Angels and Devils, Saints and Martyrs

To understand the transport system we need to think in terms of the major groups of users, and the problems they cause. We need to get out of the mentality of developing the networks on a who-shouts-loudest basis.

Every day, people in cities travel in complicated patterns that almost defy comprehension. Transport models attempt to reproduce this pattern, to allow us to test the effect of changes to the system. But the sheer complexity makes these models unwieldy, and prone to misinterpretation. The modellers do their best, but there’s a huge gulf in understanding between policy-makers and modellers.

Instead of really understanding the transport system, policy-makers focus on the separate networks (the roads, the trains, buses, bikes), their problems, and try to fix them. In fact it is quite normal for the different networks to be managed by entirely separate policy-makers, who just promote investment in their own network. This failure to manage the networks as an inter-related system means that we never solve congestion.

So instead of thinking in terms of networks, I think we need to focus on the different groups of users. This is inevitably going to be a huge simplification, but I think it gives a good starter to understanding the system, and generates some important policy insights. To make it memorable, I’m going to divide the different users into five groups: Angels and Devils, Saints and Martyrs, and Mortals.

In terms of the system, the main impacts are from people who travel further, or whose trips are particularly concentrated in particular places or at particular times. So we start with the Angels. These are people who travel into the city centre by public transport (or on foot or by bike). These are economically-valuable trips and the people making them are doing so in an efficient manner with little impact on other travellers.

In contrast, the Devils are people who drive into the city centre. They almost all have a public transport alternative, but choose instead to inflict their transport choice on everyone else, taking a disproportionate amount of congested space. Driving to work in the city centre is even worse – these journeys are concentrated in the peak, causing severe congestion.

The third group are the Saints, and here we break from the usual narrative. There is a very strong divide between city centre destinations, where public transport is readily available (and fairly well used), and suburban destinations, where public transport is usually inconvenient, and almost everyone drives. People who work in the suburbs are making a valuable economic contribution, even if they are driving. A bit like saints performing miracles, while still being human, and sinners.

The fourth major group are the Martyrs. These are the people delivering freight. With the exception of some long-distance and bulk cargoes, almost all freight is moved by road. The logistics industry is very competitive, and very much focused on minimising overall costs. Freight is a key part of the economy, and there is not much choice about how it is distributed. So this group primarily suffers from congestion caused by others.

The last group are the Mortals. Lots of trips are quite short, well-dispersed and don’t really cause any problems. This includes almost all cycling and walking, but many short car trips in the suburbs too. To a first approximation, these trips are just background noise in the system. We might want to encourage cycling and walking for various reasons, but at a system level, they have little effect.

This high-level division of traffic into five groups is crude, but gives a basic structure for transport policy. If we want to tackle congestion, we have to focus on getting the Devils out of their cars and using public transport, or cycling or walking. But this isn’t a war on motorists: it’s entirely reasonable that the Saints and Martyrs drive. We need to be a lot clearer about which car journeys are a problem, and a lot more assertive about converting such trips. The aim should be to convert all of those Devils into Angels. In most cities, almost all of the congestion is due to the Devils.

Concentrations of Saints can still cause congestion, but it’s unreasonable to treat this as an individual problem. There will be particular congestion problems around hospitals and business parks. Here the solution lies with the planners: offices should generally be located in city centres, so that businesses can benefit from agglomeration effects, and staff benefit from access to shops and other amenities. Allowing, or even encouraging offices to develop in the suburbs or out-of-town locations will just lead to endless demands for more road capacity. Offices should be around public transport hubs, and suburban land used for housing instead.

Hospitals in suburbs or out-of-town locations can be very difficult to address, but the all-day travel demand can make for a viable public transport offer, if parking is restrained. This is probably a long-term project, so it’s good to get it into the plans. But it will be much easier to focus on the city centre in the first instance.

Sometimes looking at a complicated problem in a different way can make it a lot simpler. It’s not that public transport is good, and the car bad, but that the economy works best when high-density office jobs are concentrated in city centres, and people use public transport (or walk or cycle) to get to them. We should stop thinking in terms of promoting the alternatives. Instead we should actively suppress car use into city centres, and then provide public transport in response to the demand.

Path Dependency

We are where we are. History has given British cities comprehensive bus services, too much car parking, and hardly any provision for cycling. In the short term, buses are probably the most effective way to get people out of their cars, but bikes can have a major supporting role.

Path dependency is the idea that our situation is influenced by historical choices, which effectively limit our scope for subsequent change. It doesn’t really matter whether those past choices were right or wrong; we are where we are. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t copy what has happened elsewhere, just that it will be easier and more effective to build on what we’ve already done, rather than start afresh.

A key historical choice for British cities can be traced back to the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire spread rapidly due to narrow medieval streets, with the upper floors jettied out. After the Great Fire, the streets were rebuilt on the same alignments, but wider. This principle was gradually applied elsewhere, and pretty much every British town has fairly wide (15m or so) main streets as a result.

