With just under a week to go before the GCP’s Making Connections consultation closes, it’s time to offer my perspective. From the off, some people adopted fixed positions either for or against the proposals, but I’ve deliberately not rushed to judgement, to allow clarification from officers on queries, and to make sure I have heard as many views as possible.
As a city councillor, and particularly as an independent one, I will have little to no formal say on this process or its outcome. However, I do hear from a lot more people than most, so I hope my conclusions are helpful.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to assume readers already know what’s proposed and won’t recap here. Also, a declaration of interest: as a member of the (sadly now defunct) Smarter Cambridge Transport group, I still think the most thorough and workable summary of how to tackle Cambridge’s transport challenges is in their ‘Reducing Traffic Congestion and Pollution in Urban Areas’ paper.
Some preliminary comments
Firstly I want to thank the active and engaged people who have in good faith asked questions of those proposing the scheme and critiqued the efficacy of the consultation process itself. I must also thank those who have studied the supporting documentation, explored the possible implications, and compared them with evidence from elsewhere. Your efforts have added a huge amount of value to the public debate and greatly enriched understanding of these complex considerations. I’d also like to thank the many Queen Edith’s residents who took the time to contact me directly with their own responses.
Secondly, it was perhaps inevitable that over the last two months the debate has become heated, even focusing on high-profile personalities rather than on the issues themselves. I’m not interested in knockabout insults or flinging around labels that try to impose simplistic transport-based identities on people. I have tried throughout to look at the arguments fairly and see the scope for points of agreement, rather than dramatising the disagreements and increasing polarisation.
Finally I’m fortunate that, as an independent councillor, I am not subject to a party whip and can speak my mind on the issues as I see them. Many of you will be aware that I am in an administrative group on the city council with the three Green Party councillors, who are also not whipped and will be free to make their own minds up about the proposals.
More than ever, I have been grateful for the freedom to really examine what’s on the table and reach my own conclusions. There’s a huge amount I could have written about the details of the proposals, but I’ve tried to concentrate here on four really big themes.
1. These proposals are all about facilitating our area’s continued rapid growth
I have written previously about the multiple unaddressed negative externalities of our area’s extraordinarily aggressive rate of growth over the last two decades. The GCP’s Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) proposals are yet another manifestation of those externalities.
At heart, they boil down to one simple question – should residents and businesses be charged to drive into/out of/within the city to facilitate another decade or more of rapid employment-led housing growth? Remember, the GCP’s sole reason for being is growth:
“The Greater Cambridge Partnership is the local delivery body for a city deal with central government, bringing powers and investment, worth up to £500 million over 15 years, to vital improvements in infrastructure, supporting and accelerating the creation of 44,000 new jobs, 33,500 new homes and 420 additional apprenticeships.” (From: What is the Greater Cambridge Partnership?)
But, as I have commented previously, residents have never been asked if they actually want – or consent to – this scale of growth. Moreover, the assumption that growth is a necessarily good thing in itself is simplistic:
“Always ask: growth of what, and why, and for whom, and who pays the cost, and how long can it last, and what’s the cost to the planet, and how much is enough?” – Donella Meadows
People are being asked to pay for an improved bus network, which will allegedly ‘unlock the next phase of growth’. But many of them simply don’t feel like they are benefitting from that growth.
They also don’t trust what’s being proposed.
They don’t trust the organisation proposing it.
And they don’t feel it’s being proposed with their interests at heart.
2. These proposals ignore the ‘Overton Window’
I have seen it suggested that those people expressing such feelings are simply either stupid, or selfish, or both.
Certainly there is a large section of the local population who don’t understand how our multi-tiered overlapping local government structures work, and who can blame them for that? Remember, the organisation promoting the STZ – the GCP – is not the organisation which would have responsibility for making the bus franchising arrangements work (which is the Combined Authority).
But I would argue that much of the negativity towards the proposals is also because they seem to have been drawn up without any reference to the concept of the ‘Overton Window’ of political possibilities: the range of ideas that the public is willing to consider and accept in a given place at a particular time.
