What’s next for the Sustainable Travel Zone?

Three months on from the publication of the Making Connections consultation report and subsequent discussions of the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) Joint Assembly and Board, the GCP has published revised proposals in response to public and political feedback.

The details (including an Outline Business Case prepared by WSP) are given in 350 pages of the papers for the next Joint Assembly meeting on 7 September and a summary report is also available on the GCP’s website. Assembly members will now be asked whether they support this proposal and recommend it for approval by the Board at its meeting on 28 September. If approved, the scheme would then pass to the county council’s Highways and Transport Committee on 3 October for the council to consider whether and how to proceed.

What’s changed from the proposals consulted on in autumn 2022?

The main changes are to the details of the proposed road charge for the Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ), in response to the ‘sense of unfairness’ coming through from the consultation feedback. Increased exemptions and reduced timings mean that people will be charged to drive on fewer occasions. This will therefore mean that revenue for sustainable transport is also significantly reduced.

Graphic summarising revisions to the STZ proposal

The GCP has halved the number of hours in which a road charge would operate from 12 to 6 per weekday, proposing that people would only have to pay to drive into, out of or within the zone during two three-hour ‘peaks’: 7-10am and 3-6pm. It says this would address congestion at the busiest times and provide a viable source of revenue for sustainable transport, while providing more flexibility within the daytime and evening for journeys by businesses and individuals.

The GCP says that consultation feedback showed ‘limited interest’ in a phased approach to the STZ’s introduction. Instead of a transition beginning in 2025 with a morning weekday peak charge for larger vehicles and ramping up to a fully-functioning scheme in 2027/2028, it now recommends that the charge would be introduced for all vehicles in 2026/2027 during the six hours proposed.

In the consultation, many of the details of the discount, exemption and reimbursement schemes were vague: for example, a tapered 25-100% discount was proposed for ‘people on low incomes’. Following consultation feedback and after further discussion with stakeholders such as the local hospitals, a clearer revised proposal has been provided.

  • Low income discounts
    People in receipt of Universal Credit, Pension Credit or Carers Allowance would receive a 50% discount on the road charge. If income were to increase to the point that they are no longer eligible for benefits this would reduce to 25% for two years, to avoid a ‘benefit cliff’ and fluctuations in eligibility arising from a short, but not sustained, period of higher earnings.
  • Disability exemptions
    The proposal for Blue Badge holders to receive a 100% discount on up to two vehicles has been extended to those in receipt of the mobility component of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
  • NHS reimbursements
    The GCP recommends that STZ reimbursements for those with the medical need to visit hospital frequently or for whom public transport is too high risk, should build on the existing system of hospital parking discounts and reimbursement. Eligibility would be a NHS clinical decision, but the cost of administration would be fully covered by the STZ scheme.
  • New account-holder allowances: free days and SME discount
    The revised proposals recommend that those who sign up to an STZ account (providing vehicle registration and payment details) should be given an annual allocation of 50 free days, which would provide added flexibility for drivers and address adhoc trips such as medical visits and collection of bulky items. The GCP also proposes a 50% discount for self-employed workers and SMEs (businesses with fewer than 250 employees and an annual turnover of less than €50m) registered or resident in the Cambridge commuter area. It has added this to address the concerns of local businesses who rely on vehicles to trade.
  • New 100% discount for motorcyclists
    The original proposals suggested that motorcycles would pay £5, the same charge as for cars. The revised recommendation is that they should be given a 100% discount, but ‘the impact of this on mode shift, safety, noise and pollution should be kept under review’.

Once fully operational (referred to in the papers as a ‘steady state’)  the original proposal was estimated to raise £82.5 million, which would legally have to be spent on sustainable transport. The revised proposals (known as ‘scenario 1A’) are estimated to raise £30.1 million per year, a reduction of £52.4 million (64%). Rounding up to £31 million in the Joint Assembly report, the GCP says this would allow for £26m per annum of bus investment and £5m per annum sustainable travel investment.

This huge reduction in revenue will have a significant impact on the bus services and active travel improvements that could be funded. Some of the decisions on bus routes will be made by the Combined Authority as part of its bus reform work (and could be funded through alternative sources). The GCP suggests that initial bus measures could include more daily buses to Addenbrooke’s at shift times, new links connecting market towns to Cambridge and faster links to large villages around Cambridge.

List of bus changes from 2024.

Improvements to walking, wheeling, cycling and public space saw high levels of support in the public consultation. The GCP says that a Sustainable Transport Strategy is in development and has published this diagram of illustrative scenarios in the meeting papers.

Graphic to illustrate the Sustainable Transport investment package. For example minor pedestrian improvements and electric bike expansion would be made prior to the introduction of a STZ.

The original consultation brochure envisaged a decision by the Full Board of Cambridgeshire County Council in ‘mid-2023’. This is now unlikely to happen until the second half of 2024.

If the GCP Executive Board approves the revised proposal at its meeting on 28 September, the GCP promises that there is still time for further flexibility and decisions, which will be informed by the county council’s Highways & Transport Committee meeting on 3 October. The final stage, a Full Business Case, is due to be presented in summer 2024. The Full Board of the county council will still make the ultimate decision.

What’s stayed the same as the original consultation proposals?