Some countries in mainland Europe adopted a similar pattern of widened streets, but not all. Haussmann built boulevards (much wider streets with trees) in nineteenth-century Paris, partly for military reasons, partly to clear out slums, and these were copied in many other cities. Vienna built a boulevard in a ring around its centre. Some other – typically poorer – countries kept their dense narrow streets.

Centuries passed, and the consequence of these wider streets was that cities were open to the invasion of motor traffic – first the bus (or tram), and subsequently the motor car. Buses could run direct into the city centre, and this allowed the building of extensive suburbs. Later, when people owned cars, they could likewise drive into the city, and places were found for them to park.

It all came to a head in the seventies, when people started to address the problem that cars had become, but in many ways it was too late – there were already too many parking spaces.

Cities which had retained their narrow medieval streets were in a different situation. Bus services never really developed, or were limited to the edge of the city centre. Suburbs developed a bit later, and roads to the suburbs were built wider, so bikes didn’t get in the way of cars. The narrow streets in the centre soon filled up with cars. There were few places to park, except in the street. When eventually the streets were reclaimed for pedestrians, there was nowhere to park, and the traffic mostly evaporated. People just had to ride their bikes instead.

In Britain, we also pedestrianized our city centres. But we felt obliged to build new roads so that people could get to their car parks. Many British towns and cities have a dual carriageway around the centre, and large roundabouts or gyratories at the junctions. Those roads have allowed further increases in parking, with new multi-storey car parks, and offices with basement parking.

So where do we go from here? Using cars in cities is hugely inefficient, taking up acres of roadspace, and causing endemic congestion. Our streets have been adapted to try to cope with the peak hour – if we want to reclaim some space, we need to reduce driving to work. There is a big concentration of workplaces in city centres, with many people still driving, despite the availability of alternatives. For instance this map of Oxford shows where people are using their car to get to work (though note that this includes a fair number of people who park at the Park & Ride).

Oxford Driving Density

Driving numbers from the 2011 census, table WP703EW (modal figures for each workplace zone).

Our experience in Oxford is that it is possible to induce modal shift by closing roads. But there’s a limit to how far you can take this – you have to leave reasonable routes available for deliveries. The root of the problem is that people will carry on driving to work until there is nowhere for them to park. Reducing the amount of parking is difficult. Councils can stop new parking from being provided, but have little influence over existing parking. Landowners have some incentive to build on car parks, but mostly they won’t.

Let’s assume this process can be speeded up, by using a workplace parking levy to increase the incentive, getting landowners to take a more enlightened approach, or introducing retrospective planning control. How will the drivers travel to work in the city centre instead? The base assumption has to be that people will use the alternatives roughly in the same proportions as currently. In most British cities, that means a small amount of walking and cycling, with a clear majority using public transport. In a few cities, there are a good range of rail services, but after rail, the principal alternative is the bus.

There is only one city (Cambridge) where cycling is substantially more important than the bus, as a means of commuting to the city centre. There are only two others (Portsmouth and York) where buses and cycling are equally important. And only three more (Oxford, Bristol and central London), where cycling is more than half of bus use. Even in Cambridge, it’s recognized that improving bus services is essential, because many people are commuting from places that are too far away for most to want to cycle.

City Centre Modal Splits

Many people wouldn’t be seen dead on a bus – buses are regarded as too downmarket. Cyclists and pedestrians can also be quite hostile to the idea of buses, especially if they feel threatened by them. But the image of the bus has been transformed in places like London, Brighton and Oxford, by giving buses priority. Politically, to get away with restricting parking, you have to provide reasonable alternatives, so rehabilitating the bus is absolutely essential.

While buses could provide for most journeys into city centres, there are good reasons for also promoting cycling. Cycling is good for taking some of the peak load, and for catering for shorter journeys. Cycling is also better at providing for journeys within the suburbs.

The widespread use of buses in British cities is essential background to understanding the likely space that might be available for cycling on main roads. Bus lanes need to be provided to improve the quality of the bus service. So the main way to provide for cycling is to allow cyclists to use the bus lanes too. This caters for a fair range of adult cyclists, especially if bus drivers are trained in how to share appropriately. Where the road is too narrow for bus lanes, there’s usually room to squeeze in cycle lanes. The main difficulty is removing residential parking.

Clearly, this use of bus lanes and narrow cycle lanes is not ideal from the cyclists’ point-of-view. It certainly isn’t as good as has routinely been achieved in much of the Netherlands. But taking space from buses to provide more room for cyclists would be a backwards step in the British situation. We need the buses to get people out of their cars, so that in due course there can be more space for cycling as well.

The situation isn’t the same in all British cities – most have rather more car traffic than Oxford. With bigger roads, there are more junctions that will be difficult to make cycle-friendly. In those situations, the initial provision for bikes is more likely to involve back routes and segregated links for critical stretches where there aren’t alternatives (eg river, railway and major road crossings). But away from the worst of the traffic, it should be possible to make provision for cycling along main roads that is acceptable to most adults.

