What is the Cambridge Sustainable Travel Zone?

On Friday 26 August 2022, the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) announced proposals for a transformational change to the city’s transport network to be developed over the next six years. Camcycle has long supported the principles of congestion charging and ‘demand management’ and we are interested in how this scheme might work.

Here we’ve taken a look at the GCP’s report to investigate the various aspects of the proposals and what it could mean for our area. We have published an initial statement here and will be posting more detailed thoughts on the scheme once we have had a chance to consult in detail with our members.

A new ‘Public Transport and City Access Strategy’ report, published ahead of a meeting of the GCP Joint Assembly, proposes a £50 million upfront investment in bus service improvements and fare reductions. A road charge would subsequently be implemented for travel within a new ‘Sustainable Travel Zone’ and would provide future funding for the bus network and improved infrastructure for walking and cycling.

This report is the next stage in the GCP’s City Access programme which ‘aims to reduce congestion and improve public transport in order to offer people better journeys, as well as reducing air pollution and carbon emissions from transport’.

Map of the proposed Sustainable Transport Zone showing some of the changes that would be seen both inside and outside the zone. The Park &  Ride sites are outside the zone.

What are the main headlines?

Cheaper buses

Under these plans, bus fares would be significantly reduced – a single fare within the City would be £1 and buses into Cambridge from surrounding towns and villages would be £2.

Faster, more frequent and more reliable buses

Longer operating hours are proposed, with buses running from 5am to 1am each day except Sunday with buses running from 5am to midnight. There would be 8 buses an hour on key city routes, 6 buses an hour from market towns and larger villages and hourly services from smaller villages. Scheduled services would run alongside Demand Responsive Transport (bookable services, not restricted by locations or timetables).

Map showing proposals for the future bus network.

A Sustainable Transport Zone across the whole of Cambridge to promote the use of public transport and active travel

The sustainable travel zone has been drawn around the outskirts of the city and links between the park and ride sites. It will allow vehicles to access all the park and ride sites without incurring a charge. The GCP says this new transport zone would cut the number of car journeys within Cambridge by 50%. This would free up space for walking, cycling and public transport as well as allowing for improvements to public space. Car motorbike, and moped journeys would be disincentivised with a £5 charge per day for using the zone between 7am and 7pm on weekdays only. There would be additional charges for other vehicles, LGVs £10 and coaches and HGVs £50. A system of discounts, exemptions and reimbursements would apply to groups including emergency vehicles, blue badge holders, low-income households, some NHS patients and staff, social care workers and zero-emissions, accessible taxis.

More investment in cycling and walking

Additional funding and roadspace is required for future improvements such as those set out in the GCP’s Cycling Plus consultation. The Sustainable Transport Zone could provide both of these, as revenue raised would be used to fund active travel projects as well as buses, and the reduction of car traffic on the roads would free up space for better cycleways and pavements. An estimated £20 million annually will be available for infrastructure investment.

Priority routes for improvement as set out by the Greater Cambridge Partnership in its ‘Cycling Plus’ consultation

When would the Sustainable Travel Zone be implemented?

The full zone would not be in place until 2028. The GCP says it will build up the bus improvements first to ensure that there are ‘reliable, competitive and sustainable alternatives to travelling by car’. This is in line with the recommendations of members of the GCP Citizens’ Assembly who said that ‘improvements in public transport need to come first’.

Proposed timetable

Autumn 2022 Public consultation on the Sustainable Travel Zone and bus improvements.
Spring/Summer 2023 Decision made on detailed scheme and implementation.
Summer 2023
If the scheme is approved, priority improvements to bus services would begin. This would include more frequent buses on existing routes, and additional services to link up with all clinical shifts at Addenbrooke’s and other major employment and education sites.
From 2024 The proposed flat fares would be introduced – £1 for single trips in Cambridge and £2 for single trips in Cambridgeshire.
From 2025 More improvements to the bus network. A peak-time user charge would be introduced for larger vehicles (e.g. LGVs, HGVs, coaches) between 7am and 10am.
From 2026 More improvements to the bus network. Peak-time user charge extended to all vehicles, including cars and motorcycles (exemptions apply).
From 2027/2028 Full bus network in place. Sustainable Travel Zone charge extended to 7am – 7pm (weekdays only).

How would the Sustainable Travel Zone work?

As with other UK charging schemes, the system would mainly work by capturing vehicle details using a series of ANPR cameras. Vehicle data would be checked and a charge, exemption or discount applied as appropriate. Payment would be possible online or by phone and regular users would be incentivised to sign up for accounts to enable quicker payment.

The details on the potential tapered discount (25-100%) for lower income households say it would be designed so that it is accessible to those on low incomes using range of payment methods.

Is the Sustainable Travel Zone supported by the public?

