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The transformational power of transport

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and Transport Committee Chair Liam Robinson outline plans to make the Liverpool City Region a leader in transport innovation

Juliana O'Rourke
11 May 2018
Image courtesy of Merseytravel
Image courtesy of Merseytravel
Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram
Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram
LCR is integrating modes to provide easy local journeys. Image courtesy of Merseytravel
LCR is integrating modes to provide easy local journeys. Image courtesy of Merseytravel
Transport Committee Chair Liam Robinson
Transport Committee Chair Liam Robinson


‘If you're talking about transformation and innovation, and the most sustainable options for moving people around, then you're talking to the right people in the right city region,’ says Mayor Rotheram. ‘Talk to other Mayors and no doubt they will claim to be leaders in transport innovation, but we feel we’re leading on many of these issues. For example, there’s a lot of interest in our Bus Alliance model (more of which later), and we really are way ahead with our train network.’ 

Prior to the Metro Mayor’s election a year ago in May 2017, former Merseytravel chair Liam Robinson (now Chair of the LCR Transport Committee) and his team procured £460 million worth of state-of-the-art rolling stock that is planned to ‘revolutionise the Merseyrail Network’ in terms of both accessibility and speed across the network. ‘We're also planning to integrate the network better, looking at buses using legislation outlined in the Bus Services Act of 2017, although we're a few years away from actual implementation as yet,’ says the Mayor. ‘We also have a keen focus on cycling for short distances and for commutes, and in increasing walkability to public transport hubs. And finally, we’re also looking at buying a new ferry so we can secure the long-term future of cross-river transport.’

Liam Robinson agrees. ‘We’re playing a key role in the Transport for the North agenda,’ he says, ‘and are passionate believers in Crossrail for the north, and also very keen on a new HS2 line linking Liverpool and beyond to Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle. We know that better accessibility will be transformational across the north of England, not only for the movement of people but also, by freeing up capacity on the existing rail network, for freight. Such improvements are vital for the port of Liverpool, and also for rebalancing the economy between London, south-east England and the North, especially as we’re facing the prospect of leaving the European Union.’

Our focus is on the full journey experience, so we are paying attention to all modes, says Robinson. The current Liverpool City Region Local Journeys Strategy aims to allow for all modes to work together, and to boost the potential for increasing sustainable local journeys. ‘Helping people and goods to move around efficiently, cleanly, safely and healthily by the most appropriate mode is an integral element of “placemaking”, hence the importance of this strategy,’ says Robinson. ‘Of course walking and cycling have a vital role to play, but a successful strategy is not about offering a binary choice between these and other forms of local transport, it is about striking the right balance and supporting better choices across the LCR.’  This includes provision for a cycling network, but there are other initiatives that feed into the wider strategy, for example the Liverpool City Centre connectivity plan, which will focus on making walking and cycling the first choice for short journeys in the city centre. ‘This is partly due to environmental reasons, for example the wish to decongest the city centre and improve air quality, but we also know it will give the city centre a real economic boost; enabling more people to drop into shops and restaurants, and spend more money within the leisure economy. The city centre is the engine of the Liverpool City Region economy and we’re really working hard to make this happen on the ground,’ says Robinson.

Sustainable modes first

In common with other city regions, decongesting the city and moving away from car dominance is always a complicated and challenging ask, especially outside the city centre. Evidence suggests that Liverpool is doing better than most, at least until 2013: car use in the city centre was going down, while bus patronage is rising. ‘We recognise that car travel is always going to be an important means of getting people around for certain types of journey,’ says the Mayor, ‘but our focus is on making travel by sustainable modes easy, and therefore the first choice. We want to ensure that public transport is seen as a better option than car travel, and we are already achieving this with our bus network.’ 

The number of bus journeys young people are making in the Liverpool City Region has risen by 142% in the last three years, largely as a result of keeping fares low. The LCR Bus Alliance, a partnership with operators including Merseytravel and Arriva, has delivered more than £25m worth of investment to attract more people to bus travel. Key initiatives include a modern bus fleet, smart ticketing, Wifi and USB charging on all new buses, and easier changing between rail and bus services. ‘The Young Person’s accessibility project means that young people’s fares are now available until the age of 19. We’re one of the few places outside of London that has been able to offer this,’ says Liam.

‘We’re not anti-car, we support decent and affordable public transport that offers a usable alternative to people who use cars. Changing the culture and the mindset of people is really important; as important as providing viable alternatives. In London, people have become accustomed to using public transport as the norm, and it may well take a while before we can embed public transport use into the psyche of people across the Liverpool City Region,’ says the Mayor. ‘But, as Liam outlined, the exponential growth in the number of young people using buses shows that we got the services and the offer right. So we’re currently picking apart all our policies to see if we can squeeze some growth in public transport usage, with people seeing the services as viable and attractive alternatives.’

A new start

As LCR develops policy in future, it’s going to be evidence-based, says the Mayor. ‘We’re looking at every single strategy to widen the range of  transport options. We’ll be working with the universities to enable this to happen with some academic rigour.’ This is not a criticism of what happened in the past, he says, it’s simply the fact that we’ve never before had the opportunity of six districts working together. This is a real fresh start for 1.5 million people coming together to work collaboratively. Plus, we have buy-in electorally from national government supporting the regions in a way I’ve never seen before in my lifetime. Some of what we're talking about may take a long time to come to fruition but, on the other hand, our new trains will be in service by the end of next year.’ Work to restructure the bus network might take a few years, he adds, as might the delivery of the new ferries, especially as the region is working to create a supply chain that’s as local as possible. ‘But these changes will be transformational for the region; they are already noticeable and there’s already an excitement about what is happening now, never mind what will happen in the next five years.’

Transformational change

Things are really changing across the region, says the Mayor, and he has noticed a new sense of civic pride developing. ‘The changes around the Waterfront and the streetscape are part of this, but mainly it’s that people are beginning to be much more aware of their surroundings than they have been previously, and are also becoming very proud of the Liverpool brand. Internationally that is a great asset for us. So we’re pulling all this together like a jigsaw. According to The Guardian, the deal secured by the Liverpool region is comparable with other city regions. It is set to receive £900m from Government over 30 years, the same as Greater Manchester, and only slightly less than the West Midlands. The amount that Liverpool has secured per head of population amounts to £590, with only Tees Valley, with £674 per head, obtaining a better deal from London, notes The Guardian. And whereas other regions, for example The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, have had 30 years to work together, LCR has had only 34 months since devolution, and 12 months since the election. ‘In that time, we’ve made huge progress,’ says the Mayor.

This progress revolves around inclusivity. LCR has been developing an air quality strategy, including looking at some of the regions’s more challenging areas, where poor air quality is causing heart and respiratory disease. ‘We see how this has a knock-on effect on local and National Health Services and, while LCR may not see a direct payback from investing in air quality, UK PLC will, from improved health outcomes, says the Mayor.’ We see clearly that all these issues are integrated; that public transport is part of health policy and youth policy.’

Towards innovation

When Steve Rotheram become Mayor, he made a series of pledges that included improving the region’s physical and digital infrastructure. In relation to transport, intelligent mobility, spatial planning, smarter travel and innovation, for example around autonomous and connected vehicles. LCR has a rich science and innovation legacy. The LCR4.0 initiative, for example, is an ERDF-funded project  that supports SMEs working on technology initiatives such as Sensor City, the Engineering Technology Research Institute of Liverpool John Moores University, the Virtual Engineering Centre of the University of Liverpool and the STFC Hartree Centre  supercomputer. LCR also has valuable assets in the Hibernia link, a transatlantic fibre-optic cable that runs between Southport and Nova Scotia, linking the UK with North America at superfast speeds. ‘We aim to link these assets through our six districts, meaning that we’ll have ultra-fast digital connectivity,’ says the Mayor. ‘This is the sort of infrastructure that governments and large investors are looking at, in terms of developing autonomous vehicles for example, as great communications are fundamental to successful autonomous vehicle deployment. So infrastructurally, we are well ahead of the game.’  We are also in a position, he adds, to develop a tidal project that will give us reliable, clean and green energy for 150 years or more, making LCR more attractive to innovative investors. ‘We need to make sure that we fully exploit our assets to make sure that Liverpool City region is a first choice for inward investors looking to deliver smart projects.’ 

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and Transport Committee Chair Liam Robinson will both be speaking at Smarter Travel LIVE! in October. They spoke with Smarter Travel LIVE! programme director for this article  

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