If we’re to stand a chance of making our cities into wonderful places to live and work (and indeed, efficient places to do business), we need to focus on reducing car traffic, and use whatever tools are necessary to that task. In Britain, we have a substantial history of providing buses, so a quality bus service needs to be the first priority for our streets. That inevitably leaves less room for bikes, but there is still enough room for cycling to play a substantial supporting role. It’s tricky getting the balance right between buses and bikes, especially if people insist on simply advocating for one or the other. But there is a huge opportunity to provide a good range of alternatives to driving, if we accept that both bus and cycle provision are required.

Data sources: Census data – contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right. Workplace zone boundaries – contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right. Roads (colour-coded by speed limit), placenames and hospital locations © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Oxford Transport 2065

Walking, cycling, buses, trains and cars have changed little, we just stopped driving when all the parking spaces were taken away.

When looking forward, it can be instructive to look back, and think about what has changed, what hasn’t, and why. In 1965, the principal modes of transport in and serving Oxford were walking, cycling, buses, trains and cars. The technology has improved in a number of respects, but the same basic structure persists. The reason is that the various non-car modes are all pretty well adapted for their respective distance markets, with more equipment and space used at higher speeds for longer distances. The car competes with all modes at all distances, as well as having a near monopoly on suburban and ex-urban journeys above a couple of miles. So while the vehicle technology will continue to evolve, the scope for paradigm-shifting change is limited, and can probably be discounted. No flying cars or jet-packs, sorry.

LetsLiveInOxfordBut transport is more than about vehicles. It is also about the infrastructure which society chooses to provide to support the use of different modes. In 1965, there was substantial likelihood that major new urban motorways and huge car-parks would be built. The government’s Traffic in Towns report had shown (in 1963) that cities would need to be substantially rebuilt if cars were to be accommodated. In 1970 Oxford City Council proposed building a spine motorway along the railway, and a motorway link across the river and through East Oxford to the bottom of Headington Hill (see diagram – from Oxford Civic Society’s “Let’s LIVE in Oxford”, 1970). Many other cities did indeed build such roads.

Instead of building roads, Oxford introduced Park and Ride and bus priority to keep traffic levels within the city broadly stable, despite substantial increases in the number of people travelling. Over time, parking has been reduced in the city centre, and has started to be brought under control at the hospital and university sites in Headington. However, parking has been allowed to increase in Cowley, where there is a major car works, and a couple of business parks close to the ring road. Fairly substantial provision for cycling has been made over the years, with facilities on about 50% of the urban main roads. This proportion is very high by UK standards, but still far from complete.

The third key aspect of transport is the location of housing and jobs. Housing growth has largely been directed at the main towns about 10 miles from Oxford (Banbury, Bicester, Didcot, Witney), with Abingdon and Kidlington also significant. It has suited the districts around Oxford to prevent Oxford expanding into its green belt – they have directed development to their own principal settlements instead. The politics of this is stable – it is unlikely to change. These settlements aren’t large enough to justify rail investment on their own, but three of them have benefited from being on the way to somewhere else, establishing a basic half-hourly train service. The other main settlements support frequent bus services.

Employment has become more dispersed over the last 50 years, and people travel further to get to work, with a lot of cross-commuting. Outside Oxford there has been a substantial shift to commuting by car. Central Oxford remains the largest employment concentration, but Headington has become a major location for hospital and university jobs. On the edge of the city, Cowley is also substantial, with people driving from all over the county. As well as the other main settlements, there is also a major employment concentration near Didcot, split between two business parks at Milton and Harwell, almost entirely accessed by car.

So the overall pattern has been for central Oxford to restrict parking, and switch access to walking, cycling, bus and train. But this has been a long process, with traffic levels remaining much the same. Much of the parking is private, and hard to remove. Something similar might be beginning to happen in Headington, but progress is likely to be slow. Outside the city, and in line with much of the rest of the UK, car use has become predominant, though cycling remains above-average. Housing is fairly well concentrated around existing settlements, but employment is becoming dispersed. The ready availability of employment sites outside the city threatens to undermine the approach that has been taken in Oxford. Contrariwise, the attractiveness of living in Oxford might encourage the other settlements to move away from mass car use.

Oxford’s alternative approach is unlikely to be deflected, and the difficulty of overcoming obstacles is likely to reduce over time. By 2065, parking is likely to have been substantially reduced in the city centre, and reduced by enough in Headington to eliminate congestion. The cycle network will have been completed, the bus lanes removed, and pavements widened. There will still be many who drive to Cowley, but there will be a fast bus link to the station, with connections to the rest of the county, so people will have a choice not to drive. The business parks will have been replaced by housing, with the offices relocated to the edge of the city centre as a result of the workplace parking levy. The buses will all be electric, and run through Queen Street. The referendum for a special tax to build a bus tunnel under Queen Street was lost.

