TAPAS.network | 9 January 2024 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Time for Total Transport to come out of the DfT’s ‘too difficult’ tray

Peter Stonham

NEW APPROACHES to how transport is most effectively planned and delivered tend to be more usually developed in modal, technological, operational or geographical silos, rather than all-embracing new paradigms. Changes generally emerge from disruptive new players, particular entrepreneurs breaking new ground and taking risks, technological revolutions, or challenging local political leaders prepared to stick their necks out. These are rarely characteristics to be found in centralised bodies or public authorities — least of all government departments.

In this issue, it is very interesting to see the ideas of a one-off body, charged with thinking outside the box , and given a freedom to be radical by a political leader on a mission of change the way transport issues are addressed in his country. Indeed, the North Wales Transport Commission, chaired by Lord Burns, was asked by the Welsh Government, and Transport minister Lee Waters, to think about solutions for the transport needs in a particular corner of the country in the light of controversial decisions to drop previous plans for major road investments.

As part of its final report, just published and covered in this issue, the Commissioner has proposed that part of the area — the Isle of Anglesey — would be a good place to look at transport needs and provision in its totality. At the heart of this is a new attempt to apply the concept of ’Total Transport’ for the island.

It is a welcome suggestion. Not only might this considerably benefit the people and businesses of Anglesey, but could serve as a good exemplar for an idea which has, regrettably, not yet been properly grasped as part of transport policy development elsewhere, and certainly not as a generally applicable concept.

Back in 2015 the Department for Transport allocated £7.6m to 37 separate schemes run by 36 local authorities in England to pilot Total Transport solutions in their areas. These pilots were focused on rural areas. A useful report was published in July 2019 considering the progress made by the Total Transport pilots and the results achieved, but nothing seems to have been done to follow up on that, and the concept has been virtually unmentioned in government circles since then.

It is disappointing that having set up a competition to allocate funds for pilot schemes based on the principles of Total Transport, and test the feasibility of the concept, the DfT’s thinking seems to have benefited little from the exercise. It is ironic that the introduction to the report on those pilots stated, “the ideas behind Total Transport have been around for many years, but have remained primarily a theoretical paper exercise until now”. That position has only marginally been improved by the limited period pilot exercises the DfT funded, the reports of which have simply joined the other theoretical papers on the DfT bookshelves. Ironically, whilst this report was circulated to stakeholders in June 2018, it was only made publicly available in July 2019 following wider requests for publication.

This is all particularly disappointing given the potential significant benefits from applying Total Transport thinking to find improved ways of commissioning public sector funded transport so that passengers get a better service with less duplication of resources, and better Value for Money for transport authorities.

The rewards come from bringing together both conventional public transport and services like non-emergency patient transport, adult social care transport and home to school transport. These are all similar services, provided in the same geographical area with vehicles often carrying the same passengers at different times.

The 2019 report estimated that around £2 billion per year of public funding for transport services is provided in total by a number of public agencies, largely local authorities. However, these services are often commissioned and provided completely independently by separate organisations.

To achieve the potential prize from Total Transport, the key challenge is to synergise these disparate transport planning and procurement processes through cross-sector working. As the 2019 report points out, this can: Avoid duplication of commissioned services; Allow networks to be designed so they complement each other; Reduce administrative overheads by centralising commissioning; Enable the skills of professional staff (eg network schedulers) to be deployed across all the services; and Achieve overall cost efficiencies.

Local authorities have an obvious budgetary interest in all the relevant transport provision in their areas being delivered to overall public benefit, especially when considering the significant sums of funding going to: tendered and supported local bus services; community transport; school and college transport provision; social care transport; travel concessions for older and disabled people, and in some cases, students and scholars; plus management of their own vehicle fleets.

A significant additional benefit comes when Total Transport can also involve the NHS. Many participants in the DfT pilot projects, in fact, regarded the NHS as representing the biggest prize for better integration, though this also proved to be the most difficult aspect to unlock, the report acknowledges.

The NHS now has a carbon reduction target that specifically includes staff and patient transport, which will hopefully give them an added incentive to get on board.

A number of not unexpected key themes emerged from the pilots, including the fact that tackling integration involves a degree of local knowledge and while some approaches may be transferable, there is no easy ‘one size fits all’ solution. Constructive local engagement is therefore particularly important, but it can take time to find the right person to engage with in each organisation, and it is a particular challenge to unlock the opportunities for integration between transport provision in the health sector and local authorities. One of the issues is that financial savings are both difficult to assess, and to determine ‘who they belong to’, as many participants did not have access to reliable ‘before’ data.

While the actual savings achieved in the pilots might have been considered relatively low, the process did lead to improved services in some areas at similar cost, and uncovered potential savings and benefits for the longer term. This underlines the fact that the benefits of Total Transport are a mix of short, medium and long term. Some of the bigger savings will take time to be delivered and benefits from larger scale changes can take time to be approved, presented to the users effectively and bedded down.

Another consideration is that some of the delivery models required to achieve the beneficial outcomes do not easily fit the existing legal framework of bus services, taxis and private hire vehicles, and indeed the opportunity for education, social services and health service vehicles to effectively play different roles that meet the needs of both the existing users and provide new wider capabilities.

