News Analysis: Charging Mancunians
Traffic congestion slows economic growth. It makes cities and city regions less attractive places in which to live, work and shop. And Greater Manchester is seeking £1billion from the government’s Transport Innovation Fund in a bid to address the problem.
The formula sounds right. Improve public transport and then introduce congestion charging. It worked in London. Why shouldn’t it work elsewhere?
And to its credit, Greater Manchester is looking at a much more sophisticated charging regime than London’s effective, but coarse, flat-rate scheme, with variable pricing which reflects the amount of congestion.
The leader of Manchester city council and deputy leader of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, Sir Richard Leese, notes: "It’s clear that a London-style charging scheme - which imposes cost irrespective of time of day, length of journey, origin and destination - is not right for Greater Manchester.
"If road charging is to work in this area, we have to tackle congestion both now and in the future. Any charging scheme must therefore take into account the time of day, length of journey, origin and destination as well as the impact on communities and key workers."
But he then adds the familiar Greater Manchester mantra: "Greater influence over the bus network, local rail and the strategic highways network is also a vital pre-requisite." Which, of course, is true, although years of politicking by both local councillors and MPs can make operators understandably wary.
The region’s political leaders recognise that consultation starting this spring has to win the support and confidence of the public and of businesses across the region. They also need to recognise that they must demonstrate that the plans are a genuine attempt to improve the region’s transport – which they surely are – and not a continuation of the tired old re-regulation argument.
The region’s two biggest bus operators, Stagecoach and First, gave the plans a cautious welcome.
Says Stagecoach Manchester managing director Mark Threapleton: "I hope that this is a real commitment from local politicians to tackling the effects of congestion for all public transport users, and not merely a means of unlocking funding to build the enhanced Metrolink network, desirable though that may be.
"We have long argued that the key solution to unlocking the real potential of public transport in Greater Manchester is to give more priority on the conurbation’s roads to bus passengers, and if this is a firm commitment from the politicians, and not just a form of nice words to unlock government funds without any real intention to implement it, then we will support it."
Politicians seek "greater influence" over bus services as
part of congestion charge plans.
First re-affirmed its commitment to work in partnership with the PTE and PTA, and noted that it saw opportunities to deliver measures which would combat congestion and increase the number of people using bus services as part of an overall growth in public transport.
The politicians stress the importance of bus services to the success of the plan.
PTA chairman Roger Jones explains: "We want the Transport Innovation Fund to revolutionise public transport in Greater Manchester by giving us access to over £1billion funding. We know that people will use buses, trains and trams if they are reliable and affordable and I am confident that – given the right levels of investment – we can achieve this.
"At the same time, it’s clear government will only make this funding available if Greater Manchester makes a serious commitment to tackle the growing congestion on our roads. We need to make a strong bid that will help us deliver a first class public transport network to bolster the local economy."
Not much to argue about there.
And the AGMA notes: "We are working with the Department for Transport to secure significant improvements in public transport and greater influence over the bus network, local rail and the strategic highways network." Note the description "greater influence" – used earlier by Sir Richard Leese - which is a rather more benign approach than talking of "control". AGMA also talks of "a substantial enhancement" of the bus network.
The $64,000 question is how can this be achieved? In London it was relatively easy. Transport for London designs an improved network, issues contracts, and its contractors invest in new vehicles.
That cannot easily be achieved elsewhere in Britain. And with Manchester’s plans, the issue is no longer just passenger growth – desirable as that may be – but carefully-targetted modal switch. Both Stagecoach and First can point to growth on key corridors in the region, many of which will be the same corridors as will be affected by congestion charging. But how do you set up enhanced services in advance of an unquantifiable increase in bus use as a consequence of congestion charging? Kick-Start-style funding? Quality contracts?
There are some tough negotiations ahead.
And, as Lord Peter Smith, AGMA chairman, points out, something has to be done: "Greater Manchester has the fastest growing economy outside London and we want to build on this by creating more than 210,000 jobs over the next decade. Unchecked congestion is already starting to take its toll on both the economy and our environment, and doing nothing is not an option.
"We are developing ambitious plans to improve Greater Manchester’s transport network so that it offers a realistic alternative to the car for some journeys. The proposition which we are promoting is that car users who congest our roads should be required to pay back in a way that will benefit the economy and the environment. This will also help to ensure that they can make more informed decisions about how they travel."
As in London, income from congestion charging in Greater Manchester would be used to support public transport.
The situation is summed up by Stagecoach’s Mark Threapleton: "Some form of road user charging is essential if we, collectively, are going to have a conurbation that works."
The challenge, assuming that the plans get the support of the people of Greater Manchester, is how to make progress in a way that benefits everybody involved, and which doesn’t stifle innovation by bus operators.