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Guaranteed public transport for all – the key to net zero and levelling up in the UK?

22 September 2023

A new statutory obligation to provide universal, equal, and affordable access to public transport should underpin any national transport strategy.

Guaranteed public transport for all – the key to net zero and levelling up in the UK?
Sustainable public transport should be available to everyone everywhere in the UK. Image credit: Shutterstock

Two of the UK government’s most important strategic objectives are addressing regional inequalities (‘levelling up’) and net zero.

Achieving net zero requires phasing out fossil fuels – and replacing 30 million fossil fuel-powered cars and vans.

But many parts of the UK depend on private car use. Without prior access to affordable and sustainable public transport, a rapid push to decarbonisation risks harming lives and livelihoods.

People rely on transport to access shops, entertainment, and jobs.

If the government is to meet its objectives, universal, UK-wide public transport access is essential.

What is a universal public transport obligation?

A universal public transport obligation would make it a statutory requirement for local government and transport authorities to make sustainable forms of public transport available and accessible to everyone everywhere in the UK.

It would also set low costs for all users, extending fare caps already in effect in the Transport for London zone to the whole country.

This isn’t a radical notion for public services. Indeed, there’s a precedent in UK law.

As the designated universal postal provider, the Royal Mail has a legal duty to provide a six-days-per-week, one-price-goes-anywhere service to 30 million UK addresses.

Similar obligations exist for broadband and telephone provision. We call this the universal service obligation – a longstanding consumer protection policy that many governments operate.

Why is a universal public transport obligation important?

The ICE has made the case for a national transport strategy to unite the many fragmented transport policies in England.

Each of these policies is a failure of purpose, delivery, and outcomes. More of the same will not solve the country’s problems.

Even as fossil fuel-powered vehicles become less available, and the cost of private vehicles soars, people will still need to travel.

They’ll need to get to work, school, to hospital and doctors’ appointments, and to see friends and family. The government can’t sentence a vast part of the country to isolation.

Simply put, universal access to public transport is a prerequisite to the government’s ambitions on levelling up and net zero.

Without it, neither regional equality nor a just transition to net zero will be possible.

How can infrastructure help deliver a universal public transport obligation?

People need to be able to trust their local transport. Road and rail infrastructure must be in good enough condition – and supply – for services to operate reliably and without interruption.

At present, this isn’t the case.

Highways are in steady decline

Little has changed since the Beatles sang about “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” all those decades ago.

After years of systematic under-funding, the nation’s roads are in decline.

The strategic road network in England is ageing and requires significant renewal to meet the country’s needs.

Railways are at risk

Reportedly, Network Rail’s funding for the next five-year period won't be enough to maintain the network and allow services to continue to operate at current, already struggling levels.

This will likely mean less reliable or reduced coverage between 2024 and 2029.

Furthermore, schemes that could increase the number of stations on the network are tied up in the Department for Transport’s Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP).

How can a universal public transport obligation help address regional inequality?

“The purposes that any planned infrastructure is designed to address must be clear.”

So said the ICE’s 2022 submission to the Transport Committee’s inquiry on the Integrated Rail Plan.

Any infrastructure strategy should be equally clear about the outcomes it will achieve, who will benefit, and why any particular infrastructure is the best approach to get those outcomes.

When shaping a national transport strategy, it’s important to remember the end goals – the positive economic, educational, and social outcomes that better access to public transport can help achieve.

But the levelling-up agenda remains poorly defined and apparently associated infrastructure plans struggle to articulate how they will benefit communities.

The ICE has already encouraged the government to provide more detail about how infrastructure investment will contribute to levelling up, including detailed outcomes and measures for success.

Universal, equal access to public transport is one such benefit. A clearly articulated universal public transport obligation would provide one benchmark to assess policy against.

How can a universal public transport obligation support net zero?

The ICE also advocates for clearer alignment between levelling up and net zero.

If electric and hydrogen-cell vehicles are to replace the 30 million fossil fuel-powered cars and vans currently on the road, the country needs the electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure to accommodate them.

Phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to achieve net zero. But millions of people won’t be able to use their fossil fuel-powered cars when this happens. How will they get where they need to go?

As well as the lack of charging infrastructure, the nation faces challenges in generating and distributing enough clean green energy to sustain equivalent EV usage.

We must boost public transport access nationally before we reach this crisis point.

What barriers do we need to overcome to achieve universal public transport access?

No national strategy means no defined outcomes, no coordinated delivery to achieve them, and no accountability for their success or failure.

Universal public transport access is the aim that national transport policy needs, so that all the plans and programmes can be set to meet it.

Remarkably, as we have seen so recently, major projects such as HS2 have gone ahead in the absence of any national framework.

Meanwhile, local projects are subject to full examination under the Treasury’s Green Book rules and must compete for scarce funding.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s September 2021 report, Infrastructure, Towns and Regeneration, argued the UK should “pivot away from a reliance on centrally controlled pots of money for which councils must compete”.

“…levelling up cannot be done from Whitehall,” the report states. “Local councils need to be empowered to deliver and held accountable for doing so.” Put simply, government funding must be simple and accessible.

Until this funding regime changes, local authorities will face barriers to delivering the infrastructure their communities need, and universal public transport access will be inhibited.

What can engineers do to encourage a universal public transport obligation?

As engineers, we can call attention not only to current access inequalities, but also the looming threat of isolation that so many people will face in a post-fossil fuel era if reliable universal public transport isn’t provided.

We can suggest changes to organisational cultures and processes that can address the issues that stand in the way.

We can be the community that gives voice to the need for universal public transport access that’s growing more urgent each day.

Public transport has to be everywhere. People need it.

People can't take jobs if they can’t get to them. They can't learn new skills if they can’t access education. They can’t stay healthy if they can’t access healthcare.

Levelling up means reconnecting the disconnected.

A universal transport obligation will do this and more, ensuring people are better connected as we move towards a future in which we as a nation also have to meet net zero.

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  • Chris Longley, Fellow at Institution of Civil Engineers