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How much do we value our public transport systems?

24 June 2021

ICE has released a discussion paper on public transport funding post-Covid. ICE Fellow Jonathan Spruce provides an overview of the key points and the need for urgency in this debate.

How much do we value our public transport systems?
Post Covid, how will people use and move through transport systems and in what numbers? Image credit: Wikipedia, Mattbuck

The Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot of things: where we work, how we shop, and even how important toilet rolls are to our everyday lives. One of the biggest changes impacted on our public transport networks.

When lockdown restrictions were put in place, the entire public transport sector became effectively unviable. It has survived in the UK through the government offering emergency funding to pay for services that are no longer being used to the extent they were designed for.

How much do we value our public transport systems?Public transport is vital to meeting our future goals

As restrictions start to ease, and the vaccine rollout continues, much of our lives are starting to return to something like normal. However, the shift away from the traditional 9-5 commute is likely to be real and lasting. This means we need to think differently from the approach where services and revenue models have been based on commuters always travelling at peak times.

This shift in thinking needs to happen at just the time when we need to be promoting sustainable modes if we are to achieve our carbon emission reduction targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not changed the long-term challenges for infrastructure. However, it does require us to consider the value we place on the solutions to the issues that we face, including how we achieve an affordable and accessible public transport system that is vital to addressing these challenges.

There is an opportunity to do things differently, and it is crucial that governments and operators take these policy decisions on investment and spending soon. The costs of uncertain, short-term, bailout packages without a clear transition plan could begin a spiral of decline and cuts to both public transport services and capital projects that would take years to recover from. Achieving net zero will be made so much harder by any decline in services.

Why we need this debate now

This week, the ICE has published a paper considering the opportunities for public transport funding in a post-Covid-19 world. The paper calls for an urgent debate around funding models for transport systems. We need to think about new funding models, including policies like road user charging and land value capture, how to fund and finance services on a systems basis, and more diversified revenue sources.

On top of this, intelligent use of scenario planning and constant data monitoring is essential. Operators will need to start from new baseline assumptions about how people will use and move through transport systems, including when they will travel, how they will travel, and in what numbers.

Inspiring confidence to return to the network safely, when there is still a level of virus circulating, will be crucial in the early months.

The principles for future funding

The ICE paper does not prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach: it needs to be done with local circumstances in mind and in line with an increasing devolutionary approach to urban transport in the UK. However, there are four key principles that underline the suggested new approach. The funding model:

  1. Requires a reasonable amount of stability and resilience.
  2. Must be flexible enough to scale with demand for public transport in times when there is significant growth in demand.
  3. Requires a diverse array of revenue sources.
  4. Must be accepted by the public.

As the world moves towards recovery, there is an opportunity to do things many different ways differently. All ways need to help us address the challenges of climate change and population growth we will continue to face.

The policy choices made regarding spending and investments on public transport during recovery and beyond will be crucial.

How much we value our public transport systems could be the first big test beyond the Covid-19 pandemic: how serious are we about reaching sustainable development goals, and delivering national strategic objectives?

Incase you missed it...

ICE full discussion paper: Public transport funding post-Covid

  • Jonathan Spruce, Trustee, Policy & External Affairs at Institution of Civil Engineers