Making the case for an integrated transport strategy for England
The country is crying out for transport solutions that improve the customer experience while honouring our commitment to lowering carbon emissions. That's why it's time to join-up our thinking and get serious about an integrated transport strategy for England.
After much frustration with the lack of true political direction of integrated transport for the UK, I decided to instigate a panel event to examine this with the Institute for Government (IfG), which convenes expert opinions on pressing needs for government, the end user and the supply chain.
This panel looked at whether England needs an integrated transport strategy, the challenges involved in putting such a strategy in place, and how the system can be resilient to shocks and crises, while reducing carbon emissions and keeping the focus on the customer experience.
It also examined the connectivity needed by the devolved authorities and how such an integrated approach could start to define the levelling up agenda across the UK.
Here are some of the key takeaways.
1. Understand the needs of people
When considering transportation within England, it would be detrimental to view each element in isolation and, arguably, that has been the country’s biggest mistake to date. To predict the needs of transport, it’s vital to also anticipate the needs of people to live in a better-connected and more inclusive society.
No matter where people live, the quality and availability of transport infrastructure links directly to quality of life for communities – while also playing a significant role in the economic recovery of the country. Rather than viewing transportation simply as a means of getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, the entire model must seek to better to understand the needs of those who use it and provide social, economic and environmental benefits.
Currently, England has a unique opportunity – post-pandemic and post-Brexit – that it has never had before. Having previously focused on reshaping what’s already there, the nation has almost a clean sheet of paper on which to start again and consider whether new infrastructure or enhanced use of existing assets, is the answer.
That shouldn’t mean a complete overhaul of every single element of our infrastructure, but it is the time to leave ‘grand plans’ behind – as they often become outdated before they’ve been implemented – and instead look locally in a bid to reduce inequalities, take climate action, develop inclusive growth, and improve health and wellbeing.
Scotland, for instance, is leading by example. The country has aligned its strategic thinking with the impact of climate change and what’s happening in terms of the economy – an approach which is almost identical to that delivered by the London Mayor which combines the capital’s spatial, economic, and transportation strategies into one holistic plan.
2. The time has come to look at England’s transport network as a holistic entity
As the past 18 months have shown, the best laid plans can alter almost overnight – and it’s incredibly difficult to remain abreast of the pace of change. Controversial as it might sound, transportation strategies shouldn’t last more than five years, because they rapidly become obsolete as the needs of the country and its people evolve.
Instead, it’s crucial to be agile in adapting to what people want from their local, national, and international transportation links – not what a feasibility study dictates. Considering how accessible workplaces, airports, and retail hubs truly are – and how they connect with local communities, hospitals and schools, and other stakeholders for example – is key.
While some of the components needed for a national, cohesive transportation strategy are already in place, they’re operating in silos, and don’t support one holistic system. It’s impossible, at present, to follow a seamless route – be it by rail, road, or sea – where the journey just flows. Often, there’s an issue with one ‘leg’ of the journey which quickly impacts the rest of the route. This is exacerbated if you have mobility needs too.
A systems thinking approach to the planning and delivery of integrated transport will drive cleaner and more inclusive growth. A joined-up transport network will drive modal shift by making public transport a viable means of travel for more people. And by ensuring that more people are connected than ever before, integrated transport has the potential to provide a step-change in connecting people to jobs, goods and services.
3. See the value in digital
Digitisation of the transport system including signalling, utilising drone technology to examine vulnerable assets, and harnessing tech intelligence to enhance customer journey-planning allows everyone involved to avoid costly delays and issues and have a better journey experience.
What’s more, commercial freight is the backbone of the country and brings everything we needs into the UK – distributing it accordingly. That’s why it’s imperative that commercial and public transportation are deemed as sharing the same end-goal – a connected multi-modal network. After all, heavy goods and humans use much of the same infrastructure, as they go about their daily lives.
The answer lies in accelerating innovation. Looking at building on recent advancements – isn’t it worth considering the opportunity for autonomous mobile delivery robots to take to the M25 in the middle of the night, delivering goods to local distributions hubs ready for smaller vans to take them to their end-location – reducing traffic on this key tributary during the day, while reducing emissions?
4. It isn’t someone else’s problem
And finally, it shouldn’t be central Government’s job to deliver the strategy. While it might pave the way in terms of ambition and opportunity, it lacks the funding and space to make it happen. Take a clear plan – with vision, actions, and measurable outcomes – to a bank that believes in ESG, and there’s a genuine opportunity to kickstart progress now.
Believe in and empower the subnational transport bodies to deliver. They understand the needs of the regions better than anyone, and they are hungry to help. All they need is proper funding and support.
The industry needs more diversity and creative minds too. It’s easy to assume that transportation strategy and delivery depends solely on planners, engineers, builders, and operators –representation from a broader range of people will foster more accessible decision-making, and help make the system work as a whole
Currently, England has pockets of people and brilliant strategies in existence, but now is the time to start again with a clean sheet of paper. We have a unique opportunity to carve out an integrated transport strategy which seamlessly connects transport modes and is agile, carbon-friendly and futureproofed, bringing long-term benefits to people, businesses, and the economy.
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