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‘Greater Cambridge Partnership strategy is a staggering waste of money on half-baked ideas’

Opinion | By Edward Leigh, Smarter Cambridge Transport

Smarter Cambridge Transport- Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell. (50963647)
Smarter Cambridge Transport- Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell. (50963647)

The much-anticipated Public Transport Improvements and City Access Strategy report has been published.

This workstream is crucial to the success of the entire £750million Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) programme for improving transport in the region.

The report summarises the changing context, from the demise of the CAM ‘metro’ to potentially permanent changes to travel patterns due to Covid.

It claims that “technical work” has shown a combination of “significant measures” is needed to support the uptake of public transport and discourage car use. (You might think that’s a statement of the bleeding obvious.)

This leads us to the “final package of options”, which will include “bus network improvements, based on [a] ‘future bus [network] concept’” (illustrated opposite), prioritisation of road space for “sustainable and active transport”, and “measures that provide an ongoing funding source …, for example parking or road charge.”

Encouragingly, the ambition is to run buses in Cambridge and from “most market towns” between 5am and midnight at a 10-minute frequency during the day, and every 20 minutes in the evening.

However, villages not on a “key bus corridor” are likely to have only an hourly service. And the ‘future bus network concept’ is worryingly incomplete.

For instance, Sawston, Pampisford, Whittlesford, Duxford, the Imperial War Museum, Hinxton, Ickleton, Great and Little Chesterford and Littlebury are all omitted.

A few, like Sawston, presumably lie on the “key bus corridor” from Saffron Walden, but how will the other villages be served? And why are there no services to Whittlesford Parkway railway station?

Even these modest plans are estimated to cost £40million per annum. There is no suggestion council tax could cover this, probably because it would add over £300 on average to bills in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire.

So, we have a proposal for a “flexible road charge linked to time of day,” otherwise known as a congestion charge.

This “would apply to journeys within a zone covering the city within the bounds of the Park & Rides. Vehicle exemptions would be considered for emergency vehicles and blue badge holders.”

Greater Cambridge Partnership future bus network with rural connections (50963635)
Greater Cambridge Partnership future bus network with rural connections (50963635)

How much might this “flexible charge” be? All we know is that modelling work has suggested that, to reduce peak motor traffic flows by 10 per cent, would require a £10 per day charge to drive in Cambridge between 7am and 7pm.

To achieve the GCP’s target of reducing traffic by about 20 per cent would require a higher charge.

Modelling of this sort makes highly debatable assumptions about human behaviour, future costs, and what options people will have available to them.

On that last point, the modelling work assumed bus services would double in frequency.

In 2018 there were 120 bus arrivals in the city centre between 8am and 9am.

It is most unlikely the main bus stops or city centre streets could cope with double that number of bus movements.

Even now, buses can be logjammed on Emmanuel Street. Walking and cycling through the city centre would be much more intimidating and stressful. So, what’s the plan? Silence.

The recommendations outlined above are the culmination of six years of research, public engagement and development of ideas.

This workstream alone has cost more than £9million.

At a day rate of £500, that’s equivalent to over 75 person-years of work, or a team of 13 qualified, experienced professionals working full-time for six years.

Let that sink in for a moment.

We are not even at the stage of having definite proposals, just “concepts”.

It will require even more consultants’ studies and reports and two more rounds of consultation before we see any changes, possibly starting in 2023.

The chance to influence post-Covid travel habits will have long past.

At this crucial juncture on the road to “building back better”, the GCP is demonstrating none of the leadership or imagination needed.

Instead, we have continued decision paralysis and a staggering waste of money on half-baked ideas.

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