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Q&A: Greater Cambridge Partnership answers our key questions on road-charging and bus network plans

The Greater Cambridge Partnership’s plans to introduce road charging to fund a new bus network are proving hugely controversial, with marches being held in protest and in support of the proposals for a Sustainable Travel Zone.

Under the proposals, car drivers would be charged £5 to drive in the city between 7am and 7pm on weekdays and van drivers would face a £10 charge, with lorry drivers paying £50, and some exemptions in place. The money would help to fund bus services that the GCP says would be cheaper, more reliable and operate for longer. Here, the GCP answers our questions on the scheme.

Peter Blake, GCP transport director. Picture: Keith Heppell
Peter Blake, GCP transport director. Picture: Keith Heppell

There has been confusion over bus fares. Can you confirm how much people would be charged under the plans for single and return journeys within Cambridge, and from outside Cambridge, if they use one bus, or more than one, for their trips? How will it work across multiple providers?

People would pay no more than £1 in the city and £2 from the travel to work area per journey, even if you need to change buses as part of your journey. A daily cap and tap on, tap off technology – like that used in London – would be in place to make sure that travelling by public transport would always be cheaper than driving within the zone.

The proposal is to develop a multi-operator ticket, as exists in other UK cities.

Can you explain the figures that you’ve used to model these plans? How much money do you expect to make from road charging and from bus fares annually, and how much will the new bus network cost? What funding will be necessary in the interim to set up the new network?

The GCP’s executive board has committed £50m to forward-fund the delivery of a future bus network, with a commitment to phase in better buses and cheaper fares before the proposed introduction of the proposed Sustainable Travel Zone in 2027-28.

This investment will help to build confidence in public transport to encourage more people to change the way they travel. The money needed over and above this £50million in the first three years will also come from the GCP City Deal funding and will be recoverable from the charging scheme to pay for the delivery of wider GCP projects.

We estimate the zone, if and when fully implemented, would generate approximately £50m a year over and above the charging scheme operating costs – this would, by law, be ringfenced for investment in the transport network and running better buses.

Could the £5 charge for car drivers, and other tiered charges for larger vehicles, rise soon after its introduction? How would this be decided?

We looked at a range of different charge levels to arrive at this proposal and settled on the £5 charge for cars as it achieves the required level of traffic reduction and provides enough money to fund the transformation of the bus services.

The proposal is seeking to give certainty on bus fares and road based charges until at least 2030. If the zone was introduced, it would be operated by Cambridgeshire County Council as the highways authority.

Cyclists in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cyclists in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

It has been suggested that the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, including Addenbrooke’s and Royal Papworth hospitals, need to be in the charging zone to raise sufficient funds. Have you modelled alternative boundaries and the potential impact on the proposed bus network?

We have considered alternative boundaries based on the inner ring road and a scheme that included the wider area beyond Cambridge city, but these would not cut the congestion levels we see on our roads every day. We also asked the public in a previous public consultation – around this time last year – whether they in principle supported a smaller zone with a higher charge, or a larger zone with a lower charge. They told us they preferred the latter.

All our technical work suggests that the boundary we have set out is the best one to meet the objectives of the scheme overall – but part of the purpose of the consultation is to see what the public and stakeholders think about the scheme as it has been put forward.

Getting to Addenbrooke’s, Royal Papworth and the wider Cambridge Biomedical Campus can be challenging. For those travelling by public transport, a lack of bus services can make accessing appointments or visiting relatives difficult if not impossible, particularly out of hours or at weekends.

Staff at the hospitals consistently raise lack of public transport as a key issue affecting their wellbeing and career plans. Travelling by car can also be stressful and expensive, with congestion making journey times unreliable, leading to missed appointments or being late for work. Discounts on parking are limited, and there are tight rules for staff around who can park on site.

The Cambridge Biomedical Campus is due to grow significantly in the next five to 10 years, including plans for new children’s and cancer hospitals. Without massively improving access by bus, walking and cycling to the area, these problems will only worsen. Access to medical care, congestion and air quality will continue to deteriorate as will the ability of the campus to develop the world-leading treatments for which they are renowned.

