In an uncertain and fast changing world, resilience has never been more important for the transport system. Recent events show that transport systems are far from being fail safe and that much more could be done to make the case for better investment in more resilient connections. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that the big freeze caused by the Beast from the East cost the UK economy about £1bn per day, halving economic growth in the first quarter of 2018. Local disruption to transport has also been costly, not least the cancellations to ferries on the west of Scotland in recent months, resulting in the loss of lifeline services and damaging the efficient functioning of local island economies.
Disruptions to transport have cost implications far greater than the direct effects within the transport sector. 100% reliability for every part of the transport system will never be possible, but failsafe access can be built in for essential journeys. Many authorities consider connectivity of transport systems and accessibility of opportunities together, such as the transport strategy in London. These plans consider the wider economic and social goals that frame transport requirements, including resilience, but good practice across most of the UK remains restricted to specific locations and events such as international sporting events which have received accolades for their resilient travel plans.
Resilient connections depend on managing the details of travel for staff, customers and suppliers. Which travel remains essential during a red weather warning? Which buses and trains are essential connectors? Should some car users be required to use winter tyres? What proportion of the workforce should live within walking distance of the workplace? The successful approaches demonstrate how audits of critical connections inform engagement between transport authorities and relevant partners leading to better funded and planed investment. The need for access also defines the spatial context for transport network coverage taking account of factors such as travel time, cost, reliability, information, reliability, safety, and comfort. Critically for resilience, the level of connectivity is measured in terms of the sensitivity of the system to the removal of key nodes and links. A well-connected location will still be well connected even if a key node like a railway station is not available.
Technology companies like Facebook and Google know a thing or two about making connections. Yet when it comes to ensuring a resilient workforce staff are offered incentives to live within walking distance of their workplace. Employers have long offered schemes to enable people to live in housing near their workplace such as the company housing that was a standard feature of 19th century industrialisation. The 21st century approaches that pay staff more to live near the workplace enable these staff to be called upon more easily when an emergency occurs. There are also corporate social responsibility benefits from reductions in congestion, and emissions from less work-related travel.
Despite the obvious benefits, such approaches remain rare amongst the travel plans of employers. More generally, the planning of accessibility and connections, although central to policy, has yet to be fully institutionalised within the transport industry. The income for most transport providers depends largely on levels of travel demand, so they optimise their operations around that demand, rather than the much greater value of resilient connections. The focus on travel demand rather than resilient connections has resulted in transport being undervalued and divorced from the value it provides to society. The average age of Calmac ferries on the west coast of Scotland is 22 years and the average age of trains has also been rising in many parts of the country increasing the risk of disruption. There is untapped potential for partnerships and joint ventures to grow investment that is more directly linked to the performance of the wider economy.
When seeking public funding, one continuing problem is that transport appraisal in government guidance documents such as WebTAG and STAG still treat the wider economy as more of a trend, outcome or impact than an opportunity for a project or policy intervention. This means that, from the perspective of appraisal, many of the most important changes to the transport system are treated as wider issues to be predicted rather than factors to be shaped. Big transport changes, such as planning hospital locations in partnership with health providers, or planning town centres and leisure locations for inclusive economic growth, rarely feature strongly in transport appraisal, being regarded as primarily the responsibility of others. Current challenges demand that financial and business cases for transport investment should build in the value of delivery in partnership, not least for the more integrated challenges of smart cities. Appraisal and public investment would be more useful if the benefits identified were more clearly mapped across to the responsibility to fund.
When the next weather, or other, disruption hits, the rights and responsibilities of all people and organisations in the supply chain could be much clearer than they were in February 2018. The recent disruption has revealed gaps in the ways that government, employers, transport operators and travellers view connectivity. The policy toolkits for securing resilient connections across sectors have been in place for some time, but stronger leadership is needed to accelerate delivery.
This article was first published in Transport Times in April 2018