Saturday, 3 August 2019

If I was on the citizen's assembly for Cambridge transport ...

The Greater Cambridge Partnership did not get a clear message from the survey they ran earlier this year so now they are running a citizen's assembly. I thoroughly approve - if done well a citizen's assembly allows for a representative panel of ordinary people to hear evidence from a range of experts and consider a topic in depth. Transport is a complex problem because different people have different needs and it is hard to satisfy everyone. Using your own car is always going to be more convenient if you have one - as long as the traffic is actually flowing rather than in gridlock. I would want to see evidence for solutions that will bring benefits to most people at least some of the time.

I believe the invites have gone out and I have not got one so I won't be able to take part. However, if I were, this is what I would like to discuss while on the panel.

Congestion and air pollution are not the whole problem.
The first thing is to appreciate the problem. The GCP lists congestion and air pollution as the main issues but I think it is important to consider climate change and equity too. Any solution that fixes the first two but not the last two is not a sustainable solution.

Many people cannot drive, and not by choice.
The world looks very different for a driver than a non-driver and we don't all choose which we want to be. If you can't afford a car then you probably can't afford to live near the city either so you are forced to use public transport rather than cycle. This also limits your options for where you can work. Non-drivers are not evenly spread through the population (Data from [1]):
  • More young people are non-drivers: A third of 21-29 year olds do not have a licence compared to 13% of 50-59 year olds
  • Men are more likely to have a licence than women in every age group. Among 50-59 year olds, women are twice as likely to be non-drivers as men (17% compared to 9%).
Wouldn't it be great if ours was the first generation where as we grow older we do not regard having a car as an essential requirement for happiness and status?

Moving cars out of Cambridge does not fix climate change and penalises non-drivers.
If congestion and air pollution were the only issues, then a (relatively) easy solution would be to move employment centres out of Cambridge, and develop satellite business/retail parks instead. However, this does not work for climate change, because we would end up with more car use, rather than less - only the cars would not be going to Cambridge. This would make it even harder for the non-drivers, too - unless the new business parks were much better served with public transport than they are now.

Improving public transport is generally popular, but less so among drivers.
The GCP survey [2] found very good support for improving public transport. However this support was more moderate in people who drive to work than in those who cycled or already used public transport. This suggests that most drivers expect to continue to drive even if the public transport was improved.

A pollution charge was slightly more popular than the other charging options - but this does not fix congestion.
Opinions were very mixed about options to discourage use of cars. The most popular was the pollution charge (21% first choice), but the air pollution problem is less critical than the congestion one; Cambridge is not perfect but is way down the list of cities with pollution problems. There are a few places such as near the bus station where pollution is marginally above the limit [3] but other cities such as London, Leeds, Doncaster and Maidstone are twice as bad [4]! A pollution charge does not fix the congestion problem if it still allows low emission vehicles in. Over time (hopefully) all vehicles will be low emission vehicles. On the other hand if we can fix congestion we will go a long way to fixing air pollution too.

The other choices were very close in (un)popularity: 17% for a congestion charge (to be applied at busy times), 15% for a workplace parking levy and 15% for physical restrictions. Whatever the council chooses, there are going to be a lot of disgruntled drivers.

There has to be a reasonable alternative. What does a reasonable bus service mean?
If you currently drive into Cambridge, how can we persuade you otherwise? There has to be a reasonable alternative. I would like to see evidence from other places where car travel was restricted and how people adjusted. If they chose buses or trains – what sort of service do they have? How frequent do they run, how far do you have to work from home, how reliable? Then - can we have this in Cambridge please, and if not now, when?

Would the proposed service keep the traffic flowing even on bad days?
We need to set a target for how many fewer cars. That gives us an idea of the increase in capacity we need for the other modes. It must be possible to model this, and demonstrate that it will work. To be convincing, I should like to see a baseline model too, of the current system with its failures including frequent gridlock. Then I would want to see the equivalent model of the proposed system and see how it performs on bad days as well as good ones. Does it keep the traffic flowing even on the bad days?

Imagine: reliable journey times, more green spaces and safe places for children to play.
The trouble is, when faced with the prospect of not being able to use your car, you will remember how nice it is on a good day when the traffic is light. Of course public transport is never going to be as convenient for those times. But what about the times when it takes you half an hour to move half a mile because there’s been been an accident on the A14 (again!) To move forward we have to consider the positives too. Can you imagine, not having to allow an extra 30 minutes travel time every day just in case (and still being late more often than not). Imagine, quieter streets, cleaner air, more green spaces (less car parks) and safe places for children to play.

Who will be the ones to switch?
Now to achieve these benefits, some people will have to use public transport instead of cars, but not everyone. So which people? We could share out the pain equally by excluding a different set of cars each day, perhaps based on your licence plates, like is done in some cities to limit pollution [5]. Or it could be based on need: for example Cambridge Assessment allocates car parking spaces to staff based on what alternatives are available for their journey [6]. If we rely purely on market forces we will get something related to need but modified by the ability to pay. How high would the charges have to be, to achieve the target level of switching?

What about parents with small children, people with disabilities.
Finally, I would want to hear about all the options, and how they would affect different people, not just commuters. I would want to hear from parents with small children and people with disabilities, I would want to consider trips to school, to work, for shopping, to visit the doctor or the hospital, to meet up with friends in the town centre at the weekend. I would want to hear from retail businesses in the city – how will their customers get there? Are there innovative options for meeting these needs, especially the journeys that are not every day. What about car clubs? What about taxi tokens?

We need to shape our expectations to be reasonable.
This many seem unreasonably complicated, but I cannot see a way to move forward without a vision for a viable solution that fixes the whole problem. (Accepting this may not happen all at once). Sticking plasters are not sustainable. We all need to understand the benefits, as well as the inconvenience and ensure that these are shared fairly - though not necessarily equally. We need to appreciate that what we have now is not acceptable and learn what would be reasonable instead.

[1] Transport Statistics Great Britain 2018 table NTS0201
[2] Choices for Better Journeys (Greater Cambridge Partnership) April 2019
[3] Cambridge City Council Air Quality Action Plan 2018 - 2023 (Cambridge City Council)
[4] Pollution map reveals unsafe air quality at almost 2,000 UK sites (Guardian) Febn 2019
[5] Car pollution in cities - do number plate schemes work? (BBC) 2016
[6] Why a workplace parking levy is the best way to cut rush hour traffic in Cambridge (Cambridge News) June 2019

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