Pictured: Eco bus serving Milton Keynes in 2019
Following the UK government's announcement at the recent Conservative party conference on a new push around infrastructure, we have been speaking with one of the most forwarding thinking councils outside London - Milton Keynes - to gauge how realistic some of the government's plans look for local authorities.
The Chancellor Sajid Javid announced that he will renew a pledge of £220 million to improve bus services in England. He has set a goal for contactless payments to be made available on every city bus. Plans for so-called superbus networks where local authorities will invest in bus lanes in exchange for more services from operators, will also be announced. A pilot is planned for Cornwall in 2020.
The UK government also announced it was keen to create the first all-electric bus town or city, but what are the challenges in doing this and should this be an appropriate focus when there are other competing mobility issues within cities to tackle?
Milton Keynes Council has been one of the first local authorities to pioneer the use of electric vehicles and has the ambition to become the greenest in the UK. It is at the forefront of technology and innovation with smart, shared and sustainable mobility, part of its wider transport vision which Milton Keynes wants to become a reality. It is a pilot authority within the government's Connected Autonomous Vehicle initiative (C-CAV) and the council is the leading provider outside London for electric vehicle charge points.
Steve Hayes, Head of Transport, at the council, explained to us that although more information was needed from government to flesh out the planned ambition around all-electric bus cities, Milton Keynes Council might find it very difficult to achieve an all-electric bus environment. He explained:
'Although there is clearly more information needed around this idea, it is challenging as it would be very expensive and outside London, local authorities have limited power to make each and every bus operator go all-electric. Of course electric over diesel running costs are cheaper for bus operators in the long term and the council has developed a waste to energy plant now in use, so we are moving steadily towards green energy'.
'There are additional considerations in terms of an overall mobility plan for the city. We want to encourage people to use buses more and the success of smart ticketing is important to us. This is where we do have funding to push this on. We won't do away with cash entirely for those that want to pay that way, and there will be a smart card option for those who don't use smart phones.
'We also have our mobility strategy which includes walking and cycling as well as the use of autonomous vehicles in the future, but for the time being buses will be essential along with normalising the use of EVs. We do need more funding for alternative transport though.'
Chancellor Sajid Javid also announced at the Conservative Party conference a £25 billion roads investment between 2020 and 2025. Part of the government's announcement on roads focussed on links between Milton Keynes and Cambridge because of the hoped-for future success of the 'ARC' linking cities from Swindon and Oxford through to Cambridge. A new 'super-university' is being envisaged which champions research into industry-related subjects. Transport connections will need to improve in order to attract business around these knowledge hubs.
'There are strong economic links between MK and Cambridge' Steve Hayes commented 'but the Black Cat junction area needs attention because of congestion and accidents, as it's a key route for lorries to and from Felixstowe port and this is certainly overdue as a highways improvement. The NIC has marked the Arc as an infrastructure area of major importance, and we support East West Rail and building our share of the new housing infrastructure.'
Highways England is now planning a three-tier junction at the Black Cat roundabout - where the A1, A421 and A428 meet - to allow drivers to pass straight through uninterrupted, while leaving the roundabout clear for drivers needing to make turns.
On aesthetics and the concept of 'Building Beautiful, Building Better' around future mobility, Steve says: 'top of the list is the 21,000 on street car spaces in the city, and how we can reduce these and make them into more beautiful places, which benefit the communities with green spaces.'