The King is dead; long live the King?

Neal Skelton, ITS UK, takes a look at the aim of the new Urban Challenge Fund, which aims to deliver clear and measurable benefits for urban areas in terms of transport

In his speech on 2nd March the Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP, Minister of State for Transport, launched the ‘Urban Challenge Fund’ stating that it is intended to secure the best returns from transport investment whilst simultaneously helping improve urban environments and residents’ health. However, to be eligible authorities would need to offer clear strategies that incorporate ambitious targets that propose a wider range of outcomes than just congestion. Local leadership and tight governance are needed to make this a reality and it is envisaged that these strategies will build on existing implementation plans currently being developed for the next round of Local Transport Plans that are due in April 2011.
Although the notion may be challenged this announcement effectively denotes the passing of the Transport Innovation Fund and the introduction of the DfT’s Urban Challenge Fund. A DfT Discussion Document that invited responses from interested parties accompanied the launch. The Discussion Paper entitled ‘Supporting Cities: A Discussion Paper on plans for an Urban Challenge Fund’ seeks to ‘encourage debate on the issues around the future transport needs of our cities and urban communities and to invite comments on the plans for a new Urban Challenge Fund.’   

Aiming high
It has been commented that this launch represents the final severance of the link between Road User Charging and transport infrastructure grants. The Urban Challenge Fund’s aims are very wide-ranging and beyond addressing congestion are also considering how individuals’ health and local environments can be improved. Whilst these requirements are broadly in line with recent Cabinet Office reviews there is a specific invitation within the Discussion Paper to consider and formulate submissions. This presents ITS bodies with an ideal opportunity to respond thereby ensuring a broader appreciation of the ‘bigger picture’ of ITS benefits that, in turn, can assist policy makers determine the most appropriate way to resolve the Urban Challenge Fund’s somewhat nebulous aims and objectives.
Media responses have seized on the announcement with a series of headlines such as “Motorists’ victory as Government drops plans for local road pricing scheme…Plans to make drivers pay congestion charges to commute into major provincial cities have been abandoned by the Government”. ..….“the final surrender of one of Labour’s flagship policies will be hailed by drivers who could have faced bills of at least £20 a week to drive to work into some urban parts of the country. As a result, only drivers in London and Durham will face a congestion charge of any sort for the foreseeable future” in the Daily Telegraph. In addition it can only be assumed, as another headline states, that the “proposed schemes for Reading and Cambridge – the only remaining candidates – are now expected to be discontinued following the overhaul of the Government’s “congestion busting” Transport Innovation Fund, which was only open to councils willing to introduce some form of local road pricing” (Daily Telegraph).
In his announcement the Minister stated: “TIF also brought different Greater Manchester authorities together to work on transport strategy across the City Region – an arrangement that continues to this today. Greater Manchester’s TIF proposals provided compelling evidence that cities need to develop a broad package of measures to tackle problems like congestion and carbon emissions – and that the right combination of policies can also deliver broader benefits to local communities, the urban economy, and the environment.
“But we have also learnt from TIF’s weaknesses – in particular its failure to win public acceptance and incentivise smarter, more community focused urban planning; and its failure to transform governance.
“The people of Manchester sent out a clear message that a narrow focus on one solution – congestion charging – was not what they wanted, particularly at a time of economic upheaval.
“TIF taught us all to build acceptance around wider economic, social and environmental objectives, not just the single issue of congestion.”  

Transport challenges
It is worthwhile noting that the background for this requirement came through the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit’s Report on Urban Transport and the DfT’s response ‘The Future of Urban Transport’, published in November 2009, which identified a range of transport challenges faced by our cities. The Report assessed the impacts of transport on the urban economy, health and environment and estimated the measurable annual costs of these impacts in terms of: congestion in excess delays (£12.0 billion); road accidents (£9.3 billion); poor air quality in particulate pollution (£4.5 to £10.6 billion); physical inactivity and the growing level of obesity (£10.8 billion); greenhouse gas emissions (£1.2 to £3.7 billion); and noise (£2.7 billion).
The full transcript for this new initiative can be found on the DfT website
In essence the initiative assesses the challenges, threats and potential questions based on the above estimated £40 billion per annum external traffic impacts costs identified by DfT. The Discussion Paper comments that the Fund will not prescribe what should be included in any package of proposals covering cities or urban areas but it is expected to include a diverse range of challenging measures under several main headings of sustainable travel, encouraging modal shift, demand management and traffic management.
As far as ‘sustainable travel’ is concerned it is proposed that this will include the promotion of walking and cycling, work based and school travel plans, ‘car clubs’/sharing schemes and travel awareness campaigns. ‘Encouraging modal shift’ is suggested as including considering improvements to local bus markets through statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts, increased investment in public transport and better traveller information, smartcard ticketing and personalised travel planning. ‘Demand management’ measures are intended to reduce the volume of traffic and the levels of air pollution caused by urban transport. There are a wide range of options extending from reducing the availability of or increasing the price of city centre local authority parking, increased ‘park and ride’ facilities, the development of freight consolidation centres, tougher residents parking permit regimes, low emission zones, workplace parking levy and road pricing. Improving ‘traffic management’ could be achieved through enhanced information about journey times and routes, more efficient signal times, junction improvements designating red routes, reallocating road space from cars to sustainable modes (e.g. cycle lanes and quality bus corridors), additional ‘no vehicle’ zones, and better management of street works and incidents.
Many of the options make specific or implied reference to restrictions on road use for certain classes of vehicles, such as the Low Emission Zones, bus lanes, HOV/HOT lanes, etc. as well as further parking controls in city centres. Most of these have ITS potential as well as enforcement implications and their influence and impact on achieving the initiatives goals should not be underestimated. However, it should be borne in mind that as no specific budget allocations have been set for this initiative this may have some bearing on whether or not schemes would be adopted. It is proposed that ‘funding for the Urban Challenge Fund will be ‘top-sliced’ from the Department’s overall funding allocation following the next Comprehensive Spending Review.’ In any event the ‘scale of the investment would be proportionate to the impacts from the full range of measures set out above’. It is obviously envisaged that ‘these transport measures should be fully integrated into the wider policies and objectives for the city, and supported by other measures, for example on land use planning.’
The Government will need to be satisfied that the package and the major individual components are likely to represent value for money before agreeing to work in partnership with cities and authorities on a programme of work and fund the investment identified.
The wording of the proposals is vague and subject to wide interpretation; it lacks the clarity and detail that would be expected from such a major initiative and affords the chance for ITS to nominate bold and innovative schemes, systems and solutions. In addition the lack of an identifiable budget allocation also gives cause for concern that this may be perceived as an interim proposal rather than a final and definitive initiative. In any event this proposal necessitates far greater clarity and detail.
Effective delivery of the Urban Challenge Fund’s aims and objectives will undoubtedly be affected by the result of the forthcoming General Election. Although several potential political outcomes are emerging the ITS industry should concentrate on how the key issues will encourage a greater awareness of ITS benefits in local authorities as these are the bodies that will have to implement any transport measures irrespective of the incumbent parliamentary party. Possibly most relevant is the submission date for responses. The deadline of 4 June is after the General Election and begs the question whether or not this government initiative is one that would be honoured by the incoming administration.
Regardless of the outcome the challenges outlined in this Paper are issues that the UK will need to address in one form or another. Any other course would appear to ‘fly in the face’ of what is widely regarded as essential action to guarantee traveller mobility across the UK.

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