Government funding has helped selected urban areas but more will be needed

We have seen a lack of value attached to bus services in the scramble to create space in the wake of the pandemic

The Department for Transport has awarded substantial funding to some cities under the heading of the Transforming Cities Fund (TCF). Bidding was required and amounts at a level not seen for some years have been made available to successful local authority applicants; Leeds City Region won the jackpot, £317m. This approach is becoming the norm to secure government funding for which a lot of effort is required to submit a bid with none of the costs incurred being repayable.

With a headline sum available, there are inevitably winners and losers and a cynic would suggest that those areas which helped secure Boris Johnson’s position have done rather better than those areas that did not. What used to be a fairly transparent process of deciding what needs to be done in an area and working up these ideas into practical schemes was what the Local Transport Plans (LTPs – for transport authorities outside London) were all about. The trend towards competitive bidding for funds undermines having such a five-year plan and, while welcome by those succeeding, has side effects creating all sorts of problems and leaves some areas behind.

Who is in charge?

On top of this are the emergence of Sub-National Transport Bodies, Combined Authorities and the like who all claim legitimacy and the right to determine transport spending. Recent experiences have shown how getting things done requires consensus and where different views are expressed, then the implementation of schemes and even the direction for improvement is compromised.

Two recent examples illustrate this. Firstly, Cambridge is expanding at a phenomenal rate and transport is key to making all this development successful. In addition to Cambridgeshire County Council, working with the local planning authorities, there are other interests. The city won City Deal funding from the government so there was an overlay of a partnership grouping to decide how best to spend the money. Unfortunately, the elected mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority doesn’t agree with everything that has been going on. This means that instead of following an agreed course, politics takes over which may result in legal challenges and the consequent bitterness.

Secondly, Transport for the North (TfN) was established to deliver change, working with the local authorities and elected mayors. However, a new organisation has appeared sponsored by central government and chaired by the Transport Secretary with its remit being much the same as that for TfN. This is all an avoidable mess.

Politics takes over which may result in legal challenges and the consequent bitterness

So various authorities and agencies stumble along, trying to keep everyone happy but in doing so, there is a danger of losing the plot along the way. If agencies are to be helpful, they need proper funding and they don’t need to be shadowed every step of the way by government or any spontaneous quangos. The TCF programme is very welcome and provides the opportunity for broader scale thinking. Lots of ideas for sustainable transport have been approved and for once they are not limited to one mode or another. TCF looks at cities as a whole and promotes walking, cycling and passenger transport use, a healthy shift from decades of just thinking about vehicle movement around cities.

Not enough time

The problems arise when considering the TCF programme. A condition of getting the funding is that schemes have to be committed or preferably in place within a three-year window otherwise the funding is withdrawn. Anyone who has worked in local government will tell you that planning, gaining approvals, designing, consultation and commissioning contractors takes more than three years. Hence there is a rush to get schemes delivered, not because that is a better outcome but because the regular processes are severely curtailed, including some of the democratic aspects and design details. Needless to say, the programme fits more neatly with Parliamentary terms rather than real life; it also amplifies the fact that civil servants have little or no experience of delivering any large transport scheme and have unrealistic views about how they happen, fuelled by political expectation.

Having said that TCF schemes are being promoted in a hurry, a recent phenomenon has appeared, the Covid-19 scheme. This is introduced on a temporary basis with some of the procedures being short-circuited on the basis that the pandemic has changed travel behaviour and provides an opportunity to push walking and cycling further up the agenda. Again this sounds helpful but the unintended consequences can be significant, usually affecting buses. The scramble to create space for people to social distance in urban centres or to cycle safely in a segregated space have meant reallocating road space in part or entirely. Once again we see a lack of value attached to bus services, many of which have been displaced completely from the main streets they serve. In some cases, more buses have been provided on core services to overcome the capacity constraints resulting from social distancing. Some of the measures are good ideas but others have attracted criticism as they appear excessive. Some quick wins for walking and cycling have created problems similar to those evident in London where cycle superhighways have been created. The number of cyclists on these new routes is a huge change from previous levels but the number of buses lining up alongside in the traffic suggests that all is not well. The solution to this is not to demonise people walking or cycling but to allocate space to buses as well; this means restricting routes to other vehicles based on size, purpose or emissions. Aberdeen’s closure of main bus routes is one example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater – buses are really important for city centre viability, not part of the problem.

Processes that constrain actions

All these TCF and Covid-19 schemes show what can be accomplished and that the tide is turning towards sustainable transport. Despite the fact that not all urban areas benefit and that implementing schemes takes time, there will be some welcome efforts to support bus users. However, larger transport authorities have struggled to progress Covid-19 schemes as most have to work with other authorities and agencies and their associated decision-making processes which stifle spontaneity. What appears to be a simple change takes weeks or months, even when many rules are suspended. Most authorities have been battered by successive rounds of spending cuts so may not have staff who can design quick temporary schemes or even enough bollards to put them in place.

The days when authorities had schemes planned and ‘shovel-ready’ are gone

The days when authorities had schemes planned and ‘shovel-ready’ are gone because there is no funding stream to support their promotion. Scheme promoters have to find the funding from somewhere to develop their schemes and the scheme remains at risk until approvals are obtained and the full funding agreed. A further problem is that between agreeing to a scheme and building it, the costs will have increased. Construction cost inflation continues to be at a much higher level than ordinary inflation so even if a scheme looks certain, it isn’t. Add in some optimism bias and the apparent cost soon gets out of control. However while government thinks that everything is ready to go, the reality is that turning some good intentions into reality on the ground remains a matter of detail even where processes have been streamlined.

Where bus services are being marginalised once again then schemes cannot be presumed to be successful. Ironically, some bus users may shift to walking and cycling for cost or health reasons but car users are unlikely to shift because of entrenched habits and moral superiority. The scenario in which it is quicker to walk than to get the bus is promising except that it erodes bus revenue. Some TCF funding is supporting bus priority measures and other improvements but not everywhere. High capacity urban transit systems offer vast opportunities to contribute to sustainable cities but where the message still hasn’t hit home, buses continue to be the poor relation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (, Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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