Regional and local transport planning in the UK has been boosted through the award of long-term funding to city regions and by aligning mobility to levelling up. As the latest funding announcements are published, Simon Rawlinson and Richard Jones of Arcadis examine the state of play
01 / Introduction
Although the UK’s transport mega-schemes such as HS2 continue to grab the headlines, there has also been a subtle shift in transport planning towards local regeneration and levelling up. Transport has an insatiable appetite for capital spend, and not even the £96bn investment implied by the Union Connectivity Review satisfied all its stakeholders.
An alternative and complementary approach focused on smaller-scale investment is taking shape. The objective is to make towns and cities work better for citizens and visitors alike. In April 2022, seven of England’s eight devolved city-regions received details of their city-region sustainable transport settlements (CRSTSs), with about 65% of the value of proposed programmes securing support. Ultimately, additional funding totalling £4.2bn will be provided over the period 2022 to 2027 to support devolved and consolidated transport investment programmes. A further £8.8bn funding for the five-year period to 2032 was announced in the 2023 spring Budget.
CRSTS funding is encouraging the development of a joined-up, multimodal approach to transport investment planning. The West Midlands’ latest local transport plan core strategy is focused as much on supporting local communities and promoting a fairer society as it is on promoting economic growth. Similarly, other funding pots including the Towns Fund are supporting enhanced mobility packages.
Recent Levelling Up Fund (LUF) awards highlight how transport priorities are a critical part of the regeneration agenda. Even as the LUF was over-subscribed by three to four times, ambitious transport programmes including Crossrail Cardiff, Shrewsbury Smithfield and Lincoln Western gateway secured big awards after promising to open up new areas for housing development, promote wider regeneration and deliver more sustainable transport solutions.
These new investment programmes come during a period of great uncertainty, as transport planners and regeneration specialists struggle to get to grips with post-covid work and travel patterns. Even in regional cities, mid-week travel is still down by 25% as hybrid working persists. Meanwhile, leisure travel has become the biggest single source of demand on the rail network, upending travel patterns. Planners worry that, over time and if rents fall, newly vacant workspace in city centres will attract even more businesses to central locations. In turn, this is likely to place more pressure on city transport networks that continue to be dominated by individual car journeys. In Wales for example, where large-scale roadbuilding programmes have been scrapped to avoid creating more traffic, 80% of commuter journeys are by private car.
One of the most promising areas of development is transport-enabled regeneration, doubling down on the idea that existing transport hubs like rail stations must be the focus of wider investment in housing and commercial activity. Stations should be the natural focus for the densification of suburban towns where town-centre living will help to sustain thriving high streets.
Combined with all sorts of measures to encourage the adoption of more sustainable transport modes, it is fair to say that a small-scale transport revolution is taking shape. However, it is hardly plain sailing. With rail crippled by strikes and cancellations, and green initiatives like low-traffic neighbourhoods under fire, it is not easy to persuade either users or funders that the new way is always the best. Looking forward, and with the Labour Party promoting further local devolution through its “take back control” agenda, citizens can expect more debate and, hopefully, more investment as local authorities promote their own mobility priorities.
02 / A changing role for transport
Transport is good for growth. Effective transport networks help create economies of scale and agglomeration effects that encourage investment and job creation.
Successful cities, exemplified by the Randstad network of four big cities in the Netherlands, have high-quality, frequent and integrated transport systems. In all towns and cities, the frequency of service in particular is a critical enabler for the uptake of public transport systems. Unless services are reliable and frequency exceeds four to six times per hour, it is difficult to persuade travellers to ditch their cars.
This means there is never a single solution to enhance urban mobility, as proposals must be aligned to existing and future patterns of demand.
