With the appointment of Tracy Brabin as West Yorkshire’s metro mayor, we now have a real opportunity to address this inequality which affects people across the region every time they have to make a journey.
This issue was brought home to me very vividly during lockdown when I saw a young woman dragging her buggy along the centre of the road in Huddersfield. The snow-covered pavements were all but impassable for the pushchair’s tiny wheels and the road was the easier, yet more dangerous option.
Moments later, a Range Rover sped past, splashing the woman and her child with dirty brown slush, before beeping angrily as it whizzed by on its way somewhere important.
After stopping to sympathise I found out that she was walking back from the bank with her toddler, having found that it was closed due to the weather and the pandemic. With no buses running and no money or car, her only option was to struggle home on foot in treacherous circumstances.
But why was she really in that situation?
It’s because transport systems here in Yorkshire have historically been designed to benefit people who work 9-5 in an office, most of whom have traditionally been men.
The result is that we live within a transport system which isn’t designed by, or for, so many of the people who have to use it.
It’s time that we shifted this balance based on the reality of modern life. When we look at UK travel statistics, men dominate access to cars and are more likely to take the train. Women make more frequent, but shorter, trips than men. They are more likely to be walking or using the bus. Women are three times more likely to take children to school.
Taking a more inclusive approach would see at least half of all infrastructure investment focused on these micro-journeys. Prioritising this kind of infrastructure investment would not only benefit those who have traditionally been overlooked, but it would encourage everyone to make healthier choices.
In the current National Infrastructure Strategy, compare the £5bn promised investment in buses and cycling with the £27bn to be invested in the strategic road network and the £15bn projected cost of Northern Powerhouse Rail. For this price, NPR will provide a ‘high level of connectedness’ for a target market of 1.3 million people from Liverpool to Newcastle so the North can operate as a single economy, a big step forward for the levelling up agenda.
There is much to be gained from this kind of big infrastructure spending, but it must be in proportion to the direct transport interventions needed to facilitate better micro-journeys in each town and city.
This means thinking with plenty of care and creativity about the smaller – but no less important – journeys that each of the North’s 16 million residents take.
What about the people who don’t work, or work locally, or have children, or need to visit their mother every day? How can we make our cities and transport systems fairer, more responsive to the people that need them, so that they are successful places for everyone to enjoy?
With new transport powers under the region’s landmark devolution deal, Tracy Brabin has a chance to reset how our public spaces and transport systems are designed, so that they really can work for everyone.
With plentiful evidence that walking and cycling initiatives can boost wellbeing and productivity, reducing healthcare costs and delivering greater local spend and business density; a focus on this area would be a great start to her new role.
She has already made a very promising start towards driving up standards in Yorkshire’s buses, which will help make public transport more affordable while improving accessibility. If she can get the balance right, we will build a better-connected Yorkshire, and a much fairer and healthier society.
We need to tackle the small journeys; the complicated lives. We need to look out for and listen to the women pushing children along snowy streets, as well as those driving past in their Range Rovers.
Leah Stuart is director of Civic Engineers
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