TAPAS.network | 19 December 2022 | Commentary | John Dales

‘One thing to rule them all’. Why not a single package for ALL Mobility Services – and how users pay for them?

John Dales

Listening to discussion at the Local Transport Summit, John Dales concluded that it’s not only time for a comprehensive rethink of how we manage the use of our streets, but that this should logically be connected to a new way of getting users to pay for the roads they travel on too. And maybe all this can be put into a comprehensive overall mobility access package that really shows people all the options they have to choose from

I WAS FORTUNATE to be in Cardiff earlier this month with a hundred or so kindred spirits eager to enjoy this year’s Local Transport Summit. It was an excellent wide-ranging event, organised by the same fine folk who publish Local Transport Today and there was a great deal of important content to take in. But a few of the strands of discussion were of particular interest to me and can, I believe, usefully do with being drawn together.

My starting point for these reflections is a question that was asked at the end of the session to which I contributed directly myself.

I had been speaking – you may not be surprised to learn – on the subject of The Value of Street Space, one that I covered in LTT 852 and also touched on in LTT 855. My latest thinking on this topic was informed by research I had undertaken for a report for the Urban Transport Group that was published in September. You can find this here.

One of my eight recommendations in that report was that highway authorities should develop a much clearer sense of ownership of the streets in their care, and then firmly assert their right and responsibility to manage these hugely valuable assets in the best interests of the population they serve. As things stand, street space is usually either simply given away or charged for at well below what should be the market rate, but a much more business-like approach to the stewardship of streets is both reasonable and necessary. Using more words, as well as some pictures, I said essentially the same thing in Cardiff.

Next to the lectern after I vacated it was Silviya Barrett from the Campaign for Better Transport, and she was talking about their report, also published in September, that revealed the findings of research into ‘the British public’s views on vehicle taxation reform’. Entitled ‘Pay-as-you-drive’, the report tackled the obvious need to bring in new ways of road user charging to succeed the fuel duties that we very much hope will eventually disappear when the hydrocarbon use itself does. Silvya’s talk revealed what are to me two key facts. The first is that half the population supports the idea of replacing the existing system of vehicle and fuel taxation with some form of pay-as-you-drive system; with only a fifth opposing. The second, perhaps more important than the first, is that support for progressive change increases if the reasoning for it is properly explained and hence better understood. There’s much more in the report, of course, and you can, should you wish, dig into the detail here.

In the Q&A that followed, a number of issues were raised arising from both presentations, with participants (myself included) seeming sometimes to struggle with the dawning inherent complexities and challenges of the scope of change that might be necessary/desirable/possible/practicable to take forward the connected proposition that we had each addressed part of. I recall one contributor wondering whether we weren’t in danger of over-complicating matters; but when they outlined what they considered to be a simpler way forward, it turned out to address only part of the multi-faceted conundrum I believe we are grappling with.

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It would be a good idea to review the Highways Act, Road Traffic Act, Road Traffic Regulation Act, Traffic Management Act, and other Acts of their ilk in pursuit of a new paradigm of making the use of roads and streets both fairer and more efficient, and dare I say it, paid for more sensibly.

The last question from the floor was the cue for me to ramble on for some minutes and, I fear, to make myself even less clear than I had done previously. My purpose in writing this particular piece is, in part, an attempt at redemption; at turning my rambling answer in Cardiff into a clearer and more definite proposition to address a rather fundamental matter. So, here goes.

Firstly the question I heard – even if it’s not exactly the one that was asked – put forward the argument that if there is a case for generally taking a much more business-like approach to the management of streets, and if there is also a case for replacing the current system of vehicle and fuel taxation with one that charges people for driving along those streets, might there not be a method by which the two birds can be killed with the same stone, so to speak?

My answer is in what might be called the ‘hopeful affirmative’. And what I mean by it is that I think the answer is ‘yes’, and that I also hope it is. The problem, however, is that I don’t actually know (yet) what the right method might be. But, then, that’s no reason at all not to get a constructive debate going as to what a suitable approach and trajectory could look like. Because I’m pretty convinced we really need one.