In a nutshell, the GCP’s proposals are neither solving a problem that people recognise nor suggesting a solution that fits their understanding of an accepted problem. For example:
- People might recognise congestion as a problem; but the proposed STZ doesn’t look like it’s targeting congestion because the operating hours extend well beyond any period of congestion and its format includes trips away from, as well as into, the city;
- People might recognise pollution as a problem; but the proposed STZ doesn’t look like it’s targeting pollution because it includes low emissions vehicles such as motorbikes and electric vehicles.
What makes it worse is that the proposals are couched in language designed to make people feel bad about their current transport decisions. To many people this instinctively feels like unfair criticism, because what the data tells us is that Cambridge’s residents already make responsible transport choices – the ONS’ recently-published 2021 census data shows that Cambridge continued to report a high level of walking and cycling commuters (49%) compared to the national average (14%). We’re doing what we can.
And in addition to comparison with national averages, it’s also worth comparing Cambridge’s transport patterns with London’s, especially given the GCP’s rhetoric around the merits of a ‘London style’ bus network. It’s interesting to see that bus already accounts for 7% of Cambridge commuting journeys, not much different to the 9% achieved in London. So I would argue that Cambridge’s residents are actually already making a pretty concerted attempt to travel sustainably, despite the lack of high-quality public transport modes (underground/light rail/tram); and that these best efforts have regrettably been underplayed in the GCP’s materials. See for example this statement on p.18 of the Making Connections brochure:
“The charge would apply to vehicles, unless they are exempt, that move into, out of or within the Zone, not just those crossing the boundary. This is because 53% of journeys in the morning peak start within the Zone; over a third of these journeys are wholly within the Zone which are shorter and so are easier to make by foot, bike and bus, than those coming from further away.”
This 53% statistic has been widely quoted by GCP speakers in public meetings, during radio interviews, etc, and is presumably intended to indicate that Cambridge residents are irresponsibly hopping in their cars for short journeys which could be made by other means.
However, when qualified by the ‘one third’ statement (which it certainly wasn’t when it came up at South Area Committee), the maths looks rather different – it seems that only 17% of journeys in the morning peak are by Cambridge residents staying within the Zone. I’m sure that figure could be reduced still further, but it’s very different to the impression given by “53%”. And I recognise that commuting patterns outside the city are different, which is precisely why I am not in favour of the current one-size-fits-all proposal across the whole Greater Cambridge area.
There’s an important related aspect here. Pretty much every planning application in Greater Cambridge for a housing or employment site in the last 20 years has claimed that the application will not have any negative impact on congestion, as there is sufficient capacity within the road network to absorb the additional journeys generated.
Of course, the evidence in front of everyone’s eyes is that this is not the case. But the planning system has signed off on all the development regardless, in what we might regard as ‘gaslighting’ the population.
But now – we are told abruptly – there isn’t the capacity, and there is a problem. And the only way it can be solved is by signing up to the GCP’s proposals because – we are told – “There is no Plan B”.
More than that, people have been told that if they don’t support the proposals they are “supporting the Tories” and they must also be hostile to any measures to address climate change, improve air quality, etc. This is of course nonsense.
So the Tories have been hands off on buses. They still are. So if you are against the @GreaterCambs proposal, you are supporting the Tories. Doesn’t that make most of you think?
— Dave Baigent (@dave4labour) November 11, 2022
Coming back to the importance of the Overton Window, this extreme position simply alienates people who might otherwise well be willing to co-operate with measures to address congestion or pollution, if they believed that was the purpose of the measures (rather than the GCP’s goal of generating the maximum revenue possible). Look at what the top choices were in previous rounds of GCP consultation (below): a ‘pollution charge’ and ‘a flexible charge to drive at the busiest times’. That’s not what we’re being offered now, which makes people question why on earth they would trust that this process is being conducted in good faith.
3. The proposals overstate their sustainability credentials
Moving on from the point about whether opposing these proposals is apparently indicative of an ‘anti-green’ mindset, I would argue that in fact these proposals significantly overstate their own sustainability credentials.
Sustainability has three components – economic, environmental and social – which I’ll look at in turn.
The revenue generated by the charge will be overwhelmingly directed at funding the extended bus service. When I asked about the funding split at South Area Committee, I was told that (say) £70M revenue generated annually would be split with £50M on buses, £10M on scheme administration costs and £10M on (unspecified) active travel and related improvements.
