Barriers to inevitable and urgent change
The cancellation of the new M4 relief road in 2019 marked an opportunity for Cymru to break with the unsustainable transportation policies of the past, especially our chronic over-reliance on cars1. But there are barriers to be overcome before we can even begin seeking appropriate solutions.
The first barrier is the notion that investing in transport infrastructure is essential for economic growth.
While the growth in transport volume has closely followed rates of economic growth in the post-war period, correlation is not causation. As the (UK) Secretary of State for Transport was advised by 32 professors of transport in 2013.2
Recent evidence from the UK and internationally shows signs of road traffic growth leveling (sic) off, even after accounting for lower than anticipated economic growth…which the Department for Transport has never forecast…
…a range of views as to the importance of new transport infrastructure in stimulating economic growth. The evidence base is not as strong as you, or we, might wish it to be.
Our service and knowledge-led economy should not be assumed to be as tightly coupled to road traffic for its success as it once might have been. [emphases added]
As Lang (2016) stated3…
There remains a lack of robust methodological approaches to conclusively prove the link between transport investment and social and economic outcomes.
The second barrier is that economic growth, elusive and limited though that has often been, and in a form that has massively undermined our life support systems, cannot continue without catastrophic consequences for all life on Earth. And, as Berners-Lee reminded us, There is No Planet B4. It is essential that we re-focus locally and internationally on other opportunities for growth – personal, social, cultural – and leave gross material consumption behind5. Conventional economic growth has spectacularly failed to bring about equitable outcomes for all. Rather, it is designed to concentrate wealth and is very successful in doing so in capitalist-style economies. Agrowth6 is the future.
The third barrier, and possibly the most difficult to overcome, is the extreme reluctance of elites in all countries to accept that Business as usual is no longer an option7. Many of the powerful have major investments in what are likely to become stranded assets – the coal, oil and gas industries being the most notable examples – and will resist change. Many large companies are becoming dinosaurs, unable to change fast enough to contribute to solutions, thus remaining parts of the problem.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the latter trend. While the UK Government calls for opening schools and businesses, and the resumption of business as usual, parents and workers are reluctant to risk their families in pursuit of goals that now seem irrelevant and foolhardy. A Royal Society of Arts survey indicated just 9% want everything to go back to how it was before the pandemic8. Change is in the air.
Many have enjoyed working from home, the greater contact time with their families, their gardens (if privileged to have one) and their own space. Meanwhile, their vehicles are now stationary even longer than the 96% of the time that was the case prior to the virus. Having one’s own car is now even less of an economic proposition.
Public transport ridership, on which its viability rests, was reduced by more than 80%, and will remain relatively low for years. Some networks may not recover and disappear entirely should further waves of the virus occur. Airlines and international tourism are on life support, heavily subsidised by governments unable or unwilling to read the writing on the wall.
In this wholly changed environment, what might we then do to ensure access to employment, goods, services and information, if not the levels of mobility that car-using households have become accustomed to?
The final barrier is a conceptual one. With our fixation on the glamour of technology (SUVs, e-bikes), we are inclined to forget that transportation is merely the means to an end (the trip-purpose). Too often, safety and environmental impact, for example, are overlooked, and we are blinded by slick advertising and bright colours. We need to remind ourselves that cars are the least-efficient and most damaging form of transportation that has ever been mass-produced, whatever their power source.
We need to be asking more fundamental questions. How necessary are our trips? How often do we need to travel to our desired destinations? This may be a vain hope while the marginal cost of a trip remains so low (and lower with e-cars) and journeys are heavily subsidised by free-to-use roads and by the natural and human environment.
Our transportation sector is uniquely vulnerable to a large set of recent and plausible future threats. We should be downscaling our dependence on transport and the exposure of our economy to it. The direction of future policy should therefore be clear – lower standing costs and higher costs in use, with public transport free or near-free. In the longer term, we will probably decide that the resource and societal costs of high mobility are unaffordable.
