The Big Interview: Campaigning for better transport


If transport was a country Stephen Joseph OBE would make a great choice for one of its ambassadors (full disclosure - he is already one of our ambassadors, as a regular contributor to our website).

As a diplomat he is polite, softly spoken and discreet, as a campaigner he is astute, and politically deft. Appointed as chief executive director of Campaign for Better Transport in 1988, (until September 2007, the organisation was known as Transport 2000) he has been working in the sector for nearly a generation promoting an agenda focussed on passenger choice, sustainable travel and better public services.

In an age of increased urbanisation and stretched public finances, when every city in the country wants integrated smart ticketing, it would be foolish to decry this approach and churlish of anyone to suggest he has not been successful.

Stephen Joseph

Mr Joseph highlights the current debate succinctly using an anecdote from the West Midlands: ‘There was a discussion about devolved rail. A leader of a big local authority had been talking to one of the big businesses in the area who said they liked being in the West Midlands - they had a good skills base, good local partners - however local transport is one of the things that brought the place down.

'He said if we invest in Germany we know that employees will get an integrated ticket that will be valid from their door to our factory on an integrated, multimodal network with real time information. Now it’s that calculation that’s important, that in order to make cities function you need something that looks like an integrated network.’

Following on from the announcement in November that some of the top bus operators plan to bring in smart ticketing for the city regions within the year, Mr Joseph gives a stark warning to those that don’t notice the times are changing. ‘I think there has been a sea change. Basically I think the political class have looked at London and said that looks really good can we have that please and if the operators don’t supply it they will be pushed aside.’

The list of achievements his organisation can lay claim to having had a leading - or should that be guiding - hand in is long. Asked about his proudest achievements he tells Surveyor Transport Network: ‘The single thing we have done that has made the biggest difference to travel patterns in this country is the work we did on reforming company car taxation.

'We did a lot of work on reforming [the system] away from rewarding high mileage and gas guzzling to rewarding low CO2 emissions. That change really reduced the amount of car travel and CO2 emissions enormously.

'A report the RAC Foundation did called On The Move, identified that reform as having led to big changes in travel patterns, particularly in men in their 30s.’

Sure enough the report states: ‘One instance where there does seem to be a clear link between government policy and a significant change in travel behaviour is in the use of company cars... The largest reductions in company car mileage have been among men classified as “professionals” (down by 63%) and “employer/managers” (down 35%).’

He continues: ‘Over the years we have started things that have made it into the general agenda. We did some of the early work on homes zones and door-to-door travel plans, which have been taken on by the Department for Transport (DfT). The Workplace Parking Levy came out of work we did in the 1990s and has been taken on by Nottingham. [We worked on] the Local Sustainable Transport Fund and sustainable traffic towns. The New Stations Fund came out of the report we did on railway re-openings.’

And as Mr Joseph says, this is all in an a sector where ‘one of the things that is generally recognised is that people’s travel choices are based on inertia’.

‘So there is an increasing emphasis in general on what is known as “using transitions”; when people move house, when their kids move school, if they change job, they have to make new travel choices and there is an opportunity there. None of this is about making people do something they don’t want but it is about giving people choices, and some encouragement to try something different.

'So I would agree that people stick to what they know but if you can give people incentives to try something new when they are changing travel patterns anyway then you have an opportunity to make things better.’

His advice on how to go about working with central government and Whitehall to change policy is also straight out of any good diplomatic handbook.

‘All of this is down to listening, working with where people are coming from and coming up with proposals that fit with their agendas. You don’t do transport for transport’s sake you do it to help developments, the economy. You don’t talk to someone who is sceptical about climate change about climate change. We try to tailor what we have done with what decision makers are interested in. We don’t change what we say but we put forward proposals that fit with where politicians are coming from and what their interests are.

'You also need to try and make arguments in terms of economic benefits - who are the winners and losers - because that is the question you are going to be asked.’

In politics nothing is easy but Mr Joseph feels a consensus is building around his agenda, despite this he retains ‘a constant capacity to be surprised, not just where politicians are coming from, you can never quite predict this in some cases, but also you can start things and never tell where they are going to end up’.

‘In some cases you think a plan looks good everyone will agree on this but it falls flat. In other cases a politician will just pick something up and run with it. We thought we were going to have to do a lot of work to get station travel plans established, instead government just picked up the idea put it into a white paper, industry started running after it, and soon enough 30 pilots were produced. The influencing of transport policy is a complete art not a science and you can be constantly surprised by what does and doesn’t resonate with people.’

One area Mr Joseph is not so conciliatory on is the DfT’s transport modelling tools, which show strong growth in traffic over the next generation.

Indeed when asked about the biggest transport myths, Mr Joseph says: ‘Myth one: As people get richer they travel more. That is increasingly not being borne out anywhere in the developed world actually.

'Two. The myth that in order to help high streets we are going to need lots more parking.

'Three. The myth that you cant change people’s travel behaviour. I think there is enough evidence out there to suggest that you can change enough people’s travel behaviour to create a noticeable difference.’

Having been awarded an OBE in 1996 and a lifetime achievement award in 2004 as part of the National Transport Awards, Mr Joseph has perhaps little left to achieve on a professional level. Looking to the future he warns of the need to integrate transport and planning more closely, with the potential for major house building programmes after the election seen as either a huge opportunity for more transitional influence, or a huge risk to what has been achieved.

He also wants ‘to get to th

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