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As Smarter Cambridge Transport retires, what state is city’s transport system in?

After six years, campaign group Smarter Cambridge Transport has decided to retire from the stage. After writing hundreds of columns in the Cambridge Independent, founder Edward Leigh talks to us about what the group has achieved, and what the future holds for transport in the region.

Smarter Cambridge Transport’s Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell
Smarter Cambridge Transport’s Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell

What did Smarter Cambridge Transport set out to achieve?

Back in 2014, the Greater Cambridge City Deal gave the area up to £500million to build a world-class transport system. Unimpressed by the unimaginative and over-engineered schemes brought forward in 2015, our group formed with the aim of gathering sensible, viable and balanced ideas from the local community, and feeding them into what became the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP). Our naive hope and expectation were that this would be welcomed.

We’ve written an enormous amount, from consultation responses to technical explainers. The breadth of our team has helped us produce – entirely for free – more imaginative, cost-effective and deliverable proposals than any of the schemes devised and developed by the GCP’s consultancies at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. Our ideas are all published on our website and available for local authorities to use. You can lead a horse to water, but…

Have your original fears about the City Deal money been realised?

Sadly, yes. There is remarkably little to show for the more than £200million that the government has so far given the GCP and Combined Authority to spend on transport. Nearly all of it has been paid to consultants for reports rather than delivering new transport options.

That wouldn’t be bad if the schemes being worked up were what the region needs – but four disconnected busways will not be game-changers. In fact, they are demonstrably unnecessary if traffic levels decrease over coming years – as they must if we are to reduce carbon emissions within a 1.5C carbon budget.

GCP has focused almost exclusively on infrastructure solutions to allow private sector operators to run buses more efficiently. In so doing, it has done nothing to address the widely reported problems that people experience daily when walking, cycling or taking the bus. These require hundreds of small interventions to improve safety, security, maintenance, convenience, comfort, pricing, information and integration of all modes of transport.

Does that meant you’ve failed?

Smarter Cambridge Transport’s Chris Rand. Picture: Keith Heppell
Smarter Cambridge Transport’s Chris Rand. Picture: Keith Heppell

Yes and no. We can count some successes. The Rebooting the City Deal event we organised in 2016 prompted a major reorganisation and rebranding. However, the culture didn’t change: the organisation has continued to regard itself as responsible for delivering infrastructure decided on, with almost no public awareness, in 2014.

We have succeeded, alongside Camcycle and other campaign groups, in getting cycle greenways added to the GCP programme. We would like to see quicker delivery and a much more extensive network being planned, but it’s progress.

Alongside the Sortition Foundation, we got GCP to hold a citizens’ assembly on transport, the recommendations of which are now embedded in GCP’s decision-making.

Also with other groups, we have raised awareness and understanding of the climate crisis and how transport policy must respond. However, despite local authorities setting targets for reducing carbon emissions, they have yet to adopt policies that will meet those targets for transport. Furthermore, GCP is ignoring the huge up-front carbon cost of its big infrastructure schemes.

For a brief time, GCP took our proposal for travel hubs seriously. These could give all rural areas convenient and safe access to rail and/or new express bus services. But GCP’s lacklustre consultants didn’t get it. The first round of proposals ran foul of bickering about parking provision. Now, GCP abuses the term as a euphemism for huge 1990s-style Park & Rides in the Green Belt, a proliferation of which is now assumed in the new draft Local Plan.

Our biggest regret is that we didn’t manage to prevent GCP from destroying public trust and goodwill by commissioning frustrating surveys and running tin-eared consultations, only to then progress the schemes they started out with. The massively over-engineered busway-plus-car-park plans they’ve devised so far please nobody, except anxious employers who have been offered nothing better.

Is the governance structure in Cambridgeshire a problem?

It’s almost as if local governance has been designed to frustrate innovation and change. Overlapping planning powers are dispersed between eight local authorities plus GCP (technically, a joint committee). Although the mayor of the Combined Authority is in charge of transport strategy, he requires support from at least five of the seven constituent local authorities for all strategic transport and budgetary decisions. He also cannot dictate to any district where it should (or shouldn’t) build houses or offices.

