‘Sustainable Transport – Greening the Transport Sector’

 Jim Chisholm and Martin Lucas-Smith attended this conference in Westminster on 16th February 2011. Martin ‘live-tweeted’ the event to our 320 followers on Twitter, so you can see commentary as it happened at www.twitter.com/camcycle and he gives a fuller account of the day here.

Transport minister Norman Baker was the keynote speaker. He gave a run-down of the new funding situation and how the government was apparently actually increasing funds for Sustainable Transport. He cited an example of a constituent of his who had complained that she couldn’t park her car near her child’s school owing to new zig-zag lines. When he pressed her, Baker found that she actually only drove 150 metres down the road from home – and said that this kind of thing ‘needs to be challenged’. He also spoke about how cyclists and walkers spend 50% more money in town centres, which was a good reason to encourage cycling there.

Cyclists and walkers spend more money in town centres.
Image as described adjacent

He announced a new Carbon Tool for Local Authorities on the DfT website which I think was to help with Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) bids. He said that bids to this would be judged on the two objectives of economic impact and carbon reduction. Personally I think that puts bus bids in a bad position. He also mentioned the A14 as a ‘very environmentally damaging’ road scheme that had been cut, though largely on account of the £1.4bn cost. On buses, he said the Bus Service Operators’ grant had not been cut this year (though it will be next year) though he admitted that the situation with regards to local authorities was more challenging and said that they could continue to fund if they chose to (i.e. at the expense of other things!) using the ‘New focus of localism’ which frankly I thought was ridiculous. We didn’t get a chance to speak to him or to raise a question.

Christian Wolmar then complained about the lack of cycle parking at the venue, which is in a courtyard containing car parking but yet also ‘No cycling – cyclists must dismount’ signs.

The Chief Executive of ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) then spoke, pressing rail’s potential for CO2 reduction and the programme of electrification which is their top strategic priority (and which would indeed be good CO2-wise). He mentioned Leeds Cyclepoint as an example when talking about bike/rail schemes, though didn’t mention the issue of bikes on trains, of more interest to some of us.

Norman Baker spoke about how cyclists and walkers spend 50% more money than car drivers in town centres – a good reason to encourage cycling there

The next speaker talked about supporting new transport technologies, saying that there are so many players in this issue so we have to talk to each other. However, he did have some interesting statistics, namely that 25% of UK CO2 output is from transport, and that congestion imposed a £10bn cost on the economy (though I think this should be higher if aspects other than congestion are taken into account) according to DfT statistics. He said that there was a £2 marginal cost on other people per km of congestion per vehicle.

The next speaker was promoting his company’s smart-card transport ticketing stuff, and so was not of direct interest. However, he did ask: Which is greener – smart cards or hybrid buses? Probably rightly, he said smart cards because they have much more potential impact overall. He then made what I thought was a very compelling argument that cyclists should like, which is that adding smart card ticketing means that bus companies could run 30% fewer buses and yet still have the same ridership, because they would save much time in picking people up.

Lastly, Maria Eagle, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, used her speech for a good rant about the government’s economic policies resulting in cutbacks for transport. She said that Labour ‘had not opposed the scrapping of quangos Cycling England and CfIT [the Commission for Integrated Transport, set up in 1997 by John Prescott],’ somewhat shamefully.

Christian Wolmar picked me for one of the six questions, so I asked whether he and Eagle agreed with me that the prospects for cycling were extremely dismal as a result of the scrapping of Cycling England, given that means dedicated and effective people being replaced by DfT civil servants who traditionally haven’t cared about cycling. Wolmar used this opportunity to have a quick rant on this too. Eagle didn’t really say much other than that she wanted cycle groups to keep her informed in coming years as experience with the LSTF stuff pans out.

There were then three ‘Learning and Implementation Workshops’ which were the sponsors pushing their products, and frankly weren’t very interesting. One of them was a company pushing ‘two-wheeled vehicles’ by which he actually meant electric scooters. In the question-and-answer part of this, an argument broke out between Ashok Sinha (Chief Exec of London Cycling Campaign) who said that this stuff was counter-productive to promoting actual sustainable transport, and a motorcyclist who ‘couldn’t let him get away with spouting that’ and instead argued that you don’t have a pot of solutions but leave some things out. In some way I think he has a point – these machines are better for the environment than the car journeys (not bike journeys) they would replace. But because the speaker seemed to be arguing that public monies should be put towards charging points effectively for his profit-making company, Ashok arguably had a point, namely that this is therefore an issue of public policy and thus the question of effectiveness and sustainability comes into play.

Cycle hire bikes near Liverpool Street station (Photo: richardm)
Image as described adjacent

Over lunch I spoke with Hugh McClintock of Nottingham Pedals and with Ashok. The three of us met a cycle-friendly guy from the Guide Dogs for the Blind (I think) whose members are generally very anti-cyclist, because, he said, some 92% of their members said they had had an incident with a cyclist. I said how we actually had a common enemy, namely cycle-unfriendly traffic that results in cyclists being pushed onto pavements, and that neither of us wanted shoddy blue-signs-on-pavements infrastructure. He is a cyclist himself and is therefore a useful person to help that organisation set good policy. I asked him to get in contact and offered him a space for an article in our Newsletter, as I think their perspective would be extremely useful and would provoke debate and mutual understanding.

After lunch, a speaker from TfL opened with a run-down on their activity. The cycling figures were very impressive, and there were too many stats for me to note down. Cycling in London has increased by 90% since 2000. From a public policy perspective, that is pretty unprecedented for the UK, though of course it is a 90% increase from a low start. She said some 10 million km had been cycled on the cycle hire scheme, with 2.5m journeys, and that there are 110,000 members of the scheme, with 90% of journeys under 30 minutes. Expansion to the east is planned which sounded to me like a doubling of the size, though I might be wrong. Most interestingly and encouragingly, some 4 in 10 Boris bike users cycled more elsewhere (i.e. not on the Boris bikes), which is very positive as it shows they are leading to modal shift. She also said that 85% of the building materials for Crossrail will be brought into London by river.

Cycling in London has increased by 90% since 2000, unprecendented for the UK, and there are now 110,000 members of the cycle hire scheme

The last speaker was the head of Manchester City Council, Labour Cllr Sir Richard Leese, who is a cyclist himself and who led the push there for congestion charging (which failed spectacularly in a public referendum). He said it would take years (e.g. five years) to reintroduce the idea of charging there. He said that it would have raised £3bn but instead £1.5bn is being raised through general council tax. He made the compelling case that, had the question been ‘We want to do XYZ for transport; would you prefer this be raised from motorists who cause congestion or by everyone as general tax?’ then the result could have been different. He also said that high-speed rail would eliminate almost all internal air travel.

During the closing questions Jim asked whether CO2 savings from more efficient transport will be outweighed by increased transport use. ‘This is the key question’ answered one of the panel, and gave only the clear view that new technologies help inform policy, something that was not possible ten years ago. Another panellist said it was a difficult balance to judge.

Overall, it was a tiring day, not least due to having to get up at 6.30am to make the train. However, Jim and I both felt that that, in addition to various useful points being brought up in the sessions noted above, it was a valuable networking event and exactly the kind of place where the Campaign should be making a name for itself as an expert and professional organisation and to learn from the experiences of others in the transport sector.

In general I thought there was a bit of a tension (not in the aggressive sense) between one half of the audience who seemed to be from campaign groups like ours (and perhaps also local authorities), who felt that the solutions lie in behaviour change, and the other half who seemed to be more industry-based and felt that technology had greater potential. However, this disconnect led to lively and more informed debate due to a greater range of perspectives.

Martin Lucas-Smith