Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Will the real British local transport policy please stand up.

About two weeks ago I sent out a red flag to a short list of my most respected British transport/environment colleagues with a cry for help in preparation for a keynote speech I had been asked to deliver to a conference scheduled to take place this Thursday, 2 December, in Liverpool, and where the speaker just before me is a respected ministerial representative of the latest British government. I confessed to my distinguished British friends that I was at best half-educated in terms of the current policy and practice debate in Britain and needed a fast tutorial before exposing myself to a critical audience. They responded fast, generously and most usefully as you will soon see here in a follow-up piece to the conference; but one of the responses opened up his perceptive comments with an amusing analogy which I thought you might enjoy this morning.

[*The text of the original request for help appears at the end of this short article. Click here for the program document.]

Eric sent around an email asking for views of what “constitute the fundamental platform elements or defining pillars of British government policy today when it comes to transport, environment and equity in and around cities”. As if any of us could figure it out! Wishing to be helpful I sent him the following response:

Many years ago I visited a model shop in the Netherlands (I was thinking of resurrecting my model train set – seriously!). The proprietor and I got into conversation about the differences in approach to modelling in various countries. In Germany, if you want to build houses for your train set you buy a box with lots of plastic pieces in it and glue them together according to some meticulous and detailed instructions. When you are finished you have a perfect house, with windows, shutters, bricks in the right colour, etc.

In Britain the model builder frowns on this half-hearted attempt at modelling. In England you take some wood, cardboard, some bits you have lying around and lots of match sticks and start building. That is true modelling. What you achieve is a genuine model but unless you are very good with the bits and the paint you will need a little imagination to see what intended to be built.

In transport we do the same. In Britain we split everything up into little bits and pour a big dose of populism over the whole thing. First we split the country into four, each with its own government (except England of course). As a result we start with four different policies (and four national football teams so we lose the World Cup four times).

We then have different quangos or regional governments (county councils and then local councils) who each reinvent the wheel (no pun intended). We split the railways into infrastructure operators, equipment leasing companies and a large number of rail operators. As a result we have a wide range of policies and interpretations of these policies and a fleet of lawyers to try to keep some sort of order.

Tickets for trains are mind bogglingly complicated and expensive. Coordination between systems is even more complicated.

Roads are equally challenging. We have less motorways than we should have for our size and any road we want to build gets bogged down in the populist debate. The funding disappears down the drain of consultations, legal advice, gangs of consultants and civil servants and any other cash consuming items we can think of, which leaves little money to spare for the actual building should the decision actually be made to build a road. Said road is then of course seriously over budget, which is hardly surprising as the budget is probably 15 years out of date.

Labour started to bring some direction into this with an ambitious 10 year transport plan. I have no idea where that went. The railways did improve, but we are still far behind our European counter parts. The current coalition only has one central goal - stop spending money, which makes setting policy relatively easy.

The current cabinet is populated with wealthy, Oxbridge trained individuals without any apparent affinity to public transport. Some like to show their green credentials by riding a bicycle from time to time. So there is no inherent interest in stimulating public transport.

We are quite densely populated but because of the bad infrastructure and high costs the poor are not mobile and the rich sit in big cars stuck in traffic jams - Mrs Thatcher famously said that any male over 40 on a bus was basically a loser. That quote stuck – I have successfully avoided buses ever since except in London, if nobody is looking.

Of course we do have some prestige projects. The bicycles in London, stimulated largely by the Mayor. I am not sure this is successful. I have tried using the system, but the first two times I failed. I will try again soon. As the bicycles can go one way they inevitably have a problem with stations overflowing, bicycles not being available and a high cost of shifting them to where they need to be. I suspect that in reality it does not work, but the prestige does.

Our biggest prestige project is high speed trains. Reeking of sound planning, the first stations were built in Ashford and Waterloo, only to be replaced by Ebbsfleet and St Pancreas. Ebbsfleet is in the middle of nowhere and looks and operates like an airport – best reached by car. The plans are to extend a network north – I hope to live long enough to enjoy it.

Finally there are all kinds of rumours about electric cars. I am sure they will be fantastic at some point in the future, but as our infrastructure is already so far behind, is this really the answer? Or is there a risk it is another example of ‘model building’? I tried hybrids but they only seemed to save fuel in town, the place I personally avoid driving most.

I have not seen any evidence of a visible policy recently. Transport is key to developing the economy, never mind the CO2 benefits, yet we have consistently avoided really resolving the issues. The slamming doors even though the slamming doors on trains finally went.