Starting with a relatively clean sheet, there is much we should do now. First, we should secure full devolution of all transport and land use planning powers to Cymru. It is obvious that we would be better placed to resolve planning (and all other) issues as an independent country. We should then start with…
…a coherent and integrated national policy framework for passengers and freight.2
That framework should focus on safety, access (not mobility), efficiency, equity and affordability and apply those criteria to all modes. New thinking is required…
Planners should recognise that all transportation sits at a nexus between people and the environment. All networks should be landscaped and well-maintained, especially walkways and cycleways, with trees and plants providing fruits and nuts for wildlife and travellers, flowers and visual beauty. Walking should become an aesthetic experience, travel should be enjoyable. The hard masculine environments of rail and bus stations need to become more comfortable for women to feel safe and be in. Engineering needs to become more people-friendly, without losing its function and safety priority.
Homes and workplaces
One lesson from the pandemic is that we should install ultra-speed broadband in all homes and promote homeworking. In Cymru there are still areas where broadband is non-existent or much too slow. Computer-based homeworking has major potential for boosting productivity, innovation and employment in local areas – if there is fast broadband. A recent New Zealand study showed that…
…73% of people were “equally or more productive” when working from home, and 89% wanted to continue post-lockdown, at least part-time9.
We should therefore discourage urban centre growth in favour of creating decentralised activity centres. The dominance of our mini-London-on-the-Taff, a purported growth pole, has done little for the rest of Cymru, its commuters sucking the life out of what have become dormitory suburbs in the Valleys. Commuting is a waste of time, energy, money and effort, and is unsustainable.
To further reinforce this inevitable trend, we should reduce the number of carparks in urban centres, parking buildings, private carparks and public facilities by 10% every year for at least 5 years and use the space released for landscaping, cycle parking and public amenity. Peak traffic flows are largely driven by the availability of relatively cheap parking in urban centres. All-day parking should be reduced substantially, but short duration parking costs should be prohibitive.
Transportation networks and fleet sizes are generally designed to meet peak demand – usually the AM peak hour – at consequentially high cost. This results in underutilisation of investment at off-peak times, that is, the bulk of the week. Peak fares are an attempt to offset those extra costs. However, commuting is only 26% of all movement. Changing the nature and location of employment will tend to flatten demand and prompt more modest resource requirements overall. Similarly, the 24 hour economy, probably more focused on entertainment and leisure, would assist in spreading costs over more of the day in major centres.
The function of urban centres has been changing rapidly. Identikit High Streets, currently dominated by bland chain stores, betting, charity and coffee shops, estate agencies, with a sprinkle of hairdressers and newsagents, offer a poor-quality retail and lifestyle experience. They have become worn and dull environments, with grime and graffiti up the side alleys. Usually with no canopies, seating or public toilets, facilities for elderly people especially are lacking. This must change.
Reliance on ‘anchor’ stores has proved to be a short-term illusion. Loss of local ownership of premises to rentiers has loosened the long-term relationships of retailers with residents. Communities in a region should work together to regain those freeholds and promote cooperative and healthy businesses firmly rooted wherever they operate. Derelict buildings should be recovered for community use, including redundant halls, churches and chapels as rehearsal and performance spaces.
High Streets should become unique destinations that express local character. Covered and other outdoor space should encourage lingering, social interaction, culture (art, music, poetry), nature and beingness. Quality places and experiences should replace the emphasis on footfall. While designed to promote local enterprise, the revived town centres would also attract significant carriage trade. Arberth/Narberth is an outstanding example, with flourishing galleries, unique shops and excellent restaurants.
Online and home-delivery retail will largely defeat the traditional department stores and the multitude of clothes shops. Suburban and out-of-town supermarkets may find their product range contracting to mostly non-perishable goods.
A developing preference for fresh and locally produced food should bring about a resurgence of fruiterers, craft bakers and butchers. These will be complemented by spare parts and repair service centres, craft and hobby shops, Dutch coffee shops and bars, pop-ups, haberdashers and tailors. But they will not be enough. There will still be many empty shops.
Many rents have become unaffordable, and a major correction in the market is likely. The hedge fund owners of arcades and commercial premises will take a beating and retreat. That should provide an opportunity for presently farm- and home-based enterprises (specialist food, drinks, art, craft etc) to re-enter our towns and villages.
