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Analysis: Issue 608 26 Oct 2012

A manifesto to make UK urban transport amongst the best in Europe

The UK’s urban transport systems are woeful when placed beside those of comparable European countries, says transport academic and consultant John Whitelegg. His new book explains what needs to be done to bring them up to scratch

Andrew Forster

The UK’s urban transport systems lag behind the best in Europe because our transport policy-makers are too timid, too old and too male-dominated, and don’t have enough cash to spend, according to a new book by John Whitelegg, one of the country’s leading transport and environmental thinkers.

Quality of life and public management covers a wider territory than just transport but the topic inevitably takes centre stage, given Whitelegg’s 40-year transport career spanning academia (currently with the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York); consultancy (managing director of Eco-Logica); and local government (a Green Party councillor on Lancaster City Council from 2003-2011 and deputy chair of the Local Government Association’s regeneration and transport board between 2008 and 2010).

Whitelegg has always taken an international outlook and he spent three particularly formative years in the 1980s as a researcher with the Ministry of City Development, Housing and Traffic for the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia, based in Düsseldorf.

When LTT interviewed him in 2008 he was characteristically blunt in his assessment of UK performance. “Our transport system is a crock of shit,” he said (LTT 27 Jun 08). There is no such language in his new book but he uses a range of comparative data and surveys to make the same basic point. “The UK is the sixth richest country in the world and yet seems to have settled at or near the bottom of European rankings on quality of life, health, child poverty, obesity, recycling, percentage of journeys made by bicycle, the quantity and quality of public transport and many other indicators of social progress,” he laments.

There is, he says, “something out of focus and not quite right in the overall process of thinking, willing and doing in the UK, and the fact that there is evidence of better outcomes elsewhere should ring alarm bells”.

Liverpool, says Whitelegg, serves as “a microcosm of what has gone wrong in UK cities. Its cultural attributes and heritage are first-class… its listed buildings, iconic buildings, fine waterfront and place distinctiveness stand comparison with any European city. [But] it fails on the practicalities around the quality of the public realm, environmental quality and the degree to which it is dominated by vehicular traffic.

“It is difficult and unpleasant to walk and cycle around Liverpool, and decades of local authority prioritisation have given Liverpool ugly car parks, wide roads that are difficult to cross and a lack of permeability for the pedestrian and the cyclist. It feels unpleasant.”

UK policy-makers, Whitelegg believes, “remain fixated on emphasising, perpetuating and justifying the status quo”. Bus policy illustrates the problem. Noting the dramatic patronage growth recorded in London in recent years, he asks why policy-makers have not replicated the capital’s regulated model for the industry elsewhere.

“Success in London is closely associated with a degree of regulation and additional resourcing, but this has not leaked across to Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool or Newcastle, and the absence of a co-ordinated approach to public transport provision in these ‘provincial’ cities is a major obstacle to creating the high quality systems that are taken for granted in Basel, Vienna or Freiburg,” says Whitelegg. “It very much looks as though we do not wish to see good ideas widely adopted.”

He accepts that cultural differences between countries have a part to play in explaining performance. “It is possible that Scandinavian countries, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria have a more robust attitude towards public services and actually believe that politicians should set standards for public services (e.g. buses) rather than falling back on the assertion that the ‘markets will sort it out’.”

But cultural explanations “do not disrupt the fundamental concerns of this book”, namely that the UK lags in performance on key quality of life indicators and that “it is not difficult to identify what should be done to improve our performance”. Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany all experienced a decline in cycling in the 1950s and 60s, like the UK, but they decided to do something about it much more quickly, giving cycling priority in urban and transport planning, he says. “The fact that cycling had been in decline and this decline was then reversed … goes a long way to refute the reductionist argument that cycling in Denmark and the Netherlands is something to do with ‘culture’ and hence is not replicable in the UK.”

Whitelegg believes problems such as poor air quality persist because there is a lack of political will in both UK central and local government to get on top of the problem. Indeed, there is, he says, “active complicity on the part of local authorities to make things worse through the promotion of road building, large new car parks, business and science parks, traffic generation and the extra pollution caused by higher levels of kilometres driven”.

A collective effort

Many of Whitelegg’s solutions come from the left of the political spectrum. “Clearly there is a strong suggestion that countries based on collective, socially progressive and redistributive policies (e.g. Scandinavia) are performing better on inequality than countries pursuing individualistic, low taxation, privatised models of economic and social life, for example the USA and Britain,” he writes. “Indeed, it may be the case that long-lasting transformative change may be achievable only through this more fundamental process [of creating a more equal society].”

Spending on public transport investment and subsidy both need to rise, he says. “In the current UK financial and political climate, arguing for more money to be spent on local government is likely to fall on deaf ears, and yet it is essential if citizens are to enjoy the same high quality of life.”

Too much of the money we do spend on transport goes on the wrong priorities, he believes. “Spending on high-speed trains delivers over £30bn of public money to the top 25% of the population measured by income when similar amounts spent on walking, cycling and Freiburg or Zurich-style public transport systems will benefit everyone. The choice is simple, and on current evidence the decisions being made are wrong.”

Ending the time saving fixation

Whitelegg attacks what he sees as a fixation with time savings and congestion reduction. “The idea that speed is not intrinsically a ‘good thing’ is still a difficult concept for politicians and transport planners in spite of the very clear analysis by David Metz [of University College London] showing that time savings are quite simply consumed by increased distances travelled,” he says. “It would make a useful thought experiment to imagine what the built environment would look like if the concept of time savings having a monetary value were deleted and no longer formed a part of transport, spatial and land-use planning and project evaluation.”

The book is full of policy recommendations. In Whitelegg’s model city there would, for instance, be 20mph speed limits on every residential road “without associated engineering and with zero tolerance strategy for breaches”. Fully segregated cycle paths would connect residential areas to health and education facilities and employment areas.

Out with the old

So, along with more money, what else needs to change to achieve his vision? Well, Whitelegg says it would help if councillors were more diverse, reflecting the age and gender of the population at large. Too many are men and too many are old, he says, citing 2009 data showing that the average age of an English councillor was 58.8. Older people have less concern about climate change, he says, which “inevitably filters into council debates (where this same group is large) in terms of resistance to policies, strategies and thinking that promote low-carbon scenarios in transport, energy generation and buildings”.

Local authorities also need to be given more power, which will, in turn, attract a higher calibre of individual to stand for power. The Government’s decision to withdraw funding for Merseytravel’s Merseytram scheme in 2005 illustrates the “over-centralisation and overbearing diktat of central government” in the UK, he says. Councils need more sources of finance and more control over those sources, including a local income tax. The two-tier system of districts and county councils should also be abolished to end confusion of responsibilities and a ‘pass the parcel’ culture.

Whitelegg also has a holiday tip for budding transport policy-makers: visit the German city of Freiburg. “Go to Freiburg, spend a week there, and actually experience high-quality outcomes.”

Discuss Transport's place within the Urban Realm, at LTT's Place & Movement conference on the 20 November


l Quality of life and public management – redefining development in the local environment is published by Routledge

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