So back to Eric – I look forward to seeing a coherent conclusion come out of your conference. If not, I hope at least the hospitality is good.


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About the author:

Dirk van Dijl has 25 years experience in the transport and technology sectors ranging from rental through to real time passenger information systems. A Dutch/American Dirk arrived in the UK in 1990 and liked it so much, he stayed. Since that time he built the largest real time passenger information system in the country for bus operations including the first text messaging system. He was also behind the first commercial car club (car sharing for foreigners) in the UK. Dirk holds a MBA in Finance and a BA in Economics, both of which he acquired in the US. Currently Dirk is active with some charities and publishes a weekly newsletter and blog called enterprisebritain.com

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Britton's original request for back-up help to prepare for the conference:
I have been invited to give an opening address and later to chair a conference which is meeting in Liverpool in the first days of December, which will also be addressed on two occasions by a representative of the British government, Normal Baker MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport. Mr. Baker will be speaking to the topic "Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility".

For my part I will be working from what I believe to be the leading edge of international experience, presenting some perhaps slightly different points that together make up what we call the New Mobility Agenda and which constitute the main pillars of our work with World Streets and others of our international collaborative projects as set out somewhat informally in http://worldstreets.wordpress.com/about/upon-your-first-visit/mission/. My hope is that these broader international and possibly contrasting perspectives will make for a lively and enjoyable series of exchanges over the two days of the conference.

Now, while I have very general idea of the overall policy objectives and favored instruments of the new British administration, the truth is that this is a pretty uneven and certainly incomplete outsider view of what is intended and what is actually going on. I read about the importance of limiting funding for local government, building more motorways to fight congestion, pouring significant taxpayer contributions into High Speed Rail, betting on electric cars and a "green motoring revolution. But then I also recently read that your Minister Rt Hon Philip Hammond said: "And in local transport, some of the best investments that can be made are in smaller-scale projects - addressing, at local level, congestion, air quality, environmental issues, road safety and public wellbeing in our urban areas". Which to my mind does not quite line up with the above. So, quite frankly, I am confused and clearly in need of expert counsel.

Which brings me to my question to you. Might it be possible for you to take a few minutes simply to list a handful or so of the points which in your view constitute the fundamental platform elements or defining pillars of British government policy today when it comes to transport, environment and equity in and around cities? It is my hope that once I have a better feel for what is actually going on I shall be able to create a presentation which looks at and comments usefully on these pillars. And then if necessary and useful offering some, perhaps, alternative thoughts as to how local transport in Britain might more creatively move ahead in the next two to five years.

Once the conference is over and the dust has settled I intend to prepare an article for World Streets which reports fairly on the key events, findings, visions and recommendations of the conference, which you of course will be sent with my thanks . . . .

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And finally here is the organizers very nice Briefing for Speakers which I share with you by way of further background.

The theme of this conference is ‘The Right to Travel – getting more for less’

"What we hope to achieve over the two days of the conference is that delegates will consider and have the chance to discuss whether, if we want to achieve a sustainable future, we can allow, as a society, unhindered choice of travel or indeed allow people to travel as much as they want. For years Governments have taken an interventionist approach on road safety and emissions from vehicles, for instance, and it could be argued that through taxation and pricing policies they are in the business of reducing peoples’ travelling rights.

You may or may not agree with the view that people should be restricted in their right to travel, but we would like to establish that sustainable travel and the use of smarter choices techniques are not luxuries that can be discarded because of a global recession and a new UK Government, rather they are a means to deliver transport solutions to maximise peoples’ ability to travel (in a sustainable way of course) as well as giving great added value to physical schemes and in some cases offering the potential to reduce costs.

In your presentation, please consider the following ideas:

1. Do we want a sustainable transport future and why?

2. Should we be actively managing peoples’ right to travel and their choice of travel?

3, Is the Coalition Government right in its decisions emerging from the Comprehensive Spending Review and what impact will this have on employment and the retention of skills and knowledge across our industry?

4. What are the benefits/merits of smarter choices and sustainable travel beyond their contribution to a safe and sustainable world?

You have been invited to take part because you have a position to influence policy going forward, have some strongly held beliefs or are well known to have an alternative view to the mainstream. We would encourage controversial presentations or contributions as these will help to bring about greater discussion and make this a truly memorable event."

We look forward to your contribution.

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