Updated: Jun 5, 2022
By the end of March 2020, as the country endured the first lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic, one small but significant positive emerged from the darkness. From across the country came stories of people experiencing uncommon sounds as towns and cities fell otherwise silent. As the din and roar of road traffic evaporated, birdsong could again be heard in our urban spaces.
Statistics from that period show that transport use fell significantly (as would be expected) and by early April use of cars, light goods vehicles and heavy goods vehicles had fallen to 27% of usual levels. The only mode of transport to see an increase was cycling (again, to be expected) and for a brief period, as Steven Lovatt said in the Guardian, "The Earth could hear itself think".
Alas, by the end of August 2020 road use was back to pre-pandemic levels, and the songs of the birds were once again lost to the cacophony that is modern urban living.
Of course, this is just one small element of a complex picture. For many reasons (earning money to pay the bills being a very important one among them) people had to get back out to go to work, make calls, see friends and all of the other things denied to us as a result of the public health emergency. The figures show they chose to do so in privately owned cars.
The roads are full up
I doubt there is anyone working in transport planning today who disagrees with the notion that we need to seriously - and permanently - reduce the number of vehicles on our roads.
I am someone who has spent much of my working life driving (often long distance), and, to an extent, enjoying my driving; yet even I think the idea of allowing millions of metal boxes to be parked on roads outside of our houses is increasingly indefensible.
For those who live in urban areas, the notion of private vehicle ownership by the masses is - generally speaking - an odd concept (and a fairly new and short-lived one in terms of human history). That said, as things stand, the cold reality is millions do need these vehicles for all sorts of vital reasons.
For many residents, local transport networks are simply not as convenient as owning a private car; even though, in many cases, this huge investment may spend days parked up going nowhere. We know that many residents are not well served by the local alternative options. We also know there are some examples where residents are well served and still choose to drive (because driving in those places is also easy). It is certainly the case that many will continue to drive even when it is not that easy; it's hard to give up a roof, windows, and a decent heater.
Clearly, to encourage a switch to other forms of transport, we need to restrict access (or more accurately, the terms of access) to cars and vans in some places. However, we cannot, and must not, do this at the expense of equality of opportunity and safety; that is not progress - that is half-measures for an easy life.
"But we are already doing some of this!"
Yes, we have already restricted access in some places. Meanwhile, conflict over use of road space grows daily.
Instead of measured and logical development, we have hastily conceived schemes designed to force the issue and different user groups blaming one another for the mess we are all in.
As a general theory of how to build a service or product, the "if you build it they will come" approach (a misquote that has long been debunked anyway) seems to be applied a lot in transport planning these days. Cycle lanes, cycle hire schemes, car-hire scheme, mobility hubs, bus gates, low-traffic networks - all of these are, in themselves, good ideas.
But they cannot work by simply pretending that the biggest cohort of small-to medium-sized transport providers and SMEs in the country don't exist, or, more importantly perhaps, that the services offered by these businesses are not essential to many.
There are over 340,000 taxi and private-hire drivers in England and Wales. There are hundreds of thousands more independent couriers. These vehicle types, and their drivers, provide invaluable services to people living in our communities. We know this. In fact, we saw this very clearly over the past two years where food and goods delivery services played a vital role in keeping the country safe.
Preventing access for these services through a blanket ban on cars and vans driving in some areas does not help to build a safer, healthier community, and, importantly, it will not encourage people to give up their private cars.
The city of the future
I often do a thought experiment with attendees on our courses; I ask whether, if they were tasked with building a town from scratch, would they allow private cars and vans to drive everywhere, as they are mostly allowed to do now.
The general consensus is no. Why would you?
I agree. But what about taxis, minicabs, and delivery vans?
Well, it probably won't be a surprise to hear that the view changes. These vehicles should be allowed. But how exactly? And what type of vehicles? And how do we reconcile this view with the need to make our streets safer for everyone?
We will make our street safer for everyone by reducing the number of private vehicles on the roads.
Taxis, minicabs, and delivery vans can play an important part in reducing private vehicle ownership. To achieve this, these vehicles should be allowed carefully controlled and safe-speed access to areas otherwise blocked to regular car and van traffic. These vehicle types provide invaluable services to people living in the community. Restricting access does not serve everyone equally and means residents choose to use private cars for some journeys because it is more convenient.
As far as possible, we have to match this convenience on our public transport networks. But if you allow this access, wouldn't there be too many vehicles in some places? This is the counter argument isn't it? Too many vehicles in some places. No control. Dangerous.
Where we are at this moment, I have to say I agree. I could make a good argument for some of the very best professional drivers I know having access to some restricted areas, but you cannot allow general access now. Not when public roads are close to breaking point and standards of driving among transport drivers so variable. But with a bit of simple planning, some thought, and some effort, there is absolutely no reason this way of doing things cannot work to the benefit of everyone.
A new type of driver
What is a taxi driver? What is a bus driver? What is a parcel delivery driver? What is a food delivery driver?
Many people, including those who work in the industries listed, may see these as distinct roles. A taxi driver carries people, not parcels. Granted they may occasionally do the odd courier job but in general, that's not how they make money. Many minicab drivers switched to food delivery in the recent pandemic. Some will stick with that and others will go back to carrying people as soon as possible. A courier with a van cannot carry people.
There are, of course, some licensing reasons behind some of these distinctions but, these aside, the distinctions are mostly arbitrary. The one thing all of those working in these industries have in common is that they are (or at least, should be) professional drivers. And using those professional driving skills, they are delivering essential services. A truth never more evident than over the past two years.
The idea that, with bicycles and walking (and possibly the odd bus), we will do away with the demand for smaller private transport options is illogical.
Around 1.65 million new vehicles were registered in the UK in 2021. This is very marginally higher than 2020, but still significantly down on pre-pandemic numbers. Interestingly though, registrations by private buyers increased by 7.4% showing that people still think buying a car (and a new car at that!) is the best option.
The roads do not need more cars and vans but they will always need some vehicle type, larger than a cargo bike (and sometimes with a roof and a heater), that provides the capability for delivery services. And to go with this vehicle type a driver who is multi-skilled and can operate safely in all situations. If we do not support these services when planning our transport networks, private car ownership will not fall in the way we need it to.
How can we create the best small vehicle transport network of the future?
Transporting people or goods in small- to medium-sized vehicles is an important job. It is often a critical job. Much has been made of how these essential frontline workers must be better supported in the future but without any useful examples provided of how this can be achieved.
How do we incorporate these vehicle types in a safe and fair system?
How do we ensure a fair price for use of these services that protects the local community, supports economic sustainability, and makes the best use of a finite road network?
Education is essential if we are to create this new type of service. You would expect the MD of a training company to say this. But I hope we all agree that the skills now required (high driving standards; disability and equality awareness; excellent customer service; safeguarding of children and adults at risk; first aid; data compliance; and infection control) are not low-level skills.
In order to do the type of work our communities need (home to school transport, non-emergency patient transport, and social care transport) and to look after our residents (dementia-friendly towns, special access to low traffic neighbourhoods, access to shops to support our town centres as places of community), drivers must be suitably skilled.
Additionally, we must encourage a new understanding among existing drivers, and those looking to become drivers, that the types of transport services listed above are not mutually exclusive.
Drivers should be able to deliver all of these services from one single flexible platform.
Drivers should have total choice, scheduling their day to take advantage of all options the market has to offer.
The efficiencies a platform like this would bring to our transport service would naturally reduce the number of vehicles on the road. People already do this, of course. Well, sometimes. A bit. But not nearly enough to make any sort of difference. And even those who do it may have two or possibly three strings to the bow. Why not multiple strings?
2. Increased understanding and respect - a fairer price
Those who achieve these skills deserve respect. They deserve to be able to use these skills to earn a fair wage. Very few professions expect a high level of skill to go unrewarded.
In other professions, the more you are trained, the more you earn. Why are professional drivers treated differently?
Driving is not just moving stuff from A to B. Unified does not provide services with regards to HGV driving but again, we only have to look at very recent events to see how important such skills are. And yet some of the comments about HGV drivers I read during recent issues clearly show that there is much misunderstanding (and ignorance) over what this difficult, stressful, yet essential job entails.
3. Accepting that we need some small- and medium-sized delivery vehicles
Yes, bikes can make deliveries. They can be efficient and they are clean. Even so, we will still need other passenger and cargo vehicles.
4. Accepting that humans are good at this stuff
Lastly, we must accept and understand that even with the advent of driverless cars, humans are better at providing the services listed above; especially as we want (and need) multi-skilled operatives. Show me a robot car that can carry the shopping for a customer, while also keeping an eye on customer safety, helping with a tricky seatbelt, and making sure the passenger has not forgotten anything in the vehicle.
A human being knows how to deal with this. A human being can take the time and help. A human being also asks how a person's day has gone. What they've been up to recently. How the family are. Assistive technology in cars is fine, but replacing professional drivers with machines is inefficient and illogical when we consider all of the value-add a trained driver can offer to keep our communities healthy and safe.
I'll come back to the issue of autonomous vehicles another time (they do fit in but not quite in the way they are being touted) but for now, with the technology unlikely to be deployed en-masse for quite a while yet and a range of essential jobs done (perfectly well, thanks!) by human beings, we should be focusing on what we need our transport network to provide to our communities rather than how we can deploy the latest technology just because it looks interesting.
I have a feeling that small-scale transport services (taxi and minicab services in particular) are overlooked for reform; this is likely because someone somewhere is convinced that they, or perhaps the human element of them, will just disappear at some point. If that person would like to give me a call l'd love to talk it through. Autonomous vehicles will have their place.
What we certainly don't need is millions of privately owned autonomous EVs filling up our roads. What we do need are professional drivers delivering a range of services to support our communities.
Matched with more efficient use of the right type of vehicle, professional drivers will leave the roads quieter and safer, allowing for more cycling and walking and, eventually, as efficiencies in local transport services increase, a genuine reduction in the use and ownership of private cars.