The call for reliable and sustainable public transport is a familiar refrain – it’s been on the international agenda for the past 50 years. It was at the ground-breaking 1972 UN Stockholm Conference where world leaders first acknowledged the transport sector’s essential role in economic, social and sustainable development.
And while the debate rages on today over the true levelling up benefits of HS2, the conversation about local transport is taking place on a slightly less glitzy, much lower-profile stage.
It’s not questioned that those with limited access to public transport are at a significant disadvantage. In a 2019 report by the Department for Transport, 1.5 million people in England were shown to be at risk of transport poverty. This included those spending more than 10 per cent of their income to run a car, those over a mile from a bus stop or train station, and those travelling more than an hour to reach essential services.
While a lack of local services can be blamed for this, planning also has a role to play, as shown by new towns of the 1960s. Milton Keynes, the largest of these, was held up as the ‘ideal’ – based on predictions of 100 per cent car ownership, the fast-flowing grid network of roads led to social and commercial facilities placed both centrally and spread evenly throughout the town. Yet the inefficient public transport system and dependency on cars was shown to have a disproportionately negative impact on women, seriously limiting their local mobility – many couldn’t drive or had limited access to the family car during the week.
Luckily, modern planning standards for towns and cities are much higher and more intelligent. Despite the recent choruses of a vocal minority, the 15-minute city is now a well-lauded concept, where residents can reach everything they require within 15 minutes by walking, cycling or on public transport. Integrated transport links are a core part of many plans for development being brought forward, including the transformational proposals for Smithfield Birmingham. In Manchester, continued investment in the city’s Metrolink has been a critical strategy since the 1990s, making it the UK’s most extensive light rail system.
But along with transport planning, funding for services is also key to levelling up across the country. The Government went some way to addressing this with its 2021 Bus Back Better strategy, where £7bn was awarded to local transport schemes. Transport secretary Grant Shapps’ statement that for too long “people outside of London have had a raw deal” will have come as a welcome acknowledgement for many.
Yet recent news suggests there is a decreased commitment to the local transport agenda – almost one in 10 local bus services have been cut over the past year, and up to 15 per cent of regional bus services are still at risk. The loss would leave England with fewer than 10,000 routes for the first time since numbers were first recorded, over 20 years ago. While a three-month lifeline has been thrown to bus companies, a more permanent solution is clearly needed.
The ongoing cost of living crisis means even more people are at risk of slipping into transport poverty, particularly those in rural areas. Young people struggling to find or access work locally are being forced into towns and cities, putting further pressure on urban infrastructure.
For levelling up to truly happen, there needs to be a long-term investment in expanding local services, as well as a continued push for ambitious urban and rural planning that makes access to essential services possible for all.
Hetty Hopkinson is a senior account executive at Camargue
 In its October 2019 Transport and inequality report, the Department for Transport defined transport poverty as the ‘difficulty or inability to make necessary journeys due to a combination of income/cost and service availability’.