From the consultations already held by the Greater Cambridge Partnership:

  • 95% of respondents to ‘Our Big Conversation’ (2017) supported improving public transport with 66% saying traffic and congestion was their biggest transport challenge.
  • 82% of respondents to ‘Choices for Better Journeys’ (2019) supported the vision to significantly improve public transport. A pollution or flexible road charge were the highest ranked solutions in this survey (chosen as first or second choice by 44% and 36% of respondents respectively).
  • ‘Provide affordable public transport’ ranked top in a list of ideal outcomes developed by members of the GCP Citizens’ Assembly (2019). They ranked closing roads to cars first, followed by a road charge (clean air zone, pollution charge or congestion charge).
  • 78% of respondents to the ‘Making Connections’ consultation (2021) supported the proposals to improve and expand the bus network (with 51% in strong support). 41% preferred a lower charge over a larger area, as opposed to 36% preferring a higher charge over a smaller area (36%). 68% supported reducing traffic as a way to improve walking and cycling.

Will the Sustainable Travel Zone work?

The GCP says that modelling of the proposed plans shows likely results to be:

  • 50% reduction in car trips in the Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ)
  • 40% increase in public transport use in the STZ and the wider South Cambridgeshire area
  • 30% increase in walking and cycling within the STZ
  • 5% reduction in greenhouse gases (note that the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority has a target to reduce car mileage in the whole region by 15% by 2030, compared with 2019 levels, equal to approx. 732 million vehicle miles in total).

There will also be benefits to health:

  • Better air quality will support a reduction in associated deaths and illnesses
  • Over £160m of health benefits due to increase in physical activity from higher levels of walking and cycling.

Research published earlier this year ranked congestion charging as the most effective method for reducing car use in cities.

Is the Sustainable Travel Zone fair?

One of the aims of the Sustainable Travel Zone is to help ‘address social inequalities where poor provision of transport is a contributing factor’. The GCP notes that ‘some parts of Greater Cambridge and the wider travel-to-work area are being held back by a lack of any viable public transport. In some places, people are cut off from opportunities by poor public transport access or walk and cycle connections’.

For those without access to a car, choice and accessibility have been decreasing. In the 2011 census, data showed that a third of households in Cambridge did not own a car, or van and for single-parent families this was 42%. Public transport costs have been rising much faster than the cost of driving since the turn of the century and a quarter of bus services have disappeared in the last decade. Meanwhile, increasing traffic on the roads is often a barrier to walking and cycling.

As part of the new proposals, the GCP commissioned a detailed Equalities Impact Assessment. It concluded that the scheme would result in beneficial effects across most protected characteristic groups, including low-income households. The GCP also held focus groups with young people, disabled people and people on low incomes. All of these groups were unhappy with aspects of the existing bus service and wanted to see improvements to active travel. The GCP says some of the funding from the Sustainable Travel Zone could be used to provide more support for disabled users of public transport and support to access specialist and disabled cycles.

For drivers, a road charge is a more regressive transport measure than road closures, for example, as those on lower incomes bear a higher burden of the cost. However, providing roads for free is also not fair. Free roads could be seen to ‘help’ poorer households, but only after they have made large investments, both upfront and ongoing, in the depreciating assets that are cars. Furthermore, research has shown that people from lower-income groups are more likely to die in car crashes, live near polluted roads and suffer from decreasing levels of activity.

The GCP has recognised that some groups will be less able to switch from driving than others and is proposing a range of discounts, exemptions and reimbursements to address this. It says it will continue to develop details of these exemptions and discounts through the consultation process and will ‘engage with protected characteristic groups through the scheme design to obtain more granular information and create a more detailed understanding of the issues’.

Example concerns:

I don’t have a safe cycle route from my village

In addition to the existing Greenways project, the GCP says new funding would be used to invest in other cycling projects in both Cambridge and the wider area. Existing funding isn’t enough to create all the routes we’d like to see, along with much-needed maintenance and improvements to existing routes. Do contact both Camcycle and the GCP if you have ideas on how routes near you should be improved.

Can I be charged twice in one day for driving in the new zone?

The Sustainable Travel Zone charge is a daily charge. You would only be charged once per day, for example £5 if you are driving a car or £50 for a HGV.

The buses aren’t good enough to get me to work / school / the hospital

If this proposal is approved, improvements to the bus network would start from summer 2023, with a focus on improving frequency on existing routes and delivering new links to Addenbrooke’s and key employment and education sites. The aim is to have good-quality alternatives in place before any road charging begins to be rolled out.

We don’t have enough bus drivers for the existing bus network, let alone one that is double the size

The GCP has factored in a 20% increase in driver wages in recognition of the challenges of recruitment and retention in this sector. The overall plan is to take buses back into the control of the local authorities, as in London or Manchester, which would allow them to design the service according to need.

I won’t get the chance to have a say

This is a long-term project: this month, members of the GCP are considering whether the proposals are suitable to go to public consultation. If they approve them, a consultation would take place in the autumn. Councillors have made clear that there will be plenty of time and different opportunities to share your views.