Importantly, the 2019 Total Transport report acknowledges that “the process of bidding for funding acted as a stimulus to think about provision in a different way and gave the successful local authorities the resource to look at new ways of working that they would not have had the space to do under ‘business as usual’ ”. This identifies the valuable role of central government in sponsoring innovation.

While the actual savings achieved from the projects undertaken might be considered relatively low, the process had led to improved services in some areas at similar cost, and uncovered potential savings and benefits for the longer term. The need for new Total Transport principles to be embedded in the organisations was a key to it being easier to maintain the progress made by the pilots in the longer term.

Here is the challenge facing any project seeking to test the Total Transport possibilities: the need to think about provision in a different way. Without the structure of a confirmed programme/pilot scheme and the incentive of funding, it seems unlikely that the local authorities involved would have been ready to take a new, integrated look at provision in quite the same way. A burst of new resources and thinking ¬– and permission to experiment – is clearly needed, along with the resource to look at new ways of working and the administrative resources to do so and effect the changes needed.

The Total Transport pilots also exposed some limitations in how local authorities and other organisations are able to interact, the report noted, but also illuminated some ways of tackling this which could be taken forward more widely. “They also uncovered areas for central Government to examine further,” it significantly said, including a role for DfT in considering how legislative framework can allow new models of transport to be delivered.

It looks like that observation about its own additional duties might have been seen by the DfT as indicating this to be something to go into the “too difficult” box.

Some of the new delivery models that emerged as desirable certainly do not easily fit the existing legal framework of bus services, taxis and private hire vehicles (PHV) – not to mention new mobility modes, and the emergence of new Mobility as a Service (MaaS) models of transport that blur traditional demarcation lines between licensing regimes –about which the Government has been very laggardly in addressing more generally. The varying requirements for different modes clearly impinge on the ability to deliver truly flexible Total Transport services. Restrictions on the use of Section 19 and 22 community transport permits are a particular case often cited.

Given this context, one area of continuing activity, which ought logically to be at the core of discussions about Total Transport, is the concept of Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). This, however, regrettably seems to have quickly built up its own new modal silo, probably underpinned by the considerable largesse earmarked for it by the DfT from various prescriptive funding pots in a narrow definition of what this potential rural transport panacea represents.

A much better model would be to encourage more flexible and multi-faceted approach to innovation in areas of low demand for public transport, or to replace unsustainable supported bus services with alternatives – not just more expensive and unsustainable DRT schemes of the kind that are now coming to the end of their funding tranches and regularly biting the dust as economically unjustified. We report yet one more such very expensive scheme withdrawal in this issue

Also In this issue, Richard Jeremy of SYSTRA looks at how wider thinking can help tackle the challenges facing those transport authorities who have been trying to establish DRT to address rural transport needs. He acknowledges Demand Responsive Transport may rarely pay its way in conventional terms, but creative thinking about the roles it can play, and linking up with other transport objectives, can potentially enhance the value for money it provides. He describes thinking which very much reflects the Total Transport approach.

DRT services are run by 75% of local councils in England, according to recent research from the County Councils Network. But 95% of these councils say all of their services are running at a loss.

To improve the value for money of DRT services in areas of low or scattered demand the answer potentially lies in joining forces with other essential transport providers, such as healthcare, education, or community transport, argues Jeremy. Joined up provision will undoubtedly help DRT schemes become more cost-effective, while improving reach and passenger numbers, he says. Community transport services, many voluntarily run, serve as lifelines for remote communities, providing regular services that are often exemplars of fantastic customer service and adaptability. This sort of DRT has indeed proven the most resilient due to a much smaller staff cost and an overriding sense of community spirit and purpose. Partnering with different types of transport services means shared resources and an expanded reach. Some councils in the UK are also examining how to integrate education transport services with other mobility provision, adapting school bus services to save funds and enhance provision and also reaching out to other providers like the NHS.

Perhaps a window of opportunity is emerging now for the proposed Welsh Anglesey experiment in Total Transport to be part of a move to explore new ways of bringing together provision in specific geographical areas, particularly those territories in which DRT schemes are also now needing to be reassessed and modified to work in more productive and cost effective ways.

It would be a nice thought if the DfT could join the party, and dust down its archive on that Total Transport project it undertook in 2015/17, so all the available lessons can be shared and issues needing new approaches — legislative, operational and financial — be properly applied.

Since publishing its 2019 review of that government-funded scheme, which paid out £7.6m in total to 36 local authorities, DfT has remained largely quiet on the subject and, despite the report noting some councils intended to continue elements of their procedures via their own resources, the idea has appeared largely dormant ever since.

However, the time could now be right for the concept to be given a new lease of life. Cuts to local council funding, the reduction of rural services and advances in DRT technology could be the right conditions to underpin progress. This could be linked to the local transport plans that LTAs are currently developing, with support for at least some of these to consider and appraise Total Transport as an option. Some modest related funding allocations would bring a flow of evidence and experience about Total Transport over the next few years to see where and how it works best.

Work at Government level should surely, meanwhile, be seeking to model the application of Total Transport and show the potential value for money it creates, so local and national political leaders start asking, ‘why aren’t we doing it?’ With all forms of local transport facing significant financial pressures, applying Total Transport thinking is potential a real win-win option.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT883, 9 January 2024.

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