There has been significant debate about this which I won’t rehash here, but a few issues are particularly troubling:
Firstly, a bus-based system is not conducive to productivity. Economist Tom Forth has explored this at length, but here’s a summary:
I've been looking at low productivity in the UK. Trying to find examples with data of where it actually happens. Public transport is an ace example. Compared to our more productive neighbouring countries we use far more drivers to transport fewer people. That's low productivity.
— Tom Forth (@thomasforth) November 22, 2022
If you want to improve productivity via public transport investment, you adopt trams or light rail, not buses. Tram or light rail options, once built, are also less vulnerable than a bus network to interference and service reductions instigated by politicians’ or operators’ whims.
Secondly, I’m concerned that the financial interests of the city’s many small businesses and public sector/not-for-profit organisations (particularly those outside the historic city centre) are not being adequately captured by this consultation process, or indeed by the GCP’s activities more widely. I have received impassioned emails from local schools detailing the staff recruitment and retention difficulties they foresee if the proposals go ahead. And, as I have commented previously, it is much easier for ‘big business’ to get its views heard (both as individual organisations and through lobby groups such as Cambridge Ahead) than it is for our small independent traders.
Thirdly, the financial cost of the bureaucracy underpinning the scheme is probably understated – we are being primed to expect a patchwork of exemptions and reimbursements based on multiple factors including (but not limited to) income, health status, profession, vehicle type, and the reason for the trip. This will of course divert money raised away from running the buses which are the very point of the exercise!
The GCP originally had three stated transport goals:
- To reduce the number of miles travelled
- For those miles still travelled, to encourage more active travel and public transport use
- For those remaining trips made by private vehicles, to encourage less polluting forms (electric vehicles).
The STZ proposals contain nothing that will contribute towards achieving the first goal, and indeed, at a meeting earlier this year, a GCP officer confirmed that that goal has been quietly abandoned. I guess that’s because the separation of planning and transport powers across multiple local government organisations, and the extraordinarily high rate of population growth, mean that it would be too challenging to achieve. But I think it’s a great shame. We hear a lot of mention of low traffic neighbourhoods, but the gold standard for which we should be aiming is liveable (15/20 minute) neighbourhoods, as acknowledged by active travel advocacy group Sustrans:
People should be able to enjoy a good quality of life without needing a car. Investment in safe active travel routes, affordable public transport and 20-minute neighbourhoods must be a priority, so that people don’t have to depend on cars for their everyday trips. pic.twitter.com/VdKIbCLeRO
— Sustrans (@Sustrans) November 30, 2022
Although Cambridge is still a relatively compact city, amenities and different demographics are very unevenly distributed. At the moment, it is much easier to live sustainably in Petersfield (which has a younger population and many facilities in easy walking/cycling reach) than it is in, say, Queen Edith’s or Abbey. So any discussion about transport proposals should be accompanied by firm commitments about how they will be better integrated with decisions about land use, with the aim of enabling more of us to live more locally more of the time.
With regard to the second goal, encouraging more active travel and public transport use, we know the vast majority of the money raised by the STZ charge will be spent on buses. I am very concerned that any funding available for active travel and supporting measures will be too small and too restricted in what it can be spent on. If the GCP is serious about encouraging public transport and active travel, there are many factors underpinning the user experience which require investment – not just obvious infrastructure projects like cycle routes themselves, but also pothole and pavement repairs; bus shelters with seating and real-time information; secure cycle parking; better street lighting; and more police and parking enforcement officers. There’s nothing like enough money allocated from the STZ pot to achieve that right now.
The GCP’s third goal is simply not supported by the proposed inclusion in the charging regime of electric vehicles, motorbikes and mopeds.
And then there’s the issue of how people’s attitudes to making sustainable transport choices might be affected negatively by the introduction of a flat, per-day charge. At the moment, the data indicates that residents make choices which optimise cost/time/convenience, moving between modes depending on their priorities/constraints for each particular journey. I haven’t seen any consideration of the possibility that the STZ charge may actually encourage some drivers to make less thoughtful choices about which mode they choose for each journey, along the lines of: “Well, I’ve paid my £5 for today, so I may as well get value for money from it”.