We should devolve and consolidate administration into 4 – 5 regions and develop appropriate infrastructure in regional centres and their hinterlands10. Local government is too small to be effective and fails to attract the necessary talent. Regions would plug the infrastructure gaps and encourage local businesses to increase their range.
Active travel modes
We must revise the Highway Code to give absolute right of way to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs in all shared space (eg. pavements, supermarket carparks, cycleways). Strict liability assumes that in a collision, the driver of the higher-powered vehicle is presumed to be at fault, as is the case in most of mainland Europe. As parents prioritise their children’s safety on every street, strict liability is a pre-condition for the large-scale adoption of urban cycling.
The principle recognises the potential danger that more massive and energised entities present to those who are vulnerable. Powered bicycles, scooters and wheelchairs would give way to their self-powered equivalents, and all would give way to people and people in wheelchairs on pavements and roadways. There must be more people-space, wider pavements and multi-modal cycleways. New homes should be provided with sufficient storage for bicycles and scooters.
We must redress the balance between people and vehicles, and prioritise safety in our planning, design and operations. While very desirable, adopting Vision Zero11 in Cymru would require more
far-reaching changes to the Highway Code, including speed reductions on all roads. Technocrats will often prefer expensive infrastructure however, and tend to downplay such social and legal frameworks.
Cymru should be comprehensively remapped. All routes (plus off-road tracks, roundabouts, geographical features) should be named and signed (and houses visibly numbered). In urban areas, superfluous signage, reckoned to be about 30%, should be removed. Advertising hoardings should be eliminated.
Pedestrianising and greening urban and suburban centres would improve their ambience and reduce air pollution. Switching to less expensive forms of transportation would allow more of our
disposable income to be directed into more labour-intensive sectors, including culture and leisure.
Many existing pavements are uneven, narrow and poorly maintained. Regions10 should have responsibility and funding for upgrading and designing new routes to meet national standards.
While we must recognise that public transport will have lean times until the virus is fully under control if not eliminated, improvements can be planned. We should redesign urban bus routes so they can be utilised as a network with efficient interchanges with all other modes and services. The most frequent bus services operate on commuter routes, and few passengers know much about the rest of the network. Interchange design and maps are often poor. Trams should replace buses on the most heavily used bus routes, and all should be fully accessible (low-floor etc).
Mainline bus and tram services should be complemented by community buses. These can be provided at reasonable cost, and quickly become part of the social fabric in suburbs, villages and towns. On-demand services need have no fixed routes, and act as feeders to mainline routes and to other modes, as well as serving community facilities and services.
Scheduled bus services in mainly rural areas of low population density require heavy subsidies. Community buses are increasingly popular here as well, providing on-demand and lifeline services in remote areas. They should be strongly supported.
Taxis are an undervalued part of the public transport system. They play an important role for non-car owners, providing access to supermarket shopping, for example, and fast access for medical and social purposes. While taxi use may appear extravagant, owning a vehicle is very much more so. Taxis should be utilised more widely to provide skeleton bus services when and where they are more economical than buses.
Urban and inter-urban transport
Steel-on-steel has a massive advantage over rubber on asphalt in energy and efficiency terms. Air, water and soil pollution caused largely by road-based transportation, and especially the hazard of microplastics from tyres, must be much reduced. And…
…the cost of 1km of a motorway lane is about the same as 1km of [heavy] railway track, but the latter has 8 – 20 times the capacity of the former12.
Similar ratios apply to freight13.
We should build low-cost Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs or trams) in Cymru and deploy them widely on-street in cities, towns and their environs. Trams would revolutionise our urban centres, as they have in 600 cities worldwide. Apart from cycling, trams are the most efficient form of urban transportation and are the only viable alternative for those who cannot use bicycles, or when the weather deters them. Trams are congestion-busters. They help reduce air pollution.