The upfront investment in bus subsidy, other sustainable travel improvements and the setting up of the Sustainable Travel Zone road charge would not change. The GCP reminds decision-makers that it is a time-limited organisation and urges them to make use of this money to ‘maximise the value, impact and potential of the GCP’s infrastructure investment across the rest of its [transport] programme.’

The boundaries of the zone remain the same as the original proposal. The GCP says that concerns over access to medical appointments have been addressed by the free day allowance and exemption schemes. Providing fair and enforceable exemptions for those travelling out of the zone from near the edge of the boundary would be too ‘administratively costly and complex’.

Aside from the new discounts and exemptions (including 100% for motorcycles), the charge levels stay the same and remain a one-off, fixed cost on weekdays for those driving into, out of or within the proposed zone.

What else is in the papers?

There is a wealth of data and information from GCP officers and their consultants. For example:

  • Census 2021 data shows that in Greater Cambridge 38% of people with lower levels of personal mobility, whose day-to-day activity is limited by a long-term illness or health problem, do not own a car.
  • In 2022, there were 449 collisions, including 42 pedestrian casualties and 163 cyclist casualties. Aside from the human suffering, these cost the UK economy approximately £28 million. Research shows that road traffic collisions typically respond proportionally to traffic flows (fewer vehicles on the road result in fewer collisions).
  • Bus use has been in decline in the region for well over a decade. In South Cambridgeshire, only 22% of residents are within 30 minutes’ public transport or walking access of a town centre which results in high levels of car dependency.
  • Both Stagecoach and Whippet scaled down the frequency of bus services in 2023 to accommodate for ‘vastly increased congestion in Cambridge’.
  • Measurements of cycle movements showed a 62% increase of cyclists crossing the river between 2010 and 2019 and a 64% of those crossing the city boundary. There were 28.1 million cycle trips in Greater Cambridge in 2021.
  • Evidence shows that transport decisions over the past two decades (including the core traffic scheme, expansion of Park & Rides and investment in cycle infrastructure) have reduced the use of private vehicles in Cambridge. However, the pace of population and employment growth has cancelled out the benefit of marginal gains in mode shift and is estimated to continue to do so in future without a more ambitious scheme.

The Outline Business Case for the STZ scheme includes a lot of information explaining how the proposed scheme supports local, national and regional policies and objectives. The GCP papers reiterate the background to the scheme and the setting up of the City Deal along with the challenges facing our region. They emphasise the roles of the different transport authorities and the need for consensus decision-making.

Venn diagram of the roles the GCP, the county council and the Combined Authority play in relation to the STZ

The GCP has clearly responded to the 2022 consultation and the concerns of the public and politicians. It has increased the timescale to include more time for further flexibility and decision-making. The papers make clear that there would be a legal requirement to report annually on how the revenues of the STZ road charge were being spent on sustainable transport and suggest that impact monitoring could be added to that report.

Do the revised proposals address Camcycle’s concerns?

Camcycle originally supported the key principles of the Sustainable Travel Zone package as we believe road pricing is necessary to fund public transport, invest in walking and cycling and reduce traffic levels to free up road space for sustainable travel modes. The revised proposals cut sustainable transport funding by 64% and fail to reduce motor vehicle journeys by 50% as originally estimated; they would have a positive but significantly-reduced impact on delivering safe, attractive and convenient alternatives to driving. At the last Joint Assembly meeting, Camcycle prepared a detailed briefing paper on how we thought the STZ could be revised without such a large cut to revenue.

When we surveyed Camcycle members in April 2023, over 90% supported our call for 20% of charging revenue to be ringfenced for walking and cycling improvements. Initial estimates of the ‘steady state’ revenue suggest a 16% funding pot equalling around £5m a year.

Camcycle members also want to see increased upfront investment in walking, cycling and wheeling to make the scheme better. Over 9 in 10 respondents to our survey wanted to see a package of quick active travel wins and progress on the road network hierarchy to free up space for sustainable transport. A Sustainable Transport Strategy is promised but initial details remain scant and too vague to assess. The Road Network Hierarchy report is still expected in December.

The revised proposals do seem to be fairer for many of those who have a dependency on car travel. In our survey, Camcycle members told us that they would be more likely to support an STZ if there were further discounts for those with disabilities or medical needs (64% of respondents), resident vouchers for charge-free days (56%) and more discounts for those on low incomes (54%).

The other top request was a commitment to bus franchising (61%): the GCP makes clear in the papers that all bus reform will happen in collaboration with the Combined Authority, which is considering options including franchising and plans to consult on this in the new year.

Despite the significant cut to sustainable transport revenue, the GCP has no additional plans to generate income. The only additional revenue stream mentioned in the paper is the comment that ‘the CPCA will take account of all potential sources of revenue to support the bus network through their work on bus reform’.

In our April survey, many Camcycle members supported a Workplace Parking Levy, or suggested other income generators such as a tourist tax. Supplementary schemes will be necessary if local authorities intend to meet their commitments on the reduction of traffic and carbon emissions and deliver high-quality networks for public transport and active travel.

We will be further reviewing the proposals with Camcycle members and partner organisations in the Cambridge Sustainable Travel Alliance.