In the UK, most transport funding has historically been focused on where the strain on the network is most concentrated. This has led to per capita spending in London and the South-east being 37% higher than the average in the five-year period to 2020/21. Looking forward, transport has a key role in the levelling-up agenda as one of the 12 missions. The aim is, by 2030, to bring local public transport connectivity standards in England closer to those of London, through better service, simpler fares and integrated ticketing. How close is debatable, as spending allocations are hugely oversubscribed
To deliver these outcomes requires a new approach, aimed at developing transport networks to create and shape demand. The West Midlands’ 2023 local transport plan core strategy is a good illustration of how the approach to transport planning is evolving. It features steps to avoid traffic growth related to demand management and accessible development, strategies for mode shift and areas for improvement focused on a resilient and properly maintained transport network as well as growth in greener transport options.
All these prescriptions are familiar. The new aspect is how these solutions are pitched in the context of 15-minute neighbourhoods and 45-minute regions, enabled by a combination of transport-orientated development such as the £3bn Arden Cross development and multimode mobility, including scooters and e-bikes, to get people to their final destination quickly and safely.
Great British Rail (GBR) has also been making encouraging noises, as its transition plans become better defined. Rather like Transport for London (TfL) in the capital, GBR can see opportunities to integrate more effectively with wider urban planning, not only to promote sustainable demand for rail services but also potentially to secure some of the development value uplift that is generated by transport investment.
03 / Transport interventions – systems approach
As noted, there is no single solution to enhanced mobility, even though most of the component parts associated with an upgrade, such as better bus services and public support to mode shift, are widely adopted. The design of the solution is inevitably a product of the existing route network, use patterns and population density. While Cardiff and Greater Manchester can proceed with full-scale tram networks, Coventry is developing a battery-powered very light rail (VLR) solution. At the other extreme, in Plymouth, the city is investing in a network of more than 50 small-scale local transport hubs to encourage takeup of shared mobility services.
With available CRSTS and bus funding heavily oversubscribed, the city regions have had to scale back plans. In the immediate future, fewer fixed‑rail schemes are able to proceed.
The main options are:
- Tram and tram train Only suitable for larger cities, trams can be integrated with park-and-ride services to reduce commuter traffic as well as to improve connectivity in suburbs. Because trams operate on dedicated track, their development can be disruptive, particularly in city centres. Tram trains are a popular hybrid solution in Germany and are equipped to use heavy rail networks in addition to dedicated track. Their addition to a network can increase the use of existing rail assets. However, the solution is complex and so far only one UK system is operational, in South Yorkshire.
- Very light rail VLR is a disruptive city transit solution being developed in the UK specifically for smaller cities where there is not sufficient demand to support a conventional train or tram network. It is planned as a fusion of advanced lightweight automotive technologies with rail, so it is fitting that the initial demonstration will be in Coventry, at the heart of the UK’s car industry.
- Quality bus corridors This refers to networks where buses not only have dedicated traffic lanes but also priority at signal-controlled junctions. All the CRSTSs feature investment in high-quality bus corridor infrastructure, including purpose-built and dedicated guided bus lanes. Buses were intended to be a key part of the city transport revolution, and during the pandemic, a £3bn “bus back better” strategy was unveiled by government to provide revenue support and to fund new fleets of zero-carbon hydrogen buses. Such was the demand for bus service enhancements that applications for funding totalled over £7bn. So far only £1.2bn has been allocated, with around 50% of bids receiving support. The remaining bus funding has seemingly been diverted to keep existing services running and provide a short-term £2 fare cap.
- E-mobility This refers to shared services including bikes, scooters and cargo bikes to facilitate the last-mile connection.
- Active travel Support for walking and cycling. Investment in dedicated pedestrian paths or cycleways was a major feature of many successful levelling-up submissions, with a particular focus on strategic new infrastructure to link up otherwise isolated parts of the active travel network.
- Demand management and mode shift In addition to enhancing the quality of public and active travel, interventions that discourage journeys by private car have become increasingly common – as well as increasingly controversial.
Looking forward, the National Infrastructure Commission acknowledges that demand management using congestion charges, clean air zones or road space reallocation will need to be adopted much more widely. However, the argument about distributional impacts in terms of cost and congestion will no doubt continue to rage in the press as well as in towns themselves.