Building our own trams (initially using refurbished rolling stock), rolling rails at Port Talbot and manufacturing simplified overhead (OHL) in Cymru would provide an effective solution for our cities and towns currently over-run by cars. The skillsets made redundant by Ford, Airbus and other firms are transferable and should not be squandered. Each operating tram creates 6 – 7 FTE high quality jobs. Cars cannot do this.
As Laconte14 said (1978)…
…light rail offers 90% of the benefits of a subway [or heavy rail] at 10% of the capital cost.
Coupled with a decentralisation and regionalisation strategy, on-road trams (powered by supercapacitors, hydrogen fuel cells, recharging batteries at stops etc) would provide sustainable links where heavy rail would be uneconomic. While a north-south (heavy) rail route wholly within Cymru is a medium-term objective, other intra-regional routes could readily be served by on-road trams sharing roadspace with other traffic.
While new rolling stock for passenger rail in Cymru is a priority (rather than branding), the Metro appears to be an otherwise poorly conceived and extravagant vanity project. It appears that multiple competing objectives and a lack of clarity have led to the extraordinary proposal for tri-motor trainsets and to the loss of toilets on trains.
The Metro has not been helped by the poor decisions made by the UK Government about rail electrification in Cymru which will build in additional cost and long-term diesel pollution. Lower cost options appear to have been ignored. There has been no attempt to accommodate freight.
Tram-train was always a poor choice for the Metro. It is a hybrid that fails to meet the requirements of the different transportation tasks performed by mainline rail and by light rail and is sub-optimal in each role. Tram-train is out of scale for urban streets and will probably be found to be uneconomic and impractical to operate there.
Tram-train should not be conflated with Light Rail (LR), which has entirely different operating characteristics and economics. LR has greater reach and flexibility, and a scale more appropriate to urban environments. As tram-train requires an operating environment akin to that for mainline trains, its value-added for the Metro is difficult to discern.
The objective of growing Cardiff (the much-vaunted Cardiff City Region) at the expense of neighbouring areas was always ill-advised, relying on a ripple effect (formerly the much-discredited trickledown economics) to convince and possibly benefit adjacent authorities. The latter just will not happen. Lang (2016) reported that the impact of the Metro was uncertain3, despite what many proponents claim.
The Metro is dependent on rising ridership which, post-virus, is unlikely to occur. As many city centre offices will become redundant, the scheme may now lack a raison d’être and should be critically reviewed. The fatuous competition for status among many hundreds of cities worldwide should be abandoned.
Cymru should develop indigenous tunnelling expertise to facilitate the straightening of major transportation routes. After rationalising the route west of Cardiff, the mainline to Fishguard should be electrified. It is a false economy not to electrify the whole of the line, though consideration should be given to interchanging with LR west and north of Carmarthen. Passing loops should be added to single track lines.
The railway in Cymru should be nationalised and vertically integrated. Heavy rail (HR) and light rail networks should be independently managed. On-board signalling (OBS) should be specified for all new rolling stock, and trackside signalling phased out except on international routes.
The future for individual and community access will be much improved with enhanced soft mode and public transport options. Shared cars, car clubs and on-demand driverless pods will provide for journeys less amenable to collective means. Car clubs should hold a range of vehicles, appropriate for a range of trip purposes. E-cars should be smaller, lighter in weight and affordable for middle-income earners. Scrappage schemes should be expanded.
All fleets, especially taxis, should be prioritised for replacement with e-vehicles. Grants and tax rebates should be available for e-vans and e-trucks for trade and other commercial sectors.
Rationalisation of our time to focus on being where we are rather than where we aren’t will reduce the amount of time we spend travelling. We will live, play and work more locally. When away from home, longer duration stays will be preferred to city breaks of a couple of nights. Using a travel mode selected to suit the nature of the journey, our travel experience will become safer and more relaxed.
Moves towards national and regional self-sufficiency in many countries will further shorten supply chains for both international and internal freight, already under pressure because of their environmental impact, their distortion of internal markets and the subsidies that exports attract. Moving freight off roads to enhance safety and efficiency would be greatly facilitated by small-scale but widely deployed cross-dock infrastructure at railheads. Road-user charges should reflect the wear caused by heavy commercial traffic.