Our proposals would provide fast, frequent, direct and cheaper services to the campus between 5am and 1am every day to provide a real alternative to both staff and visitors to the site. The Sustainable Travel Zone would enable the required level of investment to provide a real step change in bus services, while also cutting congestion on the roads for emergency vehicles and people who still need to drive.

There is a need to ensure that there is not a disproportionate impact on people who need to access hospital by car, for example for medical reasons. A range of discounts, exemptions and reimbursements is proposed. This includes discounts of 100 per cent for Blue Badge holders and up to 100 per cent for people on lower incomes.

During the consultation we are working with the NHS trusts on the suggested reimbursement schemes for those accessing the hospitals, which include NHS patients clinically assessed as too ill, weak or disabled to travel to an appointment on public transport, including those who:

  • Have a compromised immune system;
  • Require regular therapy or assessments;
  • Need regular surgical intervention.
  • NHS staff using a vehicle to carry certain items (such as equipment, controlled drugs, patient notes or clinical specimens, blood or breast milk);
  • NHS patients accessing Accident and Emergency services; and
  • NHS and emergency services staff responding to an emergency when on call.

Will anyone driving to a Park & Ride site from outside the city face a road charge if they don’t otherwise enter the city first?

No. All of the Park & Ride sites are outside of the proposed zone so people driving from the travel to work area can park their cars for free and switch to cheap, reliable and more frequent bus services. The GCP is also expanding Park & Rides across the region to create 10,000 additional parking spaces, as well as better cycle parking and links to onward walking and cycling routes.

What a future bus network could look like Picture: Greater Cambridge Partnership
What a future bus network could look like Picture: Greater Cambridge Partnership

The current bus network is in a real mess, not least because of a major shortage of drivers. How will you attract enough drivers to run the new network services?

We acknowledge the current challenges bus operators face. That’s why we have factored the cost of training and recruitment into the cost of our proposals to attract more drivers. We will be building up the additional services over four to five years – in advance of any charge being introduced – which provides time to recruit the drivers we will need. We are also supporting the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to help them deliver their strategic objectives for the bus network.

If reducing air pollution is a key aim, will all the new buses be electric? How have you calculated the reduction in air pollution expected?

Yes. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA), which is the transport authority, has set a target for all buses to be zero emissions by 2030.

The GCP part-funded the first fully electric buses in Cambridge, which came into service in 2020. Following a successful ZEBRA bid to government by the GCP, CPCA and bus operators, we have ordered a further 30 electric buses to be run on the Park & Ride and Citi2 routes, representing 10 per cent of the region’s bus fleet and helping to cut air pollution.

We will continue to work with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to help them meet their target.

The GCP has said a system of exemptions and refunds will operate. How much will it cost annually to manage this? And how much will you have to pay to fund the ANPR network and DVLA database searches in order to operate the camera network?

The annual operating costs overall, including processing exemptions and discounts, will depend on the final scheme which has been agreed. Earlier analysis published estimates the total costs of operation could be around £20million annually. This will be reviewed as part of any future decision.

Neil Mackay, of Mackays, is concerned about the impact of road-charging on his business. Picture: Keith Heppell
Neil Mackay, of Mackays, is concerned about the impact of road-charging on his business. Picture: Keith Heppell

What impact do you foresee on businesses, traders and shops?

There will be a major impact on businesses, traders and shops from not acting. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review finds that “a failure to invest in [transport] infrastructure in and around Cambridge is the single biggest risk to growth facing the area” and it emphasises that major infrastructure schemes are important but the highest priority is improving the “last mile”, ie finding ways to improve people’s options for moving efficiently within the city of Cambridge.

There is actually a great deal of evidence from other places around the UK and the world that reducing car traffic and improving facilities for walking and cycling, as well as the quality of the street environment increases retail footfall rather than decreases it. Buses get more people into cities than cars, and more people already access local retail centres by active modes than is commonly assumed.