The breadth of solutions on offer highlights why a system-based approach must be adopted in the planning of new transport systems and why integrated ticketing, information and wayfinding systems will play such an important role in their future operation. As a result, the success and long-term future of the CRSTSs and further devolution of transport powers is an essential enabling of local transport strategy.
04 / Integrating transport systems and places – nodes and hubs
Flexible transport systems rely on nodes and hubs. New local transport strategies are creating opportunities not only to bring mobility services together but also to enhance economic and community development.
Transport-orientated development (TOD), for example, is being adopted as a masterplanning principle in some commuter towns where improvements to transport services can be used as a catalyst for wider town regeneration.
The key feature of TOD is to increase urban density in the immediate vicinity of a railway station, on underused town‑centre land. A successful TOD will be integrated into the fabric of the town, inclusive and prosperous, improving the sustainability of the town economy and community.
The trump card of such schemes is that the people who live near stations tend to use them, so TOD is beneficial for the transport network and the host town. However, to be successful, the environments around stations need to be attractive too, so it is not surprising that many levelling-up bids focused on improving the gateway areas around transport nodes such as stations.
Mobility hubs are typically much smaller investments but play the key role of facilitating mode shift. At a large scale, a mobility hub might be located at a park-and-ride or bus station, providing EV charging, car club parking, bike storage, e-mobility services and transport information.
Considering how unwelcoming most park-and-ride schemes can be, hubs are a valuable enhancement. At a local level, a hub can operate as a neighbourhood asset – a meeting point with shared bikes and scooters, for example.
In Europe, local transport hubs have played a key role in reducing private car use. The city of Bremen in Germany has developed a network of 40 hubs since 2002, and Plymouth is currently developing a network of 50 after having secured £60m from the Transforming Cities Fund.
Mobility hubs highlight that, even at the scale of a neighbourhood, some investment is required to create the scale necessary for a successful integrated transport network. As more funding is focused on local transport solutions, this trend is only going to accelerate.
Case study: Rochdale Rail Corridor
The Rochdale Rail Corridor is an ambitious regeneration scheme encouraging development near five stations along the Calder Valley rail corridor. In total, the strategy proposes 7,000 homes and 2.5 million ft2 of employment space linked by enhanced rail and tram services. By focusing development near stations, the plan envisages more than 400,000 extra rail journeys being taken each year, which could ultimately save over four million vehicle kilometres travelled.
The original idea behind the Rochdale Rail Corridor is a regional development study, GM2080, focused on developing transit-orientated communities (TOC) to promote urban regeneration on brownfield sites in town centres. TOC-based planning aims to concentrate higher-density development in a super-node within 400m of a station. Beyond the immediate station area, large sites could also be developed at lower density to create a station district.
Rather than target existing, well-connected transport nodes, the study focused on a second tier of commuter stations as opportunity locations. Sites were assessed on the basis of market potential, readiness for development and potential to create a transport-orientated community.
Rochdale town centre is likely to be an early beneficiary of the strategy, building on an extensive programme of investment including the Rochdale Riverside mixed-use development. Early phases of the rail corridor-driven regeneration are focused on the creation of the station gateway area (pictured) and an innovative mixed-use and mixed-density scheme called Station Gardens, which is being promoted by the local authority. However, applications for support from the Levelling Up Fund proved unsuccessful in January 2023, and public and private sector parties are examining alternative routes to promote this much-needed and highly significant development opportunity.
05 / Conclusion
Mobility investment and regeneration go hand in hand. The recent award of levelling-up funds and the initiation of CRSTS programmes highlights how important the relationship is and how much regeneration opportunity good transport links can unlock. As the focus of transport investment shifts to encouraging movement within cities and regions, more spend can be expected to directed towards the levelling-up agenda.
The opportunities and solutions highlighted here emphasise that transport solutions will become progressively more integrated under plans to streamline ticketing and information services. By adopting a systems-based approach and considering a combination of incentives and demand management techniques, local authorities will be in a much stronger position to improve accessibility and opportunity in their areas.