Decisions about transport in Greater Cambridge are made in around 18 transport committee meetings and up to 12 Combined Authority Board meetings a year. A further 18 or more committee meetings scrutinise those decisions. Planning decisions, which often have significant transport implications, are made at another thirty or so meetings a year. It’s a dizzying edifice of bureaucracy and thousands of pages of reports that no councillor, yet alone ordinary citizens, can get their head around.

Will the cancellation of the Cambridge Autonomous Metro be seen as a major missed opportunity?

How an underground metro station would have looked
How an underground metro station would have looked

The first Combined Authority mayor, James Palmer, brought vision and energy that promised much. He wanted to build an extensive light rail (tram) system, inspired in large part by the work of Dr Colin Harris for Cambridge Connect. However, other people with greater influence persuaded Palmer to reject light rail in favour of rubber-tyred transport systems that are cheaper and maybe more exciting on paper, but which don’t yet exist. Four years and around £2million pounds later, his successor Dr Nik Johnson canned a programme that looked increasingly unviable – technically and financially. So now we are back to square one, instead of having embarked on building a mass transit system using tried-and-tested technologies.

What is the biggest challenge we face?

The biggest challenge is to fix our failure of imagination about the scale and pace of change required to address the climate, ecological and public health crises. We have run out of time for big new ideas to address the climate crisis. In this decade at least, we have no choice but to make the best of what we have available.

We have to reduce vehicle-mileage by at least 15 per cent by 2030, maybe more like 50 per cent. That means using the railway, buses and new infrastructure for cycling, walking and e-scootering to give many more people viable and attractive alternatives to driving a car to get about.

What’s the best thing the mayor can do?

The mayor needs to deliver on his promise to help design and fund a bus network that can serve everyone, starting with implementing the Bus Service Improvement Plan (depending on how much the government provides of the £155million requested).

He needs to lead the co-creation of a new Local Transport and Connectivity Plan that sets out a coherent vision for a dense network of cycling and walking infrastructure, linked to travel hubs so that everyone in the region has convenient and safe access to rail and express bus services. The plan should embrace tactical interventions in the road network to improve bus reliability and cycle safety quickly.

Planning light rail lines to complement the national rail network also needs to start now. Cambridge Connect has long argued that only trains and trams can draw people away from cars in large numbers.

What’s your view on the latest ideas GCP is consulting on?

GCP officers have always demanded a mandate up-front for a congestion charge before they will invest in new and improved bus services. The current consultation is unlikely to deliver that clear mandate. Until people experience convenient and attractive alternatives to driving, any new charges to drive or park are seen as a punitive tax to fund transport for other people.

We argue that businesses should be first in line to underwrite the investment in better bus services. London, Nottingham and many European cities levy taxes on businesses to fund local transport, so why not here? After all, businesses’ activities – of employing, selling and delivering to people – are the cause of most of the congestion in Cambridge. So, they should pay taxes to provide parking spaces for staff and to drive polluting vehicles in the city.

Unlike most individuals, businesses can offset the finance costs of buying electric vehicles against lower running costs, and they can pass on increased costs to their customers (as long as the playing field is level). Because businesses make rational decisions based on their bottom line, negotiating the details of who pays how much is a whole lot easier than doing that with every person who travels into Cambridge.

How will the members of Smarter Cambridge Transport continue to make their voices heard?

Members of the team will continue to support and advise other groups in their campaigns to get the right transport solutions. The website will remain up. Rich with information and ideas, it draws well over 100,000 visitors a year.

  • Smarter Cambridge Transport’s founder and leader, Edward Leigh, has turned professional. He will be applying what he has learned with the group and his recent MSc to work for North Hertfordshire District Council. Edward will continue to review and comment on transport policy in Cambridgeshire as a member of Cambridge Past, Present and Future’s planning committee, and as the transport lead in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Climate Action Coalition.

Read more from Smarter Cambridge Transport

Should we start by taxing congestion or workplace parking? Smarter Cambridge Transport delivers its verdict

Would this get you to give up a car?

Supercharging Cambridge: Is sustainable growth even possible?

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