Governing the transport transition

In our third letter to Pat Ritchie, we examine the bidding system for transport projects. We also look again at council responsibility and local decision-making. Over the last couple of months, we have written two letters to Pat Ritchie, the Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council. The letters discussed council responsibility, budget transparency, working with civic society, climate change and sustainability, and costs and savings:

  1. First letter Working together for a successful outcome requires accountability
  2. Second letter What is the price we pay for our transport system?

So far, we have established that for the council to succeed in creating a fair transport system for the city, they need to identify, actively seek out and collaborate with their policy partners. This is particularly important as Newcastle has transport policies that prescribe a transition away from private car use, which is just as well as many households in Newcastle do not even have access to a car and many journeys made by car are only short – put this together and you see that there is great potential for Newcastle. The council needs all the help it can get to make this transition calmly, smoothly and efficiently. We also discussed the wider picture: building cycling infrastructure pays off economically, for the individual and for society.

Now we turn our attention to transport policy and procedures. Current transport modelling is inadequate when bidding for transport investment from Department of Transport (DfT) as it fails to give weight to a mode-shifting active transport transition.

  • Models are exclusive of many public health, environment, and social costs and
  • are incomplete as they use over-simplified determinants such as “saved journey time”. These are not describing the real world.
  • In addition, they don’t model a full/useful network effect but often only look at one junction – this will simply result in “pushing the problem down the road”.

In fact, when it comes to transport modelling systems (for appraisal of new schemes), they are skewed towards car use, building roads and subsidising driving and parking. Many academics have pointed out the flaws in this system, including Dr Rachel Aldred, Prof David Metz and Prof Geoff Vigar.

Dr Aldred looks at the details and unpicks traffic/transport modelling into its component parts. She outlines in more detail how the process could be updated here. Planners must firstly identify a sensible core cycle network (and then “stick to it”, being serious about its development in planning terms) and secondly incorporate cycling in transport models which model modal shift. Dr Aldred also summarises the technical aspects: time, money and routes and traffic flow and junctions.

Prof Metz points out that a true transport choice (and change) is badly represented in current models. In his book Peak Car he argues that there is one true constant in transport behaviour and that is travel time. It is the ease of driving that expanded our travel distance, enabled through scattered land use planning and motor-centric highway engineering. The good news is, we planned ourselves into car dependency and we can plan ourselves out of it. But to do this we need supporting appraisal and evaluation processes. You can read more in Prof Metz’s book Peak Car and on the Peak Car website here.

Prof Vigar, like many of his colleagues, makes the point that the prevalent ‘predict and provide’ paradigm only really favours the car, and hence marginalises other legitimate and cleaner transport modes like walking, cycling and public transport. Two of Prof Vigar’s books that discuss the subject and the changes that are needed are The Politics of Mobility and Town and Country Planning in the UK (2014 edition).

Despite the lack of DfT leadership and a clear shortfall of the national system to model, predict and invest in favour of a transport transition away from car use, there is still much that could be tackled at a local level. For that to happen, it would need a very strong, decisive and informed council. One that is willing to be critical, learn from past mistakes, advocate what they preach (saying “we want people to cycle”) by making implemention plans for their transport-transition policies.

We don’t see convincing signs of this yet in Newcastle. Politicians and officers need to support each other to develop the skills and knowledge required to make this change. They also need to work with stakeholders who support their policies.

Dear Pat Ritchie

Our council states that it wants a less car-focussed transport system. As you will know, many do not drive in Newcastle and many more do not even have access to a car. These residents need your support. What’s more, many journeys made by car in our city are short, clearly showing that viable alternatives are currently not readily available.

Presently the council seems unable to engage adequately with civic society in the decision-making process. Big decisions are often taken without the council even informing us, the stakeholders. We argue that this process is completely against the council’s ethos of nurturing civic society and seeking civic society to influence, co-produce and affirm a vision for the city. Here is an example of how the current system is failing:

In 2010 the engagement for the new local plan (Core Plan 2010-2030) begins. The Core Plan comes with discussion documents and also documents whose function is much less clear, like the Integrated Delivery Plan (IDP). The council seeks comments from a wide range of stakeholders but it is not exactly clear what documents the council is asking stakeholders to comment on. We voice our technical and procedural concerns on many occasions throughout the process, one example can be seen here. There is no acknowledgement from the council – newcycling does not even get a receipt let alone an outline of how our comment is going to be used by the council. It might be worth noting that since 2011 we have repeatedly queried council’s sincerity in wanting to fully engage with stakeholders and have asked for this to be scrutinised.

Fast-forward to March 2015 and the Core Plan (still called Core Plan 2010-2030) is approved albeit following a rather justified challenge over new housing numbers, and a subsequent reduction in housing numbers. We will fully appraise the contents of the Core Plan next year; we are going through it in more detail at the moment. Suffice it to say at this stage, despite a few worrying transport plans (Quayside link and new access road to name a couple) the Core Plan should be commended: it clearly mandates Newcastle to transition away from the car and even has a strong spatial plan for the Urban Core. However, there remains much doubt over the status of its accompanying documents. Particularly as some – the IDP comes up again in this context – now speak about the creation of a Northern Access Corridor for motor traffic using debunked principles of “smoothing traffic flow” and “improving junction capacity” (see preamble above).

On 23 February 2015, Cabinet receives a report called “Getting around Newcastle” presented by the Planning Department. The report is about the impact of the new housing developments on transport and how to determine developers’ contributions (CIL and S106). We are left wondering what “improving the key corridors” actually means. We are worried about community engagement. Old mantras like “smoothing traffic” come up again. Despite walking and cycling being described as priorities in relation to new developments in the Core Plan, there are only very weak nods towards walking, cycling and public transport in this document.

Then on 25 November 2015, we see that another report has been submitted to Cabinet. It’s called “Strategic Highways Study” and reads like a charter for road building. It talks of widening the carriageway (JMP report) and totally marginalises cycling, walking and public transport. The report is a follow-up to “Getting around Newcastle”. It does not acknowledge the Strategic Cycle Routes or requirements for dedicated cycle space on main road corridors (space re-alloaction). This would appear contrary to the Core Plan policy of mode shift and is a result of council processes: some transport planners are still designing for cars and cars alone.

In summary

  1. We question the suitability of the council’s land-use and transport planning processes for the task ahead. They would appear to be counter-productive; holding on to old-fashioned modelling, appraisal and prediction procedures which work against local needs and Core Plan policies of mode shift.
  2. Big decisions – like the creation of the so-called Northern Access Corridor – totally bypass stakeholder engagement, despite these decisions having a huge impact on local lives for year to come, our mobility, localised economy, quality of wellbeing and public health. If we want a vibrant engaged and interested civic society the council can’t continue to make big decisions behind closed doors.
  3. The Strategic Cycle Routes (SCRs) must be given greater status in spatial planning policies. We suggest, having failed to include the SCRs in the Core Plan, that the council now urgently draws up a Supplementary Planning Document mapping the location of the SCRs and their design quality (based on Sustainable Safety requirements).
  4. In the context of points 1 – 3, we would like to see a Network Management Plan with space for cycling and cycle movements included in it.

We urgently need to bring our transport planning procedures into the 21st Century to build a 21st Century transport system and a modern, competitive and progressive Liveable City. Newcastle is currently being left behind. In light of this, we ask you to please review current procedures. We are here to help and support, as much as we can. We look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you for taking the time.

Katja Leyendecker
Chair on behalf of Committee

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