My presentation to the Summit principally addressed my ongoing consideration of the challenges that local authorities face in efficiently and equitably managing access to the kerbside – what we might call the ‘stopping’ aspects of vehicles in streets. By contrast, Silviya’s research related very much to the ‘moving’ aspects of vehicles in streets. Why shouldn’t a single new system cover both aspects – and maybe others?

As I see it, there are at least two pressing and good reasons for initiating a complete overhaul of the way in which we manage, maintain, control, charge for and apportion the use of the public highway. These two are the advent of increasingly connected and more autonomous vehicles, and the need to provide greater prominence and protection in law for walking and cycling (something that the recent changes to the Highway Code are only a step towards).

I do not doubt at all that there are yet other reasons why it would be a good idea to review the Highways Act, Road Traffic Act, Road Traffic Regulation Act, Traffic Management Act, and other Acts of their ilk in pursuit of a new paradigm of making the use of roads and streets both fairer and more efficient, and dare I say it, paid for more sensibly. And to be frank, I think that having a single controlling Act that fits this task is reason enough in itself to seek comprehensive change.

However, it’s one thing to agree that it’s time for one new Act, but quite another to agree what a unifying system of highway usage management under it should embrace. In considering this, I’m very conscious of a third presentation that was made to the Local Transport Summit. This was by Jorgen Pedersen of Systra and it addressed another, perhaps connected, question – the somewhat delayed arrival in practice of the bright idea of Mobility as a Service. What I took away from his presentation was my recollection that Jorgen said that developing a MaaS app is the easy part: it’s determining what the app needs to contain, the information that users need, and the outcomes the service providers require and are required to deliver that’s the real challenge?

Indeed, to date that challenge has been difficult enough with bus and train and bike share operators to ensure little real progress on implementing the alluring idea of MaaS. But maybe, I have been wondering, would adding yet another dimension to the portfolio of ‘mobility’ being embraced actually help crack the nut. By which I mean, including the use of the road in a motorised vehicle in what a service of mobility means, to most people.

The challenge, of course, is isn’t just that of introducing a new system, but also of replacing an existing one. Even though the Treasury knows it needs to find an alternative to the existing forms of vehicle and fuel taxation, I’m drawn, as I repeatedly am to something that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince. “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things…”.

But it’s got to be worth a try, hasn’t it?

If you’re also interested in putting your shoulder to this intriguing and challenging wheel, then it might just be that the editor and his colleagues will facilitate progress by arranging a further stimulating discussion at some point in the New Year. If so, I’ll certainly be there, and hopefully Sylvia and Jorgen too. Until then, may I wish you a delightful Christmas!

Two sights on the street from my trip to Cardiff

As I sign off for 2022, let me leave you with two other, brief reflections from my time in Cardiff. One looks backward and was prompted by the view from my room in the hotel where the Summit was held (pictured right). It’s the orphaned ramp to what would have been a flyover of the junction between the A4232 Cardiff Bay Link Road and the A4234 Central Link. Never (one fervently hopes) to have its intended mission fulfilled, a section of reinforced concrete stands as a richly-graffitied monument to a past from which I’m still not sure we’ve learned the necessary lessons. Perhaps it should be listed!

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The second looks forward, and was inspired by what I saw at the end of a cycle ride from the Summit venue in the south of the city to Llandaff and Whitchurch in the north. These were the three trial sites for informal side street zebra crossings (one is pictured left) that have been installed by Cardiff City Council in the supportive environment for active travel created by the Welsh Government. Simple, effective, cheap and (to me) beautiful, here’s hoping that the Cardiff trials, along with the outcomes of research by the Department for Transport (prompted by Transport for Greater Manchester), lead to the rapid transformation of the walkability of many more UK streets over the coming decade.

John Dales is a streets design adviser to local authorities around the UK, a member of several design review panels, and one of the London Mayor’s Design Advocates. He’s a past chair of the Transport Planning Society, a former trustee of Living Streets, and a committee member of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. He is director of transport planning and street design consultancy Urban Movement.

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT859, 19 December 2022.

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