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National Parks can do for rural transport what mayors are doing for travel in cities

Alistair Kirkbride
25 October 2019
 

So how about National Park Authorities taking on strategic transport responsibilities? Welcome to the recommendations of the Glover review into National Parks and protected landscapes. The Government-commissioned review, led by journalist Julian Glover, proposes the most fundamental shake-up of England’s national parks since the 1949 Act that led to their establishment. As well as highlighting a whole load of issues around how people access and move around National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), there is plenty in there to turn the heads of transport professionals.

This comes on the back of the three Local Sustainable Transport Fund programmes in National Parks (the Lake District, New Forest & South Downs). All led to significant shifts in visitor travel behaviour – estimated at 14 per cent mode shift from car in the Lake District. More significantly, they demonstrated that when the primary user groups are visitors or locals-at-leisure, the who, how and what in relation to designing and delivering transport can be very different to normal. Glover suggests taking this further by recommending a pilot whereby the Lake District National Park Authority is provided with more strategic powers over its transport system. Indeed, this could be seen as a logical next step following the LSTF programmes.

There are a number of themes and ideas pervading the review that will be familiar to the transport profession. Firstly, who are the user groups? It has been well understood for some time that the profile of visitors to National Parks does not represent that of the population at large. Under-represented groups are “children and young people; Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities; people with health conditions and disabilities”. 

An implicit question is whether – and if so, how – this is related to the parks’ transport systems. Is it to do with the way National Parks and their attractions are accessed and presented? Is it nothing more complex than the relatively high cost of getting to and around National Parks, meaning that visiting them just doesn’t hit the radar for a lot of people? If this is the case, then shouldn’t a priority be to look strategically at reconciling the key purpose of access-for-all in National Parks with how access and transport is designed and delivered? 

A key theme throughout the review relates to the role of National Parks in promoting health and wellbeing. There are clear parallels with active travel in terms of the challenge. This also means – though it is not made explicit – that the role of the car in National Parks needs questioning.

And so back to the question of who is best placed to have responsibility for transport. Glover says that National Park Authorities (NPAs) “…are well placed to take on an active role in coordinating and promoting transport. They are the bodies best placed to communicate with visitors, and to have a single strategic vision.” Indeed, this was demonstrated well through the three LSTF programmes. The integration of transport planning and spatial planning – the latter a responsibility already held by National Park Authorities – would not only make for better transport, but would lead to better specified and appropriate services for residents and businesses. 

For those National Parks that involve multiple transport authorities, it would also provide a spatial coherence and consistency of transport strategy, policy and service provision over the park area. The LSTF National Park programmes also demonstrated the opportunities for capturing visitor revenues to support services that (also) worked for residents, as well as nurturing new types of services.

From a transport perspective, National Parks are not a lot different to cities in that they generally cover a well-defined and coherent area and there are fairly clear movement patterns (over time and space) within them. Overlay on this the fact that when people are visitors they tend to be far more open to travelling differently to their daily norms, and the potential for National Parks to present far more progressive transport and mobility propositions starts to emerge. Maybe they should start looking at twinning arrangements with the more progressive feeder metropolitan areas?

Is translating Glover’s proposal to design and pilot a park-wide low-impact, high quality, affordable and fair transport system too far-fetched? The emerging discussions around a zero carbon Peak District and the forthcoming Lake District conference are both openly considering such an ambition. Put another way, who wouldn’t like a National Park that had a future-ready integrated, responsive, affordable transport system? Place your bets on what a serious economic appraisal would show of such as system compared to the current car free-for-all. 

In short, and taking Glover and the LSTF programmes together, there is a strong case that National Parks can set new norms in low impact, high quality, fair mobility systems that are fit for the mid-21st century. This would need certain responsibilities to be transferred to the NPAs, probably involving use of the Bus Services Act with bespoke flexibility in regulation and licensing. This would allow not only for the specification of appropriate services but would create conditions for innovation and the nurturing of new models of service. NPAs would require extra resources (expertise and funding). 

The benefits of reducing the impacts of traffic on protected landscapes is well understood, and so the sentiment as well as specifics of the Glover review are welcome in terms of providing new impetus for progressive and radial solutions. 

Looked at the other way around, if National Parks can enable their estimated 100 million visitors per year to experience new ways of getting around, they provide a pretty good – and cost-effective – hit rate for changing public attitudes. Like pedestrianisation, National Parks could develop and demonstrate new norms in mobility systems.  

 
 
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