In writing about sustainable transport, I often find myself putting the technology first. Electric buses, trams, bus rapid transit, etc. Or I write about the theory of it all – how we can start with reducing the need to travel in the first place. Modal shifts. Hierarchies of sustainable transport. But while on the train the other day, it occurred to me that there’s a really important aspect to this that I haven’t really given as much attention to.
If we want people to choose more sustainable forms of transport, which are going to be mainly active and public, then they have to be good. They have to be better than the alternative, which for many people is just to get in their cars and drive.
A key element of good public transport is integration, and integrated transport is a kind of holy grail of city planning, a movement with its own campaigns and foundations. But what do we mean by it?
Let’s start with an example of unintegrated transport. When I first moved to Luton I needed to travel to Birmingham. It’s not very far: around 80 miles, but there’s no direct route. So I left my house and walked to the centre of town. I would have cycled, but there was nowhere to lock up a bike safely. I got the coach from outside the cinema, which took me to Milton Keynes. It dropped me off at the coach stop, which was a deserted and windblown nowhereland a 20 minute walk from the train station. I got somewhat lost in MK’s famous ‘red route’ system of underpasses, but got there eventually and the train took me to Birmingham.
That’s a haphazard, lengthy and inconvenient way to get to a major nearby city. Everything is disconnected and strung out. You have to be pretty committed, and it’s not a journey that’s accessible to those with disabilities. I’m pleased to say a couple of things have improved since that journey, though there’s still no easy way to get to Birmingham.
In an ideal world, there are some things that all travellers could probably agree on:
- Where possible, there should be a direct connection to the places that people want to go to .
- Bike storage at points of departure, or that make it easy to take a bike with you.
- Transport hubs, so that buses drop off where trains depart, and so on.
- Short and straightforward walking routes, accessible to those with disabilities, small children or luggage.
- Safe and comfortable places to wait when beginning a journey or catching a connection.
- Short waiting times.
- Good information on how to complete a journey, how long the next bus or train will be, etc.
- Clear pricing and preferably on one ticket that is easy to buy and use.
These sorts of things are all about ease of use. There are other aspects of quality as well, such as cost, cleanliness, comfort or speed. But integrated transport is all about how easy it is to complete a journey, how seamless the process is. That’s all about good design, and some places are better at it than others. The Netherlands is famous for it. The UK, not so much. There are some exceptions. London is an easy place to travel around. Edinburgh has taken some big steps forward, with buses and trams on an integrated local travel app. Elsewhere it’s a bit of a lottery, often with patchy routes and timetables, and operators that are competing and therefore less like likely to cooperate.
Transport is now the biggest source of emissions in Britain. Car culture is deeply embedded. Lessons from Netherlands and Belgium – really not far away at all – have not been learned. But creating sustainable travel in the UK is going to be as much about good design and planning as it is about technology. Public transport needs to be low carbon, and also integrated.
As a positive example, I wrote recently about the Bee Network – a citywide integrated transport system that aims to revolutionise public transport in Manchester. Filmed a year ago, here’s the city’s mayor, Andy Burnham, explaining how Manchester’s transport system fails, and how a more integrated system would improve people’s lives: