The link between transport and quality of life, and the cost to communities of not improving connectivity
In his first blog as Chair of the Cambridge Ahead Transport Group, Duncan McCunn reflects on the important role connectivity can play as an enabler and the cost to our communities of the growing transport challenges we face. Supported by a new evidence review from Cambridge Ahead, he explores the impact of these challenges on quality of life for people who most rely on public and active transport.
When I think about how the Cambridge city region can continue to thrive, in a way that benefits more people, it is clear that our transport system is a vital enabler. It allows us to spread the benefits and effects of growth in a way that protects and enhances the wonderful area in which we live and work.
This is why I am proud to begin Chairing the Cambridge Ahead Transport Group, and why I immediately put a question to the group:
“If transport is an enabler, what is the cost of inaction?”
By asking this question, I am not saying that nothing is happening to address the challenges we face. I often pass Cambridge South Station currently being constructed, and a very visible example of action. However, our local debate on transport issues can often be very effective at highlighting valid concerns about the cost of a particular action or proposal for change. We’re less good at evaluating the impact of inertia. In particular, I want to understand the cost of inaction on the region’s communities that are worst impacted by our current transport problems – those on lower incomes, who can least afford to live in well-connected areas and who are most likely to rely on public transport. I asked the Cambridge Ahead policy team to look at the evidence around transport and socioeconomic background to answer these questions.
The evidence shows a clear connection between transport and quality of life. This is something Cambridge Ahead has encountered often in the past. As we’ve asked questions about quality of life in our research, we have very often found transport presenting among the most urgent local issues (RAND Europe, 2022). Investment in public transport and active travel infrastructure helps us to move around easier, promotes social inclusion, broadens social connections and relationships, and reduces stress and isolation. These connections can help people to access new opportunities for education or work, supporting good growth in our local economy. All of these factors support the view that transport has an essential, if complex, role to play in addressing socioeconomic inequality – “levelling up” – both between and within regions.
People on the lowest incomes are 2.5x more likely to travel by bus than those on the highest incomes
The research confirms what many of us know intuitively and experience daily – affordable, accessible and sustainable transport options are vital for good quality of life. It also clearly reaffirms the importance of delivering transport infrastructure that is already in the pipeline, such as East West Rail and the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s public and active travel corridors. And, crucially, it shows that this relationship between transport and quality of life is dependent on a well-integrated and strategic approach. Piecemeal interventions and tinkering around the edges do not have the same impact as a long term, sustained plan. I’m excited to be leading the Transport Group, which has long called for this kind of long-term view.
So how do we better articulate the ‘cost of inaction’, and better address the transport challenges we face? I’ll end with two asks:
1. Recognise that inaction is in itself a choice, and change will occur regardless of whether we effectively prepare for it or not. Drivers in Cambridge already spend on average a quarter of their journey stuck in traffic, and this is set to worsen. Modelling suggests that traffic in Greater Cambridge will be approximately 13% higher at peak times by 2041, and over 20% higher between peaks. Delays are expected to be 75% higher in the evening peak than they are today. This, of course, has a knock-on effect on public transport - if you catch a bus during rush hour you can expect to move at less than 60% of the ‘free flow’ speed of other times. Transport is responsible for nearly half (45%) of our local carbon emissions, and in recent years parts of Cambridge have breached legal limits for the presence of toxic pollutants in the air. Very few people would accept these figures getting worse, so…
2. Engage in the debate – and look at the evidence – about what comes next. Now is the time to redouble efforts to address these issues and bring together a coalition of the willing, across all parts of the Cambridge city region, to plot a route forward. For our part, the Transport Group will continue to gather evidence about these issues throughout my tenure as Chair. We will add to this top-level evidence review by gathering local evidence about the relationship between transport and socioeconomic inequality. We will also maintain our focus on transport as a key driver of quality of life, supported by this evidence which will feed a wider programme taking in behaviour change, decarbonisation, spatial mapping, and the viability of a rapid mass transit system.
Written by Duncan McCunn, Chair of the Cambridge Ahead Transport Group