Elsewhere in the county, the pressure on economic, health and carbon grounds to reduce car use eventually bore fruit. Bicester eco-town led to the development of a full cycling network in Bicester, and home delivery of groceries eventually allowed the town-centre car parks to be sold for flats. Didcot developed by expanding west, along the new bus spine routes to Milton Heights and Harwell. Diverting the main road through Milton Park had been a stroke of genius – avoiding the cost of a new railway bridge, giving the buses the straight route along the railway, and opening up the land south of the railway for housing. Didcot now extends all the way to the Harwell site, and more than half of Harwell’s workers now live in Didcot. Congestion on the A34 is a distant memory.

The future of local transport is not really dependent on technology, or even on behaviour. What matters is the politics. For five decades we have known that the car needs to be restrained if life in cities is to be improved. Land-owners have slowed down change, but eventually change will come.

Why can’t a bus … be more like a tram?

Buses could operate like trams, but only if we find an alternative to drivers checking and selling tickets.

The simplest way to make an excellent bus network for Oxford would be to allow two-way bus operation in Queen Street. This is probably what would happen if Oxford had a tram system. There are similar situations in (for example) Basel and Freiburg, and the trams run straight through the city centre without causing too much of a problem. There are also cities like The Hague or Antwerp where the trams run under the main street. This is very expensive (hundreds of millions of pounds), and would be quite hard to justify. But what these cities have in common is that the trams go through the very heart of the city.

So why are buses different? Why are they so horrible that we want to remove them from our city centres? It’s still rare for a bus to be fully-electric, but they are a lot less noisy and smelly than they used to be. Well-driven hybrids, in particular, are hardly a problem at all, when moving. The main difference is the amount of time buses are stopped, to let people get on and off. The occasional bus isn’t a problem, but in a busy city centre you can quickly end up with a wall of buses, destroying the pedestrian feel of the street.

The length of time for the stop is the result of selling and checking tickets. At peak times, it can take five minutes to take on a full load. At less-busy times, two minutes is quite normal. By contrast, a typical tram stop takes between 15 and 30 seconds.

The usual system for checking tickets on trams is to have random inspections. These are never frequent enough to stop widespread fare-dodging, with 25% or more of people travelling without tickets. Clearly it is fairer if everybody pays.

The solution adopted for bus rapid transit in South America has been to create gated stations at the all the bus stops. A simpler version of this could be considered for Oxford. This would start by having someone to sell tickets at the busiest bus stops at the busiest times, then maybe a couple of people to check tickets, so the rear doors can be used for boarding. It would help if all buses had rear doors.


Even so, it wouldn’t be possible to load a full double-decker in less than a minute. The best option then is to split the boarding between two stops, say at Bonn Square and Carfax. Buses would stop at Bonn Square to pick up half a load, then at Carfax to pick up the remainder. This gives more places to catch the bus, and keeps the impact at any location to a minimum. A possible alternative would be to have two stop-positions at one stop. But for this to work efficiently, the buses would need to run in pairs (eg by despatching them in pairs from the railway station).

I think if we seriously focus on improving dwell times, and have multiple credible stops in the city centre, we can run the buses much more like trams, so they have much less impact on the pedestrian environment.

The best arrangement is to run most services from the east through Queen Street (two-way) to the railway station. A few services (mostly the coaches) would still use St Aldates, but there would be many fewer stops (none at the top end), and the pavements could be much wider. Buses from the south would generally run via the new Westgate development and Castle Street to the station. Similarly, buses from the north would run through George Street to the station, reducing the amount of space needed in Magdalen Street, and providing easy interchange with other services.

Excellent BusMap

Small Town Blues

Making small towns into wonderful places to live and work will mostly proceed by improving conditions for walking. Improvements for cycling and public transport are probably an irrelevant distraction.

A few days in Dorchester set me thinking about how small towns could wean themselves off car dependency, and become wonderful places to live – if they wanted to. There are hundreds of small market towns like this in Britain, though they don’t all have quite such a long history.


Dorchester was a Roman town, and is the traditional capital of Dorset, though its population is only about 20,000. The Romans have long gone, replaced by a pedestrianised shopping street, some car parks, an interesting range of Victorian-and-older houses, and some tree-lined walks.

Outside the pedestrianised centre, you soon realise that the car is dominant. Streets are mostly quite narrow, but have a steady flow of traffic, and guardrail and indirect crossings to keep pedestrians in their place. Turn the wrong way, and you’ll find an oversized junction, probably giving access to a car park, or a roundabout built to minimise delay to motorists.

The town is famous as the home of the Victorian poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy. He built himself a house on the outskirts of the town, and rather delightfully had a room just for bicycles, when they were the latest fashion (in the 1890s). The garden is now somewhat spoiled by noise from the bypass. You like to imagine that Thomas Hardy would still be riding his bicycle if he were alive today, but I’m afraid he’d probably have long since built a garage, and taken up driving.

This is very different from an equivalent Dutch town. There would be a dense centre, with an inner ring road built on the former defensive canal. Car parks would be further from the centre. The first suburbs would have been built later, with cycle tracks alongside the main roads into the centre. But the suburbs would be more extensive, reflecting the huge population growth in the Netherlands over the last few decades. There probably wouldn’t be an outer bypass, though there might be a motorway fairly close by. There wouldn’t be a Tesco (or any other large food store) on the bypass. The normal way of getting about town would be by bicycle, though quite a lot of people drive.