The debate around social sustainability has seen two conflicting perspectives. The GCP argues that the STZ proposal will help the poorest households, which are least able to afford to run a car and which have most to gain from a better bus network. However, the GMB union has publicly spoken out against it, plus all three of the Labour councillors in Cherry Hinton and former Labour councillor Carina O’Reilly who came out with this particularly punchy framing:
“It is designed around a flat tax which dismisses these concerns in favour of middle-class preaching (‘it’s for your own good’) at the recalcitrant and ungrateful working classes.”
My own concern is that the STZ proposals will reinforce and accelerate the development of a two-speed Cambridge. For a start, companies in Cambridge’s tech sector already offer their staff a wide range of very generous perks, and undoubtedly many will simply add STZ charges incurred by staff into that package in a way that other smaller businesses, public sector organisations and voluntary groups will simply not be able to replicate.
I also struggle to understand how the STZ proposals take proper account of the wider opportunity cost and value of time for people on low incomes.
For example, let’s assume a journey which currently takes 30 minutes by car might take 60 minutes by bus (including travelling to the stop and waiting for a service). That adds an hour (at least) to a working day. That hour has a value: it might make the difference between being able to take the children to an after-school activity, volunteer at a local community group, or just rest after a hard day’s work.
Moreover, under the proposals, continuing to use the car would cost £5 (plus running expenses), perhaps equivalent to 40 minutes work on a minimum wage. Swapping to bus would cost £4 return (25 mins on a minimum wage) plus a degree of inconvenience plus the risk of a service running late or not showing up. For someone in secure employment at a professional salary, the risks and inconvenience may not be that material – they are likely to have flexible working hours, the ability to switch to working from home, and a generally high degree of autonomy about how/where/when they get the job done. None of these will apply to someone in insecure employment or whose physical presence is required at a set location between set hours.
Finally, there is a specifically gendered dimension to transport debates. Again, for the sake of brevity I won’t go into it here, but I do recommend you read a paper called Mind The Gender Gap and consider the impact of the STZ proposals against its findings.
4. How we might think about Plan B
The STZ consultation would have been more informative and more constructive if it hadn’t been based on the premise that “There is no Plan B”. That is an awful way to engage with an understandably concerned population. It would have been much more helpful to have put forward a range of scenarios, with a sliding scale of interventions, so people could have assessed the costs and benefits of each.
As a result, I’m unsurprised that these proposals have been met with such a hostile response in many quarters, and I believe they will be politically undeliverable. But more importantly, I fear they have also created a huge obstacle for future proposals to overcome. This is a real concern, because we do urgently need to devise deliverable ways of addressing the climate emergency.
I don’t pretend to have a complete answer to this, but I do think it’s possible to identify key principles on which Plan B should be based.
Firstly, it should prioritise individual and community wellbeing and resilience – not growth.
Secondly, it should be holistic. The chart below from an excellent recent paper on transport demand and elasticities lays out the many variables which can be part of the solution – this is a very different approach to just attempting to sell buses as ‘the car alternative’, with aggressive population and employment growth as givens.
Thirdly, it should be based on a ‘polluter pays’ principle. For me, this means introducing a workplace parking levy. Not only would this be a much better fit with the source of the problem the STZ is trying to fix; but it would also reduce the administrative costs of running the scheme because parking spaces are known and predictable, in a way that individual daily journeys are not. Annual exemptions could then be given to spaces (at schools, hospitals, etc), not individuals. There is plenty of encouraging research on impact of the Nottingham WPL which is now 10 years old.
Finally, it should be future proofed. One of the problems with the STZ proposals is that there are no guarantees about how the charge, the bus fares or the bus network might change in future. There are several reasons for this – one is that it’s not possible for the GCP to make such guarantees, as it won’t be the body which has to negotiate with the bus companies, or deal with the fall-out from changes in party political attitudes to a bus-based approach. There’s also nothing about how an STZ charge might fit with any possible council tax precept to support bus services levied by the mayor of the Combined Authority, or how it might evolve in the event of a national road pricing scheme, both of which are already under discussion.
In conclusion: a flawed answer to the wrong question
This has been a very long post! I hope it has managed to shed a little bit of light on why I cannot support the STZ proposals. They represent a flawed answer to the wrong question. They are all about how to maximise revenue capture to fund a bus service to demonstrate to the government that the GCP is ‘unlocking’ growth. They are not aimed at giving people happier, healthier, better lives.
You can have your say by completing the Making Connections Consultation survey online until midday on Friday 23 December 2022.