By Anne Shaw, executive director, Transport for West Midlands
Since becoming the UK’s first Future Transport Zone four years ago the West Midlands has rightly earned a reputation as the home of innovation and creative thinking around transport.
Working with partners in councils, universities and the private sector, Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) has developed and provided real world testing of pioneering technology and exciting new ideas around the way we move.
These include a mobility credits trial which has explored incentives to move people away from private motoring, the launch of an app-based demand responsive bus service and the development of the real world test bed for connected and autonomous vehicles.
The region is also leading the way in developing and testing Very Light Rail technology which will make tram systems more affordable and quicker to deploy, making mass rapid transit more easily attainable for towns and cities.
This innovation has all been underpinned by the need to electrify our transport system, level up accessibility and, in common with all urban areas, reduce traffic congestion to deal with the challenges of the climate emergency and poor air quality.
Through the Future Transport Zone we have a trusted track record of delivery and established relationships with government and private industry.
The Deeper Devolution Deal, agreed with Government in March, builds on earlier deals to transfer further powers and funding streams from Whitehall to the West Midlands. This included offering further autonomy for TfWM to establish itself as a leader in transport innovation in the UK and improve the transport offer to its citizens.
This means the TfWM area will become the UK’s first Transport Sandbox. This designation gives us the opportunity to work in partnership with central government to flex and challenge existing legislation to help us deliver better transport services for our residents and businesses.
In all areas, but in particular in transport, legislation cannot always keep pace with technological and consumer changes. This can hold back innovation and the growth of new modes or models of operation. This is an issue regularly identified by business partners as a barrier to their own growth and innovation.
In addition to the direct transport benefits, the Sandbox will look to boost our Plan for Growth, by creating economic benefits from new inward investment and accelerating additional growth in high-value industry clusters such as advanced manufacturing while boosting private sector confidence to deliver new transport services. From this, there will be new learning that can be applied across public and private sectors throughout the UK.
Using the Sandbox we will look to exploit new transport service opportunities, challenge regulatory barriers and create a safe and secure space to test innovative products and services with private industry.
To improve the experience for travellers and transport operators, the Sandbox will look to modernise practices through digitising services and processes and identifying smarter and quicker ways of working.
- TfWM will be working with government, local authorities and wider industry and academic partners to:
- Enable new, low speed zero emission and automated vehicle trials, looking at both operational and regulatory challenges
- Explore the flexibility of current rules and regulations to allow new dynamic responsive models of bus services. This builds on the recent West Midlands On Demand/Ring and Ride merger and the automated passenger vehicle trials being undertaken at Birmingham Airport, Solihull
- Accelerate dynamic traffic management and digitisation of street spaces, supporting last mile logistics and creating safer streets and places
Additionally, the Government is keen to explore other areas, including:
- TfWM and our local authorities supporting government in developing a robust evidence case for introducing simplified side road zebra crossings – helping to improve safety for the most vulnerable road users
- Subject to new national rules, government will create a new low speed zero emission vehicle (LZEV) category which is distinct from the cycle and motor vehicle categories. This will give TfWM and the constituent authorities, through a new licensing framework for rental micromobility operations, consistent powers to shape rental operations to match local priorities
The Sandbox forms a key part of the region’s Local Transport Plan to ensure transport better supports our daily lives now, as well as leaving a better legacy for the future. It supports the wider outcomes of the plan to deliver a green revolution by decarbonising and electrifying our transport infrastructure and developing behaviour change to reduce traffic and create safer streets.
The benefits of the Sandbox would extend beyond the West Midlands and provide a focal point for engagement with other local authorities and will act as a centre for information sharing, training and skills development for transport and highways authorities across the UK.