A perspective from the ACT Travelwise Conference 2019

I attended the ACT Travelwise Conference in Birmingham on Wednesday, which was sponsored by SYSTRA, and as someone who started their career working on cycling promotion, but who has spent the last decade involved mainly in rail, it was interesting to see how much the sector has changed over that time, but also frustrating to see that in some respects we’re still facing the same old challenges.

The Campaign for Better Transport’s new Chief Executive, Darren Shirley, gave a useful overview of changes in transport trends, with growth in private car use slowing, a 20% reduction in the number of commuting trips per week, increases in rail patronage and an increase in the age that people learn to drive. However, he made the point that these changes had come about against a background of increases in the cost of rail fares, cuts to bus services and a reduction in driving costs through a freeze on fuel duty that has now lasted nine years. He argued that technology placed us at a crossroads, with electric vehicles, new approaches to shared mobility, and concerns over transport’s contribution to poor air quality placing demands on policy makers that governments – both national and local – had to address proactively if they’re to bring about the shift to more sustainable modes that they claim to want to see.

A concrete example of something that can be done now to bring about real change was illustrated by Dr Rachael Aldred of the University of Westminster. Her work highlighted the demonstrable impact that dedicated cycling infrastructure can have on peoples’ willingness to cycle, through an evaluation of the ‘mini-Holland’ schemes in some of London’s outer boroughs; illustrating the supressed demand for more active modes that the provision of filtered transport infrastructure could unlock.

Some of the interesting and informative presentations I heard included Antonia Roberts from CoMoUK, who highlighted examples of European best practice in the development of shared mobility hubs, which bring together mass transit systems with bike and car clubs, parcel lockers and public information. She echoed a point made in the morning session when she argued that if we are going to make the most of new mobility services we need to raise their profile, by making these hubs attractive and accessible, taking public space away from the private car if necessary.

Toby Thornton of WSP gave an overview of the emerging themes that underpinned the rise of new mobility solutions; such as automated vehicles, connected networks, shared use platforms and electric vehicles, and how new business models which deliver them are blurring the lines between modes (see for example the Arriva Clik service, which is as much a shared use taxi as it is an on-demand bus). He also suggested that 2019 may be the year that we start to see the failure of some high-profile mobility start-ups, following in the wake of the closure of Ford’s Chariot ride sharing service and several dockless bike schemes in UK cities, as the process of innovation and development continues.

The arrival of high-speed rail is likely to be one of the biggest changes in mobility in the UK in a generation. Ian Bruce and Chris Donaldson gave an overview of how SYSTRA have taken the traditional station travel plan concept, which considers how people get to and from a rail station, and have updated it to also look at how visitors can move through new high-speed rail stations and how this would impact on wider considerations of station operation, asset management and revenue generation. This is likely to be especially important given the rise of rail stations as destinations in their own right, with a range of retail and recreational facilities in addition to their core transport offering.

Developing these now, as stations are being designed, should ensure that they provide a world-class customer experience, are socially and environmentally sustainable and well managed to deliver optimum performance. As SYSTRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in the UK, it’s great to see it remaining at the forefront of the development of mobility solutions and innovation.

Perhaps given that we are at a crossroads in the development and delivery of mobility solutions, it should be no surprise that there was no single theme or message that those present could take from the conference. But the one thing that struck a chord most clearly with me was a comment by Dr Rachael Aldred in her morning session, talking about the importance of providing dedicated facilities for cyclists and pedestrians. She said that all infrastructure is cultural, and that it sends messages about who we are and who is important. So long as we only tinker at the edges we shouldn’t be surprised if all we see is modest change, or no change at all. Too often the signals sent via new infrastructure are that it is the motorist that matters the most.

If we are serious about bringing about an active travel revolution, we need to create an environment that makes walking and cycling the natural choice.

 

By Darren Kirkman