We can’t magically convert a British market town into its Dutch equivalent – the urban form, street form and land use structure are completely different. We can’t just look over the North Sea and copy what the Dutch have done. We have to find our own way.

It’s not even clear that the people of Dorchester want to change. Traffic congestion isn’t really a problem, and driving is convenient. Those who don’t have access to a car are at a disadvantage, but that’s probably a minority. There is a bus service that loops around the suburbs once an hour, but it’s almost exclusively used by the elderly. People living outside Dorchester will be even more dependent on the car. So seriously restraining the car is unlikely to be popular.

The small-town Italian model would be to restrict parking in the centre, giving bikes a significant advantage. But it’s unlikely that Dorchester’s residents would be quite so keen to cycle, because the culture has been lost, and the streets have been adapted for the convenience of motorists. Dorchester also has some hills, in stark contrast to the Po Valley.

So if we can’t restrict traffic very much, our only real option is to minimise its impact, by reducing speeds, and giving greater priority to pedestrians. The whole town could be a 20mph zone. Some people will already walk into town, and some others might be persuaded out of their cars if walking wasn’t such an obstacle course. Remove the guardrails, and use Zebra crossings to give pedestrians priority. Not many people will cycle, but simply slowing the traffic will make cycling a bit more tolerable.

In time this should reduce some of the demand for parking, as people walk instead. This might allow some of the most central parking to be converted into amenity space, maybe a new square with shops. Dorchester would become a more pleasant place to stop and walk around, and visitors would stay longer, recommend it more, and return sooner.

In Britain’s market towns, where the level of cycling and bus use is minimal, it’s probably more sensible to focus on improving conditions for pedestrians, gradually reducing the impact of traffic. Shared-space roundabouts, road narrowing, and better pedestrian crossings, like at Poynton in Cheshire, might be the better approach, even though this isn’t particularly cycle-friendly. In small towns, we should focus on pedestrians.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors

A Cunning Plan

How UK railways improve – by carefully developing what is already there, rather than building miles of new lines.

The West Coast Main Line has dedicated fast lines (shown in red on the map below) for most of the way from London to Crewe, but there is a gap in the Stafford area. Fifteen years ago, the plan was to build a Stafford bypass, taking fast trains past three flat junctions on tight curves, at Colwich, Stafford and Norton Bridge. This consisted of a flyover at Colwich junction, so all fast trains would head towards Stoke, then a new line north of Stafford for trains to switch back to the line to Crewe (shown in yellow). But the economics didn’t stack up.


Instead, what is currently being built is much simpler – a flyover at just one of the three junctions, Norton Bridge (shown in green). Doesn’t this just leave the other two problem junctions unresolved? No – and this is the cunning part.

While ideally the fast trains would have a pair of lines to themselves, this isn’t actually essential unless the railway is close to maximum capacity. You can get a decent capacity for high speed trains just by eliminating conflicting moves. The odd two-track bottleneck is quite tolerable, as long as there are no flat junctions.

This has already been used to good effect between Rugby and Nuneaton. The fast and slow lines are combined in the northbound direction for a few miles, because a motorway bridge was built too narrow. This also, very cleverly, avoided the need for a new flyover at Rugby.

The cunning part of the Norton Bridge project is that the four-track railway between Crewe and Stafford will be paired by route, with services for the Trent Valley using the fast lines, and services for Birmingham using the slow lines. The speed of the slow lines has been increased to 100mph, and there are no intermediate stations, so journey times will be unaffected. This creates a conflict-free path for northbound fast services, increasing capacity. It also means there can be fewer sets of points south of Stafford station, allowing the track to be canted (tilted) for higher speeds.

In terms of existing passenger services, the southbound Trent Valley stopper will use the main line from Norton Bridge to Colwich, stopping at Stafford. Northbound fast services to Stoke will divert via Stafford and Norton Bridge, allowing Colwich to be reconfigured for higher speeds.

Freight is a bit more complicated, but the main requirement for freight is capacity, not speed. To remove the conflict, freight can be diverted away from the Trent Valley, via Penkridge, Willenhall, Walsall, Sutton Park and Water Eaton to Nuneaton.

This is how the conventional railway increases its capacity and speed, by carefully organising slow traffic out of the way, and removing conflicts, leaving a clear route for fast traffic. In effect, the two-track section is turning red.

The next cunning plan will probably be to reconfigure Crewe. The slower services can be routed to use the freight underpasses, though they will need new platforms and signalling. This will allow the constrained junction north of the station to be moved to the south, where there is much more room. This doesn’t need to be a flying junction, because capacity isn’t as tight when most of the trains are stopping, but the speed for Manchester services can be increased to a lot more than the current 20mph.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is here.

