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Why a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to urban transport investment won’t work

06 July 2022

The UK National Infrastructure Commission’s urban transport report warns against delays to necessary investment.

Why a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to urban transport investment won’t work
Cities like Manchester that have developed public transport systems still rely on cars as the main mode of transport. Image credit: ClimbWhenReady/Shutterstock

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has published a new report on urban transport.

The report’s titled Getting cities moving: adaptive transport solutions for an uncertain future.

It reflects the NIC’s emerging thinking on urban transport planning and investment ahead of the next National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA).

The assessment is due to be released in the second half of 2023.

The report looks at why urban transport networks outside of London need improvement. It also draws links to the government’s ambitions to level up the UK and meet carbon reduction targets.

Here we outline some of the key takeaways and where the report’s findings align with ICE’s thinking.

Improving transport networks is central to levelling up

The report makes clear that transport investment is central to levelling up.

Without it, many of the ambitions outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper may not come to fruition.

The NIC has called for the UK government to develop a pipeline of mass transit networks for urban centres outside London.

It also asked for long-term, stable funding cycles to support fit-for-purpose mass transit systems.

But solutions don’t always need to involve brand new transport projects.

Cities can address congestion, capacity and carbon by making better use of existing infrastructure and using data and technology effectively.

Understanding local needs is essential

ICE recently launched a report on defining the outcomes from levelling up.

In the report, we outlined that investment should be designed and developed to meet specific local needs. Then, it would address issues such as inclusion and accessibility on the network.

The NIC’s report reflects this. It’s clear about the role of local leaders in identifying the changes needed on transport networks.

That way, the networks can better address the needs of people who use them, and indeed, those who want to use them.

The NIC also warns against urban transport planning policies that are geared towards getting people to travel less.

Levelling up should be about making it easier for people to make more of the trips they want to take into cities and towns.

That way, it’d generate economic activity and contribute to improvements in quality of life.

‘Wait-and-see’ won’t work

The NIC has been promoting adaptive approaches to investment in recent years. First, through the Rail Needs Assessment and then, through a report on managing uncertainty.

These adaptive approaches would mean:

  • committing to investment in core projects,
  • giving certainty to stakeholders, and
  • having the possibility of adding further enhancements subject to timeframes, funding and future demand.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on urban transport networks has been significant.

Visits to workplaces in the seven largest cities outside London are still 30% lower than before the pandemic, while future travel patterns are still unclear.

Still, the NIC warns that this uncertainty shouldn’t be an excuse to hold off from investing and improving urban transport networks. It’s not a reason to scale back ambitions.

Long-term challenges need to be addressed

Regardless of the future of hybrid working and its effects, cities are very likely to continue to be important centres.

The UK was seeing increasing population movement into urban areas pre-Covid-19. Congestion levels now remain high.

ICE has explored these issues as part of our work on the ‘new normal’ after Covid-19.

We identified that long-term challenges should still drive infrastructure planning.

These challenges include population growth, carbon emissions reduction and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Demand management needs serious consideration

The report explains that cities need tostep up their efforts to make public transport and active travel more attractive and encourage people to get out of their cars.

But it’s also realistic about the need to manage demand.

Even in cities outside London with well-developed public transport, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, cars are still the main mode of travel.

The NIC outlines several possible demand management measures that can be applied, including:

  • congestion charging
  • clean air zones
  • low traffic neighbourhoods
  • priority lanes for buses and other modes
  • public campaigns to change people’s travel preferences

Aiming for less carbon rather than more revenue

These measures must be designed with the main goal of shifting trips onto lower-carbon and lower-congestion modes. Not just to bring in revenue.

This is something ICE has also warned of, particularly about road user charging systems.

Public buy-in and understanding is vital. In Singapore, a congestion charge was first introduced in 1975. Even now, road user charging isn’t seen mainly as a revenue-generating exercise.

Instead, the public understands that they benefit from less traffic and better air quality.

What’s next?

The NIC will consider the funding needed for transport networks and make recommendations for urban transport planning policy as part of its next National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA).

ICE will continue to engage with members and the NIC in developing the next NIA.

Together, we’ll ensure that it reflects the most important challenges the infrastructure system faces in the decades to come.

Related links

Read ICE’s policy position statement on defining the goals from levelling up.

Read and respond to ICE/APPGI consultation on accelerating delivery of the Integrated Rail Plan.

  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE