Jane Lorimer reports that 60,000 Cardiff households are being contacted in an effort to change their travel habits
Dealing with road congestion has been vexing policy makers for decades. The traditional approach, new roads and by-passes, have been the staple feature of transport strategies since the 1960s. However, significant cuts to capital spending budgets allied to new carbon reduction targets mean these are increasingly off limits to transport planners.
The new fashion is to ‘manage demand’ using infrastructure and technology. In the face of increasing number of cars on the road, park and ride, closing off junctions and variable speed limits have been the favoured alternatives to road building. Now for the first time in Wales a new approach is being trialled.
Instead of simply managing demand the Welsh Government will try to reduce demand by influencing travel behaviour. With some two-thirds of all journeys under five miles, there is significant potential to ease pressure on the road network by encouraging drivers to replace some of their local car journeys with alternatives.
Using the ‘smarter choices’ approach to transport planning that has been gaining currency in recent years, a range of ‘soft’ interventions will be promoted, such as car sharing, car clubs, travel planning, tele-working, cycling and walking.
A large trial in English towns has provided a robust evidence base of the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of this approach. For every £1 spent on ‘smarter choices’ interventions, there are savings of £4 from falling congestion. This figure becomes much higher if you take into account health benefits, and compares favourably with road spending which often fails to show a return of £1 for every £1 invested.
This month the UK’s largest programme of Smarter Choices is being rolled out in Cardiff, building on work already underway as part of the Sustainable Travel Centre project. Co-ordinated by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans Cymru, the ambitious £4 million programme will target schools, workplaces and households. Working with a consortium of organisations including public transport operators, the Welsh Government, and Cardiff Council, it will organise a range of interventions to raise awareness of the alternatives to using the car for everyday journeys.
The research which underpins this approach shows that people are swayed in their travel choice by a lack of information about alternatives to the car. For example, the study of three large English towns published by the Department of Transport found that in around half of journeys a viable public transport alternative already existed for a local journey made by car, but people did not know about it.
The research showed that a further barrier to people leaving their car at home was a severe misperception about relative travel times. For example, in Darlington, Peterborough and Worcester people on average over-estimated travel time by public transport by around two thirds, and for cars under-estimated travel time by one fifth. In other words because of habitual car use and lack of familiarity with public transport, people think jumping in the car, rather than going by bus or bike, is quicker than it actually is.
Increasing awareness and encouraging people to change their habits has the potential to change travel behaviour. Personalised Travel Planning works by targeting information at people who are interested in using their car less. Over the next two years Sustrans will be using this approach with 60,000 households in Cardiff – the largest project of its kind in the UK to date.
The project works directly with people in their homes, offering free advice, incentives, and motivation on walking, cycling and using public transport for more of their local, everyday journeys. Households will be given a menu of options, including sessions with a travel advisor and maps of local walking and cycling routes, bus and train timetables.
Following a model used extensively in Australia, Personalised Travel Planning has been delivered in more than 20 towns and cities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. More than 250,000 households have been encouraged to change their travel behaviour.
The results have been remarkable. Last year Sustrans projects in Exeter, Lowestoft and Watford helped cut the number of car trips by around 13 per cent across targeted populations. At the same time the number of trips on foot, bike and public transport had increased by 33 per cent, 37 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.
The project will be rolled out in three phases in Cardiff, starting in the north of the city before progressing to the west and Penarth in early spring 2012, and then to east Cardiff, coinciding with investment in the cycling network into the capital along Newport Road. The approach works particularly well when delivered alongside visible improvements to services, although it is not dependent on new infrastructure. Indeed, the entire premise of Personalised Travel Planning is that improvements in infrastructure on their own are not enough. People need information and motivation to change their travel habits too.
For the first time in the UK the Personalised Travel Planning element is being delivered alongside travel planning assistance for some of the greatest trip generators. As well as having detailed conversations with households we will be assisting workplaces and schools to improve the support they give employees and parents around travel decision making. Often a householder may tell us that they would try cycling to work if their employer had secure cycle parking facilities. With this project we can close the loop by working with employers to improve facilities.
We will be helping employers recognise the business benefits of their staff travelling to work and within the working day by sustainable travel modes. The University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, is an example of an employer that has cut car use amongst its staff and students by promoting public transport, walking and cycling. By promoting greater levels of physical activity the University has succeeded in reducing the number of days lost to sickness by 32 per cent as a direct result of implementing an ambitious travel plan.
Our experience in Cardiff will allow us to trial new approaches and consolidate best practice which can then be applied across Wales. After delivering Personalised Travel Planning in the capital we will then tackle the areas of greatest commuter inflow into Cardiff. Over the next four years the project will extend to Pontypridd, Caerphilly, Barry, Bangor and Ynys Mon, Haverfordwest, Carmarthen and Aberystwyth.
The work will provide invaluable data about the way we travel and, crucially, to enable us to better understand transport patterns in Welsh towns and cities. Above all, the project will allow us to demonstrate that change is possible, not through coercion but simply by giving people information about the choices that they have.