Light rail routes should also be designed to carry freight. Portcentric logistics based on air and mini-containers would be of an appropriate scale for urban and intra-regional distribution by tram.
Neighbourhood logistics centres in each community9 would coordinate post, parcels and other local deliveries.
The pattern of our highways and rail routes reflect the historic dominance of England and its extraction of Cymrian resources (these days, mostly highly skilled people commuting to Bristol, London and Manchester). These routes are largely east-west. Our future will require good communications between north and south by both road and (heavy) rail wholly within our borders.
Major roads within Cymru should be provided with passing bays and lanes to improve inter-city travel times. Space for tractors, caravans and trucks to pull in would permit faster traffic to proceed with less hindrance. Lay-bys before and after junctions on major roads should provide shelter, lighting, local information, maps and stops for bus and lift share services. Motorways should be downgraded to A roads, to avoid distorting maintenance priorities.
Our country is notably scenic and attractive to visitors, but the lack of safe stopping places on highways restricts our access to it. More viewpoints would allow us to capture that beauty and drama. Such places should provide facilities for travellers – clean toilets and waste receptacles, for example. Major bridges should also have lay-bys at each end. Much better interpretations of place, and of walking and cycle tracks would also enhance our experience of the countryside.
The aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the rapidly oncoming global financial slump and even more threatening, the climate crisis, will change all our societies and cultures in ways we cannot accurately foresee. Our transportation sector is far from being sustainable or resilient. But it is difficult to imagine our decisions-makers having the courage or creativity to initiate the major changes required.
For people and households with an eye on their budgets, the advice must be to decrease routine travel (with homeworking etc), to avoid ownership of petrol and diesel vehicles, to invest in e-bikes, e-scooters and good walking shoes, and to support rail-based public transport. Your safety must become paramount.
As the purportedly Chinese maxim has it, times of change are times of danger and opportunity. Only a fool would ignore the former, compounded as it is by the wholly inadequate international and national political leadership we currently have. The opportunity however is for new leadership, new thinking and new hope. And as Lao Tzu said, the longest journey starts with the first step.
With thanks to Neil Brown.
Rhondda Cynon Taf
- Ifan Morgan Jones, Nation.Cymru 04 June 2019
- Letter from 32 professors of transport to the Secretary of State for Transport 2013 https://bettertransport.org.uk/blogs/roads/210113-profs-letter
- Mark Lang The Right Track? Considering the impact of the Metro 2016 https://www.iwa.wales/agenda/2016/05/the-right-track-considering-the-impact-of-the-metro/
- Tim Berners-Lee There is No Planet B 2019
- Neil Anderson Response to Rachel Sharp Rejecting the M4 Black Route IWA/Click-on-Wales 15 June 2016 https://www.iwa.wales/agenda/2016/06/rejecting-m4-black-route/
- Agrowth – should we better be agnostic about growth? https:///www.degrowth.info/en/2017/03/agrowth-should-we-better-be-agnostic-about-growth/
- Ban Ki-moon Message to Closing Ceremony for the International Year of Biodiversity 2010 https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2010-12-18/secretary-generals-message-closing-ceremony-international-year
- Sue Pritchard Finding the Road to Renewal 2020 https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/04/finding-the-road-to-renewal#
- Eleanor Ainge Roy Vast majority of New Zealanders don’t want to return to office after Covid-19 The Guardian 28 May 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/28/vast-majority-of-new-zealanders-dont-want-to-return-to-office-after-covid-19
- Neil Anderson Bottoms up! How we can reform Wales to put power back into our communities Nation.Cymru 24 May 2020 https://nation.cymru/opinion/bottoms-up-how-we-can-reform-wales-to-put-power-back-into-our-communities/
- Peter Newman, Infrastructure Australia and Curtin University 2011
- Lewis Lesley, pers comm 2014
- Pierre Laconte, former head of UITP 1978
A shorter version of this article was first published by Nation.Cymru as 20 sustainable steps to tackle Wales’ transportation problems on 08 July 2019.