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Invest in Public Transport and Active Travel, says National Infrastructure Commission

Silvertown E16 cycle track, by Sludgegulper, CC BY-SA 2.0
Silvertown E16 cycle track, by Sludgegulper, CC BY-SA 2.0

The government should invest more in public transport and active travel, says the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in its Second Assessment Report.

The Commission was set up in 2015, and reports once every five years.

Investing in Public Transport and Active Travel

The Executive Summary of the Second Assessment Report identifies Getting Cities Moving as a vital part of Supporting Growth Across Regions. It says:

‘England’s largest cities have congested roads and inadequate public transport networks, which constrains their economic growth. The solution is better public transport, and more, safer, active travel.

Public transport is more space efficient than cars – a bus lane can carry around twice as many passengers per hour as a normal lane’.

getting cities moving, nic 2nd assessment report

The Commission says that urban transport networks will need to accommodate extra passengers by 2055.

NIC infographic
NIC infographic

It recommends spending £22 billion on public transport in the largest English cities outside London – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester. ‘They should be the initial priorities for investment in mass transit systems’.

This means extra seats and standing space on buses, trams and trains.

Is Infinite ‘Growth’ Sensible on a Finite Planet?

The Commission’s goal is ‘more trips within cities’ for jobs, movement of goods and services and trade.

Is this the right goal? I suggest that we should be aiming for a good quality of life, not infinite growth in distance travelled.

The Commission is worried that demand and growth will be constrained if we don’t invest in more capacity. Maybe it is in the nature of an infrastructure commission to want endless increases in infrastructure.

I think we’ve reached the point where ‘tread lightly’ should be our overarching goal.

Reducing Car Journeys

The report says that investing in public transport alone is not enough to reduce congestion.

‘Cities will also need to reduce car journeys into congested city centres, especially at peak times’.

getting cities moving, nic 2nd assessment report

Measures the Commission suggests to deter car trips and reduce congestion include:

  • congestion charging
  • workplace parking levies and
  • physical measures to limit vehicle movements

It expands on this as follows:

‘…under the right conditions, these measures can play an important role in addressing congestion and improving capacity. This is because a reduction in road traffic demand creates space for additional, more reliable public transport, such as through priority bus lanes.

Measures like these are more space efficient than cars, and the road space that is freed up will provide the additional capacity that will allow for more journeys into the city centre’.

nic on measures to deter car trips in city centres

The Commission says that better public transport should be in place first, and that any revenue raised should be ring-fenced and spent on public transport and active travel.

Local Responsibility

According to the report, centrally-allocated funding should stop and there should be long-term devolved budgets for all local authorities that are responsible for strategic transport.

Progress has been made with City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. These settlements should be extended to all Mayoral Combined Authorities.

London should also get a long-term capital settlement.

The Commission believes that more devolution to local authorities will:

‘give local authorities the freedom to identify local priorities, such as fixing potholes, zero emission buses and road improvements, and the resources to address them’.

nic 2nd assessment on taking a local approach to transport

That is fine if the local authorities concerned are well-intentioned and competent.

I fear that bodies like the NIC don’t realise that some councils are 100% car-focused, and wholly incapable of delivering active travel projects.

If you give such councils a budget and let them determine their own priorities, they will spend thousands on consultants and fail to deliver on-the-ground improvements. Any schemes that do make it to delivery will be all about motor vehicles.

Giving such authorities autonomy over transport money is no better than pouring it down the drain.

Maintaining Road and Rail Networks

The report says that maintaining road and rail networks is likely to become more expensive due to climate change, and as they age and demand increases. Maintenance should be prioritised.

The cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 just before the publication of the report puts a hole in the UK’s rail strategy. The Commission is volunteering to help the government with a long-term, fully-costed rail improvement plan.

Road capacity expansion is incompatible with the UK’s climate commitments, but it is not clear that the Commission understands that – nor that it has taken proper account of induced demand. New roads and lanes fill up and congestion stays the same or gets worse.

On the positive side, the report talks about maintenance coming first. On the negative side, it says that then ‘enhancements’ should be planned, with a pipeline of projects for the next 20 to 30 years.

The report also strays into the realms of fantasy when it discusses ‘the widespread deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles’ travelling at up to ’80mph on uncongested long distance main roads’.

Taking Long-Term Decisions and Demonstrating Staying Power

The Commission points out that:

‘repeatedly changing policy creates uncertainty for infrastructure operators and investors, which deters investment. It also slows the development of supply chains, driving up costs’.

nic 2nd assessment on long-term decisions
Invest in Public Transport and Active Travel, says National Infrastructure Commission

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