Integrated Transport

The railways should be given the role of coordinating Integrated Transport. Information about buses (and cycling and walking) needs to be considerably improved, so people can readily understand and begin to trust the quality of connecting services.

When I’m going to visit a new city, I look to find out how to get from the station to my destination – be that somebody’s offices, where I’m staying, a conference venue or the city centre. In a small city, I’ll probably just walk. If there’s obvious public transport – a tram or a metro, I’ll use that. It’s usually next to impossible to decipher the buses. If I’m travelling on my own and feeling adventurous, I might look up potential cycle routes. But failing that, I’ll probably resort to a taxi.

Basel All ServicesWhy is it that integrated transport is so good in some countries, but so hopeless in Britain? A large part of it is down to our lack of trams. Tram and metro systems are generally simpler to understand, because the cost of infrastructure limits their complexity, and most routes have a good frequency. There is a strong tradition of diagrammatic mapping that people are used to, and which works well. Because it’s a diagrammatic map, you do then have to go to the effort of finding your station/stop on a street map, but the diagrammatic map inspires confidence, and makes that worthwhile. Here’s an example from Basel (there’s an even simpler version which just has the coloured tram lines, and leaves out the buses).

LuxembourgBusMapBus maps are generally more complicated. The norm in the UK is to use a different colour for each route in the suburbs, in an attempt to mimic metro maps, but to give up in the city centre. Buses often run in complicated loops in the centre, and if you have one colour per bus route, you would end up with multiple parallel lines, and an unintelligible tangle. Mostly, this type of map never sees the light of day, but here’s an example from Luxembourg.

Oxford Smart Zone MapThe best you can usually hope for in the UK is a central street map showing the stops, and a guide which lists the stops you can use for each destination. There might be another list that tells you how frequent each service is, but not how frequent they are in combination. You can work it out if you need to, but most people will have given up by then. Sometimes the city centre is just a mystery, like in Oxford.

paddingtonIf I’m visiting a city, I want to know whether there’s a frequent service from near at hand to roughly where I want to go. British bus maps are mostly useless for this purpose. The best in the UK are TfL’s spider maps, which are produced individually for each small area, and rely on the fact that most services are high-frequency and planned as a system. Even these maps resort to destination lists and stop codes, so take a bit of deciphering. Here’s an example for the area around Paddington.

An alternative approach is to treat buses like low-frequency transport, and provide a journey planner. This will give you a list of departures, but it doesn’t give you a feel for how good the service is. It might tell you there’s a journey every few minutes, but they might take different routes, or involve changing in different places. The great thing about a map is that you can see this straight away, not have to decipher it from a list.

BusMap_150_CentrePlusI’ve been developing a solution for my Oxford bus map, which is to use a small range of colours to show the routes that buses take in the centre. There are usually only a few distinct routes through the centre, which then spread out in the suburbs. I’ve limited the map to the routes taken by higher-frequency services, to keep it reasonably simple. Lower frequency branches in the suburbs are shown as dashed lines, to give a clear visual indication of where the quality drops. In this way, the central map blends seamlessly into the whole-city map, so it can be zoomable, and overlaid on a street map.

Why can’t we get good information already? Well mainly because the private bus operators are focused on selling services from the suburbs to the centre, not on providing a service that works for visitors. Some operators provide excellent information, others little more than a printout of a spreadsheet. The councils have responsibility for public transport in general, but are very patchy in the information they offer. Mostly they have subscribed to providing journey planners to discharge their basic responsibility, and left the private operators to provide further information.

This is why I think the responsibility for Integrated Transport needs to be formally given to the railway. The railway already takes on part of the responsibility, but it’s still rather patchy. The railway companies are the key beneficiaries of good integrated transport – they are the ones that get the income for the majority of the journey. So the railways are best placed to make a system that works well for visitors.

Integrated transport is mostly about information. In an ideal world, the bus companies would be improving their connecting services, and the local authorities would be improving conditions for cycling and walking. But for the moment, it is mostly a matter of providing the information, good and bad, and letting travellers choose accordingly. When we can easily see the good examples, there will be more incentive for improvements to be made.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for providing bike parking and bike hire. In countries like the Netherlands, there are huge cycle parking facilities at stations, and the two modes definitely complement one-another: 40% of train trips in the Netherlands are combined with cycling. The railways certainly have an interest in providing cycle parking and cycle hire, because there is never going to be enough space for commuters to take their bikes on the train. So this is a significant part of the market, and it does need to be provided for. But unless the conditions for cycling in our cities improve dramatically, it’s hard to see cycling becoming a major choice for visitors.

I think the emphasis needs to shift to promoting walking and local public transport. The NationalRail website needs to be much clearer about providing onward travel information, starting with walking. There should be a link to a zoomable street map for each station, perhaps as an icon next to the arrival and departure station, as on the Swiss Railways site.

Reading Station PosterAt the moment there is a link about three levels down which takes you to a pdf of the station information poster. While it’s good that these posters have been produced, they are unwieldy and a long way from best practice. Outside London and the major cities, the posters are very basic (in London and the major cities, they use TfL or PTE maps, which are slightly better, but still limited). The maps don’t give you any feel for what the city is like – the cartography is minimalist, and the cycle and walking routes seem to be almost random. They don’t really tell you whether this is the sort of station where you walk straight out into the city centre, or whether cycling is fairly safe, let alone where buses run.

Reading OSMA proper zoomable street map would at least give you a feel for what the area around the station is like: are there major roads to cross, do you have to walk along a main road or cross at a major junction to get into the centre? Is there a pedestrianised area and shops close by, or is it industrial? Open Street Map already gives a good impression of this, though it could be improved (it doesn’t show pedestrian crossings, for instance).

In the same way, you could have a map focused on cycling – one that shows where the routes are (not just odd bits of cycle path), whether there’s any provision on main roads, and whether you can cycle in the pedestrianised area. There can also be links giving more information on cycle hire and how it works.

The biggest challenge is to map the central bus services, but that’s not impossible, as I have shown. Some of the TfL and PTE maps are pretty good, though they are often focused on taking you off to the suburbs, rather than getting about the centre. And of course, every map is different. There needs to be a consistent zoomable map, showing clearly where services run in the centre.

In the UK, I think the starting point is to make the railways responsible for providing good consistent readily-accessible information. We have the technology; all we need is an informed customer.

Limiting Traffic

You can get a long way towards making a city a wonderful place to live and work, by limiting the level of traffic. If you limit traffic around the city centre, you don’t need much cycle infrastructure.

The guidebook wasn’t encouraging – “travellers are scarce enough to attract a few stares”, but it turns out that Piacenza (forty minutes south of Milan) was a revelation: it has a huge everyday cycling culture. It’s hard to tell, but I’d say a higher level of cycling than Oxford. It was much the same in Parma (twice the size and half an hour further south), but with the added bonus of trolleybuses.

Clearly, from the age of the bikes, and the cyclists, this cycling culture has been there for a while: but how have they stopped traffic from taking over? In the centre there are a few pedestrian-only streets, where cyclists are probably officially banned, not that that seems to stop them. Around that is one of the newfangled traffic-limited zones (ZTL), with access confined to residents and deliveries between 0800 and 1900.

Outside the ZTL, there were no formal restrictions, but traffic was only moderate (I’d estimate somewhere between 5000 and 10000 motor vehicles per day), and speeds were reasonable (30-40 km/h). There were some shared-use pavements, but most cycling was on the road (even the old ladies). Junctions were often mid-sized roundabouts (25-30m diameter, with an island) – these have apparently been installed over the last few years, in place of traffic lights, but cyclists seemed to be muddling through them without too much difficulty. Further out, the roads were wider, traffic faster, and cycling was less common.

One major difference with British cities is that residential density is much higher, with apartments being the norm, buildings close to the street, and almost no gardens. This goes a fair way to explaining why car use has not become dominant – a lot of trips will be very short. The availability of good alternatives to driving will have made it easier to impose restrictions in the centre. The enclosed feel to the streets will also have kept car speeds reasonable, even without formal speed limits.

So what lessons are there for Britain? This approach is more natural for denser cities, with the urban form and street form doing much of the work for you. But the structure of progressive tightening of restrictions and traffic speed towards the centre could be reproduced in Britain. Perhaps the two key measures are the restriction on commuter and visitor parking in the area around the centre, and the low speed and urban feel of the inner ring road. This is quite different to the dual-carriageway ring road, high-speed roundabouts, and multi-storey car parks that are the norm in Britain.

For Oxford the key lesson is the value in restricting commuter parking. This would limit traffic so that junctions like The Plain and Frideswide Square could be more cycle and pedestrian-friendly. Visitor parking has long been restricted by price, though there is still too much of it, too close in (especially Broad Street). But we have struggled to limit commuter parking. There are thousands of parking places on private land, with the University and Colleges being the main culprits. We probably can’t create Italian-style limited traffic zones, but we could use the threat of a punitive Workplace Parking Levy – say £1000/year – to get employers to reduce parking spaces. There are comprehensive public transport services into the city centre; hardly anyone really needs to drive.

Despite the difference in residential density, I think there’s a lot to be learned from places like Piacenza. They show how it is possible to restrict the car and provide for the alternatives without having to comprehensively rebuild every street. They show how things can evolve and improve. I’m always willing to go back and investigate some more…

Think Like A Pedestrian

For twenty years and more, cities like York and Oxford have had a transport hierarchy that puts pedestrians first. For those who manage not to be entirely obsessed with bikes or public transport, this idea that pedestrians have highest priority is pretty much accepted without question. But it isn’t clear what that means in practice.

Over the years, I’ve seen several attempts to write a Walking Strategy, mostly trying to fill the gap next to the Cycling Strategy. Sometimes the language is copied, with talk of Core Pedestrian Route Networks. I often hear people trying to promote walking, with lots of talk of healthy physical exercise. Some people even encourage you to bribe yourself, with glorified calorie counters earning mince pies or ice creams. All of this seems to rather miss the point.

