Open Eye: What a difference a train makes

East London's experience provides lessons in tackling traffic congestion and pollution: public transport links have to match specific local needs. Yvonne Cook reports
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The Independent Online
Beckton is a socially-mixed area of East London, once dominated by giant gas and sewage works, which is now the focus for much "brownfield" residential, retail and industrial development.

For many years it was something of a backwater, since it is not on the Underground, and overground rail links are scanty. So it was good news for Beckton people when the Docklands Light Railway completed its Beckton extension in 1996.

Or was it? To find out what difference the railway had made to the lives and travel habits of Beckton residents, London Transport called on Dr Stephen Potter, Senior Research Fellow in design and innovation at the Open University.

Stephen had a distinguished 'track record' of transport research dating back to the 1980s, but the reason for choosing him to conduct this research was probably that he had completed a study of travel patterns in the area in 1992, when the DLR extension was under construction.

Stephen and his team, who included OU associate lecturer Ben Lane from Bristol, collected evidence from 312 Beckton households (involving 670 people) about their travel patterns. The survey, conducted last year, was then compared with results from the 1992 survey. A report and the survey database are due to be presented to London Transport and to Docklands Light Railway this month.

The hope was that the new line would widen residents' employment choices by providing a direct rail link to the Canary Wharf area, the City and, through London Underground, to central London. Another goal was to reduce road congestion and pollution by encouraging people to make more use of public transport.

"The results have been mixed," says Stephen, "and there have been some surprises. On the positive side, it certainly seems to have provided existing residents with new job opportunities - but not in the places where we expected.

"Contrary to expectations, the survey shows there have been very few work journeys to Canary Wharf and the Docklands development area. On the other hand, people have been using the DLR for work journeys towards Stratford and other parts of the East End."

The explanation, says Stephen, is that "part of the planning for Canary Wharf and other new docklands areas has included thundering dual carriageways and vast carparks while the roads to Stratford and the East End are horribly congested and parking is a nightmare."

This finding adds to the evidence that reducing car use is not just a matter of providing good public transport, says Stephen. "One of the wider lessons from this survey is that if you want to tackle congestion and pollution you have to provide people with alternatives to the private car - but you also have to provide discouragements to using it. This study is a reflection, in microcosm, of the debate that is going on at a national level."

Stephen say that the survey helps explain the lack of use of the DLR for journeys other than work: "The places that people go for recreational and social activities tend to be in the traditional East End, just to the north - in a direction not served by DLR." The situation could be improved, he suggests, by providing more and better interchanges with other forms of transport such as the Jubilee Line (yet to be completed) and express bus services.

It is too early to make a final judgment, cautions Stephen, as some of the areas the DLR extension is intended to serve are still undeveloped and an important transport interchanging will soon open at Canning Town. "The lesson from this seems to be that you should do a travel survey at the planning stage of a project like this, not at the implementation stage."

It will be up to London Transport and DLR what they do with the results of the report - meanwhile Stephen has moved on to another topic, exploring the emerging area of firms seeking to 'green' the travel of their staff.

Last year he and his team published a report, also sponsored by London Transport, which concluded that the current UK tax system discourages companies from implementing 'green' transport plans for employees.

To take one example - if companies introduce measures such as subsidised transport to work, staff are taxed on these 'benefits', a disincentive to them and adds to the company's administrative burden. "Companies are saying that the tax side is a terrible mess, and there is a lot of pressure being put on government to do something about it."

Stephen is now involved in two more green transport plan projects. One is for the UK government, led by consultants Oscar Faber, to produce a guide to help companies calculate the costs and advantages to them of implementing green transport plans. The findings will also hopefully feed into government tax policy.

His second project, also with Oscar Faber, is a more ambitious one, for the European Commission, comparing the way greener travel measures are taxed in countries across the EU and the use of innovative funding mechanisms. The idea is to try and discover which sort of fiscal systems best support green transport.

Many would argue green transport policies seem to have had very little effect in the UK so far. Stephen believes they can be made to work by adopting a pragmatic approach, and cites his own involvement in trying to set up a green transport policy for the OU in car-friendly Milton Keynes:

"There are quite a lot of things you can do with a little bit of effort such as changing bus timetables, or improving campus cycle facilities. You also need to appreciate that you have to target your schemes; you can't expect buses, or cycling, to suit everybody, but you can make it easier for some people.

"Quite a lot of Milton Keynes companies are interested in making the city more 'sustainable'. There is a growing sense that green transport policies are part of a good management system. I believe it is part of a culture shift whereby companies are seen to have a wider responsibility to their staff than just putting money in their paypackets."

Stephen joined the OU in 1974 as a PhD researcher and is now based in the Department of Design and Innovation. As well as research and writing on transport and environment issues he has undertaken work on design management issues, contributed to Innovation and Design courses and helped write a postgraduate research training pack. He is currently writing on transport and environment for the new Technology Foundation Course, T172.