A plan with no imagination or heart


In terms of transport, the Government's Levelling Up paper is a 'walking dead' cat, a placeholder disguised as policy; a collection of rehashed, reheated, reiterated ideas eerily lacking in imagination or heart. But at least it made us stop talking about parties for a minute.

The paper's 'big idea' is basically that more places should be like London. As transport ideas go this is as bogstandard as it gets. But even this open goal was missed, obscured as it was by a haze of vague rhetoric.

'By 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London.' If this wording fills you with confidence, Boris Johnson has a bridge to sell you.

There are a number of problems with this basic approach, even if we put aside the fact that London is presently out of cash and bringing more areas 'closer' to its standards would probably mean levelling some down.

Firstly, yes London does enjoy a more integrated system, with smart multi-modal ticketing supported by Transport for London having control of the different modes including bus franchising powers.

So if this is the gold standard every city should aim for, why doesn't the Government simply, you know, give every city these powers? At the very least it is something of a mixed message for ministers to state that local areas should be more like London, while hedging over the release of the franchising powers that enabled the capital to have its service levels in the first place.

Previous attempts at smart, integrated ticketing in the South East and the North have failed miserably, taking tens of millions of pounds in pubic money with them.

This is largely because operators refused to play ball. The only real way to make progress, is to simply install a new framework in major cities that forces hands.

At a time of flux in transport, with the end of the five day commute a reality for many people, you could argue that some sense of stability was needed. Or you could argue that with the Government having basically bailed out the transport industry for the last two years, there has never been a better time to call the shots.

Just as rail franchising has been removed and the whole network is facing a transformation under Great British Railways, bus networks are ripe for reform - especially as the basic principles of privatisation - i.e. more competition, cheaper fares, more choice - have all failed. But all local areas are given is another vague commitment from government regarding 'support' over bus franchising.

On the other hand, if London's model is not right for every area - but its standards are - then simply emulating London is meaningless. But the paper has no framework or policy to establish new local ideas.

This is a terrible shame, because the sector is full of them.

The paper occasionally comes close to making interesting (if unoriginal) points when it talks about the impact on our productivity from a density issue - essentially in our urban areas people travel a far shorter distance in the same time when compared to our friends in Europe. This means we don't have as much 'agglomeration' effect. The paper also notes fairly that 'transport infrastructure investment has tended to flow to places where infrastructure is under the greatest strain rather than least extensive'. 

Both these points are raised and taken nowhere. 

As one industry leader noted, we need 'a generational strategy'. Where are the trams, the mass transit plans, the cycle networks, the 15-minute cities, the strategies to remove car trips of under 2km, the plans to make urban wonderlands, making roads places for people not just cars, spaces and places with identity, where anyone would be happy to go for a coffee, places people might actually want to commute to and commutes people might actually enjoy.

There has never been a more vital time for the Government to prove that there is a good reason to go outside, to justify the derived demand of transport. High streets are facing a slow death, networks across the country are crumbling and on the basis of this report they may be facing a one-way ticket.

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