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The pandemic has drastically changed public perception of transport; but for how long for?

Recent reports suggest that more than one-fifth of train services, running before COVID-19, are no longer in operation, with the Government having already spent £14 billion in propping these up (1). In the context of transport operators struggling to encourage passengers to use these services as they have previously done, the levelling up paper nevertheless identifies transport as being a 'current and future driver of geographical disparity'(2) which needs addressing.

The quality of public transport varies significantly across the country, with London leading the way with its extensive infrastructure and adoption of new technology solutions (from contactless payment to enhanced real time transport data). Public mobility and the economy are inextricably linked, both directly in terms of commuting (and the services that are established to cater for the migration of workers to urban centres), but also indirectly in respect of tourism and leisure activities, which are all reliant, in part, on the requisite transport infrastructure being in place. The Government highlights that communities outside of London will face more barriers than London in improving their local economy and achieving local aspirations unless transport systems are reflective of regional needs: a fact known for a long time but with limited steps to find an adequate resolution. A fact that some commentators state will remain given the significant capital sums needed to improve infrastructure. 
The levelling up paper sets out several key investments which the Government hopes will try to redress this imbalance, namely investing:

  • £96 billion in an integrated rail plan, improving rail access in the Midlands and the North of England;
  • £24 billion in the busiest roads and motorways across the UK;
  • £5.7 billion in City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements – a scheme providing investment in local transport networks (including the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the West of England around Bristol and Bath), simplifying the funding landscape and providing funding flexibility depending on local needs; and
  • £5 billion for bus, cycling and walking networks.

It is not clear how or when this funding will be distributed and used to unlock the barriers created by poor transport infrastructure, but the sums are eye-catching in their sheer size. The application of all of the above investments is however critical to any success in overcoming the hurdles created by poor transport links and the levelling up paper does not go into the required detail to unpick this issue. Some of the rhetoric in the white paper does not reflect recent transport decisions including the suspension and scraping of the Oxford Cambridge Arc and HS2 extension from the East Midlands to Leeds (part of phase 2b) respectively.

Whilst London infrastructure appears to be the aspiration of the Government, anecdotally, we have seen an increase in local authorities outside of London trying to innovate with their transport offering with a rise of Mobility as a Service solutions, transport data aggregator platforms, new micro-mobility solutions, in addition to further cost saving technologies being explored with the desire to pass savings to the public. All of these options will progress regardless of the levelling up paper but it is encouraging that further funding will be made available as a catalyst for further innovation in this sector.

It will be interesting to see which regional transport bodies and local authorities will benefit from any new funding – given that no geographical areas' transport needs are the same – a matter that another aspect of the white paper, namely enhanced devolution, may seek to acknowledge and address.



2) Page 4, Levelling Up White Paper, 2 February 2022
3) Page 10, Levelling Up White Paper, 2 February 2022
4) Page 6, Levelling Up White Paper, 2 February 2022