Re-booting Smarter Travel: recognising the business case for ‘smarter choice’ interventions

Hundreds of delegates attended the DfT-supported ‘Re-booting Smarter Travel’ conference in Bristol earlier this month to share experiences about delivering their Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) projects.

The audience was eager to hear success stories but began by listening to Phil Goodwin, professor of transport policy at the University of the West of England, who said councils needed certainty beyond 2015 when the current LSTF programme expires.

Goodwin challenged ministers to recognise the business case for ‘smarter choice’ interventions. While local transport minister Norman Baker’s securing of £600m for the LSTF programme was extremely welcome, Goodwin pointed to what he saw as storm clouds brewing following this month’s autumn statement. “Revenue programmes are felt to be bad, inefficient and are subject to belt-tightening,” he said. In contrast, additional funds were being channelled to new capital investment in road improvements “of dubious value”.

Stephen Joseph, executive director, the Campaign for Better Transport, continuing this theme, said policy-makers were undervaluing ‘smarter choices’ that have benefit-cost ratios of up to 17:1 using appraisal methods that undervalue their worth. “‘Smarter choices’ cannot solve everything. They can’t work if there is lots of investment in roads; they can’t work if we have falling motoring costs.”

These opening comments underlined the need for the sector to do a better job of demonstrating the business case for ‘smarter choice’ programmes. John Elliot, vice-chair of the Local Government Technical Advisors Group’s transport committee, said in the discussion that the economic benefits of LSTF programmes outlined at the conference were “probably really massive” but traditional economic assessments would not capture them.

A different way to work

Elliot hoped that the DfT’s monitoring and evaluation framework for the LSTF would allow this to be demonstrated. Goodwin agreed and asked: “Will the DfT change the WebTAG appraisal framework?” Malcolm Shepherd, Sustrans chief executive, said the stakes were high. “How do we ensure that this work continues? How do we demonstrate best value for LSTF?” Joseph said that assessments of the economic impact of LSTF measures would put the sector in better shape for securing additional funds.

“We must convert the LEPs (local enterprise partnerships),” said Joseph. “They have been given, provisionally, £58bn of funding.” Joseph was referring to the Chancellor’s acceptance of the Lord Heseltine recommendation for a single capital ‘growth pot’ to include a so-far-unspecified sum of local transport funds.

The need for the sector to reach out to other players was a recurring theme of the day. Alistair Cox, service manager, city transport, Bristol City Council, putting up a slide with the logos of around 40 organisations that the West of England partnership is working with, said: “We need to work with business to get people to travel in a ‘smarter’ way. It’s about partnership. It’s a very different way of transport planning to when I started.”

The list of people that LSTF programme managers are engaging with grew longer throughout the day. The West of England LSTF programme has identified the need to talk to estate agents to change travel behaviour. Ed Plowden, programme manager, LSTF West of England, said they started with new developments. “There are new developments with 3,000 new homes in the north of Bristol. Fifty per cent of people haven’t thought about how they will commute before they move in. If we don’t get them in the first two weeks, car use becomes a habit.”

The West of England is also going to work with employers on six corridors carrying 40% of all peak-period traffic. Travel planning for employees would be accompanied by supporting measures to discourage car commuting, said Plowden, such as rolling out residential parking zones.

The conference heard that engaging with businesses can at times be a challenge. Visitor travel plans developed for five tourist attractions in the Lake District in a labour intensive process have had “mixed success” with some of the businesses involved not taking ownership of implementation, according to Claire Maclaine, programme manager, Go Lakes Travel, of the Lake District National Park Authority. She is continuing to work with the attractions on implementation of the plans and introducing ‘self-help’ travel plans for other firms. She said it would be helpful when engaging with business “to be able to provide information on the economic benefits”.

Alex Goodship, cycling delivery planning manager, Transport for London, said that the key to successfully enlisting businesses in efforts to change travel behaviour was to simplify the process. “Travel planning is always in danger of becoming a bureaucratic process. We’ve now got simplified workplace travel plans instead of lengthy surveys.” This allowed the provision of “four key offers” for participating employers as opposed to “very comprehensive travel plans that never get implemented”.

Another key recurring theme was how new public transport or ‘sustainable’ transport infrastructure needs to be accompanied by ‘smarter choice’ initiatives in order to be successful. Malcolm Shepherd said: “It’s essential that we don’t just build a [cycle] route without promoting it. BMW’s capital investment in a new vehicle is always followed by a revenue programme to support it.”

Marketing services ‘vital’

The Go Lakes Travel branding has been successful in conveying the LSTF messages to holidaymakers, according to Maclaine. “It is worth investing in branding given the effectiveness of the marketing.” The key to the success of new transport services is publicity, she suggested. “We need to do much more publicity of the services on offer.”

TfL was also implementing ‘smarter choice’ measures when it installed new infrastructure, such as providing cycle training to the employees and residents in a 1.5km catchment area for new Barclays Cycle Superhighway routes. So far, 363 businesses with 140,957 staff have registered to the supporting measures programme to receive training and advice.

Goodship said: “We put ‘smarter travel’ initiatives alongside new infrastructure so that our investments are as good value-for-money as possible.”