We expect the proposals for increased out-of-hours services to be a big boost to the night-time economy – in terms of increasing the ability for customers to go out at night without needing to take a taxi home, and in terms of being able to attract staff who currently have poor options for out-of-hours travel, and may already struggle with driving and parking costs in the city centre. We also expect there will be a boost to local centres, when people are incentivised to walk and cycle to local shops rather than drive.

Why are no alternatives being proposed in the consultation? Wouldn’t this have been a good chance to get views from a much broader population on a workplace parking levy, light rail or peak-time charging, for example?

A number of in-depth public consultations on the City Access programme have been carried out over many years – starting in 2017 with Our Big Conversation, Choices for Better Journeys in 2019 and the first Making Connections consultation in 2021.

Thousands responded to the first Making Connections consultation, with 78 per cent of people supporting proposals to create a first-class bus network. There was also strong support (71 per cent) for the overall aims of the programme – tackling pollution and congestion, and improving public transport.

People backed the idea of reducing traffic to improve walking and cycling options (68 per cent), as well as reducing traffic levels to improve public spaces (52 per cent).

Options that involved charging cars for driving in a zone were preferred to options involving additional or new parking charges – such as a Workplace Parking Levy.

A pollution charge was also considered but this has limited benefits, as more people are expected to buy electric cars over time, so traffic levels would increase and the income to spend on bus, walking and cycling improvements would decrease. Feedback also suggested that not charging zero emission cars could be unfair to those who couldn’t afford to buy one.

More frequent bus services, cheaper fares, longer operating hours and more direct services to the city were the top factors people would want to see as part of any investment in the bus network – all of which have been put forward in the package out to consultation now.

In addition, a Citizens’ Assembly – a representative group of people from the travel to work area selected by a sortition process convened in 2019 – was asked ‘how do we reduce congestion, improve air quality, and provide better public transport in Greater Cambridge?’ They told the GCP’s executive board “to be brave and take action” as they developed a vision to enhance active travel and public transport. To achieve their vision, the Citizens’ Assembly voted to see space reallocated to public transport, walking and cycling, as well as a road user charge.

Cutting congestion would reduce air pollution in the city
Cutting congestion would reduce air pollution in the city

Is there a Plan B? If councillors vote against these proposals, is it back to the drawing board on alternative ways to cut congestion and improve air quality?

We will not pre-empt the outcome of the public consultation or the decision of members as to whether the proposed scheme is progressed. We encourage everyone who lives, works and visits Cambridge to share their ideas and to respond to the consultation via the online survey before midday on December 23.

Can you confirm the timeline for the next steps in the process and, if the plan proceeds, the anticipated timeline for the introduction of the bus network and road charging?

The Making Connections proposals will be analysed throughout the first half of the next year following the significant number of responses we have seen to the consultation.

Thousands of people have taken their time to give their individual opinions which need to be taken into account so any further development will be subject to a decision of the GCP executive board in summer 2023 and then a final decision by Cambridgeshire County Council later next year.

If given the go ahead, the package of measures we are proposing are expected to be fully operational by 2027-28, with improvements to the bus network phased in before the introduction of the Sustainable Travel Zone and a road user charge.

How will you be able to offer bus network improvements ahead of the Sustainable Transport Zone? What happens if bus franchising doesn’t happen in time?

Using GCP’s initial funding, we could deliver improvements to the bus network quickly – through the introduction of cheap, flat fares. We could also deliver more frequent services along priority routes and P&R services, as well as better infrastructure across the network. However, to double the size of the network and to deliver a London-style service we need to reduce traffic on the roads to create space for more buses, walking, cycling and to create more ‘people-centric’ spaces in the city.

The powers to enter into Enhanced Partnerships or a franchising system like London are held by the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Our proposals are deliverable under either system. Introducing significantly better buses supports the government’s Bus Back Better strategy and reflects the CPCA’s emerging Local Transport and Connectivity Plan.

You can respond to the consultation online until midday on December 23.

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