I think the problem is trying to think of walking in isolation, in much the same way as providing for other modes has become stuck in silos. There really are things that can be done to promote walking – I’d highlight raised desire-line crossings of side roads and short-response pedestrian crossings – but they are only addressing walking in isolation.

The wider issue is whether a street is the sort of place where people want to walk. Are there places to go? Are they within easy walking distance? Are there other people around? Is the traffic oppressive? Are people on bikes a threat? Are enough people being coerced out of their cars?

In recent years, I’ve seen more talk of place-making. This is the idea that improvements to the physical form of the street can turn them into attractive places where people want to linger. While these are often great, and look wonderful, you do wonder whether you are just being taken for a ride by fancy-paving salesmen. There are an awful lot of streets that are unlikely ever to get such a treatment, so again it doesn’t feel like a real solution. Plain old tarmac is just fine if you’ve got people: the trick is getting the people.

I think we need to break out of this idea of treating each mode in isolation, and promoting the ones we prefer. City streets are a single system, and you can’t treat one aspect in isolation. Instead, we need to refocus on disadvantaged user groups – such as pedestrians – and ask what they want to happen to the system as a whole.

So, for instance, pedestrians might want more-frequent bus services, with better connections – because actually they’d rather not walk everywhere. They might want good cycle facilities on the road, so that people on bikes don’t threaten them, and maybe they’ll try it for themselves one day. They might want the traffic to slow down, or be stopped from driving through the back streets. They might want lots of zebra crossings, so they can enjoy stopping the traffic, and not have to wait in the fumes or the heat or the rain. They might want the parking moved a bit further away, so drivers don’t hog all the space by the entrance. They might want there to be less traffic.

But pedestrians won’t want to stop the city functioning altogether. They’ll still want things delivered, still want disabled access, still want reasonable access by anybody really, just as long as the cars don’t take over.

I think it’s time we learned to think like pedestrians.

Railway Boundaries

Whether trains are run by public or private companies, most services will be specified by government and organised by geographical area. But where should the boundaries be?

There’s often a tendency to run the long-distance services separately, because they are less dependent on public subsidy. Arguably, long-distance and local services need a different style of management, and the conventional wisdom was that it would be hard for one company to do both. But having separate companies means additional interfaces, unresolved conflicts, bigger meetings, and meetings instead of phone calls. Alternatively, it might be better if companies were small and focused: they certainly seem to perform better, especially if they are self-contained.

Since privatisation, the boundaries between franchises have changed. Some franchises have been combined to make for a single large operator in a region – creating Greater Western and Anglia. A franchise for Wales was created, to match the political geography, and Central Trains was split up because it was sprawling, unfocused, and performing badly. The local services in the north east were combined with those in the north west, but Transpennine was separated out.

Organising services by region seems to be effective. There doesn’t seem to any real problem with combining local and long-distance services. Nobody seems to place any great value on franchises competing directly with each other. So for a lot of the country, the question is pretty much settled, from Anglia clockwise around London to Chiltern, plus Wales, Merseyrail and Scotland.

But the organisation of services in the rest of the country is unresolved. This comprises the services currently run by East Coast, Northern, Transpennine, East Midlands, West Coast, CrossCountry, and London Midland. The perennial problem is the local services, which require substantial subsidy. It makes sense to coordinate them with the mainline services, to maximise connecting revenue, but it also makes sense to focus on local journeys into the major cities, and follow a regional political agenda. Maybe one day the cities will restrict car traffic, reducing the subsidy required.

One key problem is Birmingham, where CrossCountry and London Midland are both significant operators. I would suggest transferring the West Midlands local services to CrossCountry, so that there is one main operator. The remaining London Midland services would then transfer to West Coast, so there’s one main operator for all the services into Euston.

In the North, despite a certain amount of political cooperation, the two sides of the Pennines are really quite separate. I think it makes more sense to combine the local services around Manchester with West Coast, and the local services in Yorkshire with East Coast.

You’d then end up with four franchises: West Coast based in Manchester, East Coast based in York, East Midlands based in Derby and CrossCountry based in Birmingham.

There are a number of options with Transpennine services. In some ways it makes sense running services for long distances. Passengers make all sorts of overlapping journeys, and through-running reduces the need for interchange. But it adds to operational complexity – trains have to be fuelled and cleaned away from their home depot, and there have to be small driver and conductor depots. And the further you run, the more chance of a delay. This isn’t a sensible way to operate low-margin low-frequency services.

It’s better to split operations at natural thresholds, either places where there is little traffic, or where almost everybody changes trains anyway. Manchester provides a natural hub, so I think it is better to split services there, with East Coast providing the main services across the Pennines, and down to Nottingham. East Midlands would then concentrate on covering the east-west flows further south.

What people want from the railways is a well-managed public service. A proliferation of operators doesn’t help, and we should move to a situation where each region has one main operator, with Network Rail organised in the same way.

The map shows a possible split.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.