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Smart, shared, sustainable mobility

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

Milton Keynes Council is one of only four local authorities to have been granted a share of the government’s £40m ‘Go Ultra Low Cities’ programme. Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at the council, discusses the plans to make the city’s transport offering more sustainable.

On-demand buses, free parking for electric vehicle (EV) drivers and a promise to deliver charging points closer to the home of residents are all part of a major move by Milton Keynes Council to transform the city’s current approach to mobility.

At the beginning of the year, the local authority was one of four councils to win part of a £40m government pot in the ‘Go Ultra Low Cities programme’, run by the Department for Transport and the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV). The other authorities were London, Bristol and Nottingham. 

Free parking for EV drivers 

As part of a five-year programme, the council received £9m to revolutionise sustainable transport in the city. Although a number of contracts are still to be finalised, Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at Milton Keynes Council, told PSE that the local authority’s ‘flagship’ project to be the first city in the UK to introduce free parking for anyone with an EV has delivered some quick wins. 

In the summer, the local authority launched 15,000 free parking spaces in the city for drivers of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs) – those emitting 75 g/km CO2 or less, and that have an all-electric range of at least 15 miles.

“There were a number of reasons to do that,” said Matthews. “Firstly, we genuinely want to encourage EVs and we recognise that paying for parking is a pain point for drivers; even though it might only be a small part of their motoring costs, most drivers do not welcome it. If we can give a very clear signal that the lowest carbon vehicles are welcome in Milton Keynes, then we thought it was very important for us. 

“It isn’t just about providing infrastructure, particularly in Milton Keynes, with the scale of the infrastructure we have, it is about supporting people to make the decisions.” 

Those using the spots need to display a new ‘green parking permit’ which can be applied for through Milton Keynes Council. “We did see a very strong take-up in July of 150 permits issued, and we didn’t really do any marketing around this,” added Matthews. 

c. Arup edit

EV experience centre and charging expansion 

Another aspect of the council’s proposal is to launch an EV ‘experience centre’ where potential car owners can ‘try before they buy’. 

“What we are doing is opening up a retail unit in Milton Keynes’ shopping centre, and have planning permission to convert two shops into one, so that we can supply a fleet of vehicles to demonstrate them and their capabilities,” said Matthews. “The idea is to break down barriers, because market research suggests that when people go into a car dealership many have already made their mind up, without considering electric vehicles. 

“It is about providing potential consumers with the information to make informed decisions.” 

Prior to receiving the latest funding, Milton Keynes was one of the first Plugged-in Places, which saw the city introduce the largest concentration of charging infrastructure posts in the UK. The network is now positioned as a commercial operation attracting impressive usage figures. 

The local authority now plans to investigate plans for charging hubs, where vehicles can be fully recharged in around 30 minutes; destination charging, targeting key popular locations such as supermarkets, hotels and leisure facilities; and charging points close to residential areas. 

“We have the MK promise,” said Matthews, “which is the idea that we do our best endeavours to support charging infrastructure at the home end of the journey, recognising that not everyone can put a socket in their garage if they haven’t got one. It is about working with the consumers in an area and supporting them.” 

Matthews said he was hoping to make more announcements on the promise late this year, but the council is even looking at trialling lamp post charging for vehicles, especially if people do not have access to a driveway. 

Extra electric buses 

In addition to the Go Ultra Low Cities funding, Milton Keynes Council applied for a share of the Low Emission Bus Scheme, where it was awarded £1.75m to procure a new fleet of EV buses.

The winning bid, which will see the buses introduced over the next two years, builds on the council’s success of Route 7, the UK’s first electric bus service. The award-winning service, which has been running since 2014, features eight buses that charge themselves up at Wolverton and Bletchley on underground charging plates. 

As well as acquiring 11 new buses with the funding, the council plans to introduce a new route. “We ambitiously bid in the round for turning all our buses into electric, but while government admired our ambition they said they had to support more than just Milton Keynes,” said Matthews. 

“We are introducing a second route across the city, which is very high patronage. We will be able to say that around 25% of our bus passengers within the next 18 months will be on an emission-free bus. That is 11 buses on an additional route across the city.” 

On-demand buses 

The ‘Milton Keynes Futures 2050 Commission’ report stated that the city should invest in next-generation and emission-free shared transport for all, adding: “This spans from traditional fixed route and fixed timetable buses, through on-demand buses, shared taxis, car clubs and car shares, to short-loan bikes and electric bikes delivered alongside the unique facility of the city’s extensive Redways network.” 

Discussing the plans for on-demand bus services, Matthews said: “You often think of Milton Keynes as a new city, but we are two-thirds rural area. We have the same sort of issues as any other area has in supporting services for people in those areas. It is tremendously important to us. 

“The traditional idea of sending a big 37-seater bus around the rural areas once an hour, which either carry two or three people, doesn’t make economic sense anymore. Even if we had all the money in the world to subsidise it, it doesn’t make sense anymore. If you then put the carbon footprint in as well, it doesn’t make environmental sense. 

“Our strategy, which we are looking to develop alongside Arriva, is to introduce an on-demand type service. This would be a flexible ‘anywhere to anywhere’ service – an Uber-type model – where using the best of technology we can link journeys. It would also mean that people can travel when they choose in those areas.” 

While he admitted in some instances people could pay more for some services, he added: “If we can get the sums right – and we are confident we can – it will mean that if you can get a mini-bus vehicle running around, high-quality, filled with four or five people it comes out at not much more than the bus fare. We think that could be a more economical way forward. 

“If you book in time and manage your journeys, you can get a very cost-efficient journey. We are looking with Arriva, our main operator, to pilot that sometime later this year or early next year.”

 Accessing sustainable transport funding 

Asked for his thoughts on the way funding for sustainable transport is being delivered, Matthews told PSE: “It seems to me that there has been a shift as a response from central government to the challenges we face on finances. Rather than spreading money thinly across lots of authorities, it seems to be ‘let’s target where we can make a difference’ and stimulate the market.” 

While noting that local authorities are seeing a lot more competition-type funding coming through,  where councils have to make a very good economic case, Matthews said it can help focus on innovation and best practice that is replicable across other areas. 

“We recognise that things develop and we are in constant dialogue with OLEV to see if there is anything else we can trial and support, not just as Milton Keynes, but as part of a national initiative,” he said. “Some of the things I’ve described don’t just benefit Milton Keynes. I think any city could benefit from some of these schemes, which we can trial and demonstrate.”

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