo operating in our cities and towns. These businesses have powerful datasets which should be open to public authorities as a matter of course so that their use of public infrastructure can be assessed, and licensing adjusted to ensure they have a positive impact on congestion, emissions and safety.
In the absence of national standards or requirements for data sharing, the North should establish its own. As autonomous and connected vehicles take to our streets, inoperable without massive data collection, their datasets should similarly be made available.
Mobility as a Service
The concept of MaaS is divided between those who conceptualize it as mass transit delivered by on-demand personal vehicles (eg mobility subscriptions delivering the car of your choice or fleets of personal autonomous pods) and those who anticipate it will enable seamlessly integrated multi-modal journeys (in some cases paid by subscription rather than PAYGO).
If it is to be the latter authorities such as TfN will need to lay the groundwork to make this happen now.
I am happy that some of the work for this is in the strategy – the commitment to simpler ticketing and contactless payment is a good start – but also concerned that more needs to be done in terms of open data, licensing, active travel and bringing positive new models to market to make it happen.