Meet the Academic helping to better connect communities in the countryside

Stephen Joseph has spent a career extolling the virtues of public transport over car-based travel and has turned his attention to improving mobility in areas outside of cities.

For over 30 years Stephen Joseph OBE was a leading voice in championing sustainable transport, helping to emphasise the importance of buses, trains and trams to successive Governments.

He led the pressure group Transport 2000 which morphed into the Campaign for Better Transport, of which Stephen was chief executive until 2018.

Stephen is now a Professor in the Smart Mobility Unit at the University of Hertfordshire, and is keen to “close the gap” between an often abundant provision of public transport services inside conurbations and the relatively poor levels of service and alternatives to cars in rural, suburban or coastal communities.

With the help of Connected Places Catapult, he recently convened two sets of roundtables involving transport specialists, technology companies, operators and community groups to discuss the future of mobility outside cities. Outputs from the events are being used to inform a Department for Transport rural mobility strategy, due this autumn, which will provide guidance for decision makers on improving rural mobility provision.

Earlier this summer, Stephen and colleagues were welcomed onto the Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme delivered by the Catapult on behalf of the Department for Transport. The programme is assisting Stephen and colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire’s Smart Mobility Unit to produce a feasibility study for a new mobility ‘hub’ at their campus to provide better public transport services for staff and students.

“We are also having conversations with the wider community in Hatfield to see if there are opportunities for providing alternatives to private cars, such as car clubs, car sharing, electric vehicle schemes and demand responsive transport,” says Stephen. “The idea is to see what the business cases are, what would be needed to make these ideas work and what this all might mean for future policymakers.”

He says the Catapult has been very helpful in providing connections with like-minded professionals and projects. At the launch of the latest programme earlier this summer in Birmingham, he was pleased to meet with others “doing some very interesting work in a similar area”.

Redressing the rural balance

Stephen’s focus on travel options outside of cities follows a prolonged period when urban issues have taken precedence. “Most transport research and policy are focused on urban transport, and there are good reasons for that: many people live in cities and they create a lot of economic activity.”

But this means transport outside of cities can feel somewhat neglected. “These areas often face significant congestion and alternatives to the car aren’t great. Active travel, particularly cycling, is often seen as dangerous, but change is important if we are to reduce carbon emissions.

“There is also an issue of social exclusion – particularly in coastal, former manufacturing and mining communities – as a result of people either not having cars, or being dependent on them.”

Several good initiatives are available to provide an alternative for car journeys, such as ‘demand responsive’ transport where people can hail buses, for instance, using technology. But there is scant academic research available as to their effectiveness. “One of my colleagues found only four academic articles on demand responsive transport, and they were all old,” Stephen says.

“Nobody has researched what works, even though the Government has been spending money on this. There is also a need to ask users of on-demand services what they were doing before, and what they would do if their service wasn’t there.”

One such demand responsive bus project that is delivering impact is called ‘HertsLynx’ in north Hertfordshire; providing services in an area where few fixed routes previously ran. Two of the big users of the buses, Stephen explains, have been college students who were previously driven by parents, and rail commuters who used to drive to Stevenage station.

Stephen was behind several high profile transport campaigns in his former role

Focusing on UK case studies

Stephen says he is trying to highlight good practice case studies in the UK, “because decision makers can get fed up being pointed to Freiburg in Germany (which provides extended hours for public transport and new car-free developments), or places in Switzerland or the Netherlands.

“Even in Hertfordshire, there are e-bike schemes in Watford and Borehamwood which could work elsewhere. That would carry more weight than saying ‘look at the Netherlands’.”

Stephen has also helped to introduce a Masters in transport planning at his University, and is in the process of setting up a rural transport learning network with sub national transport body Transport East.

Elsewhere, he has been working with the Transport Planning Society to study how the four nations of the UK manage transport. Wales, for instance, has scrapped many new road proposals and plans to upgrade its bus network. Scotland’s spending on active travel has significantly increased lately, and the country offers free bus fares for those aged under 22.

“There is already lots going on out there and with more help from governments, we could have a lot more.”

Another focus is new housing development, he adds, where if transport is planned badly, it could lead to more car-based travel with little public transport and narrower footways.

Good practice examples exist, such as at Poundbury in Dorset where on-street car parking is discouraged with facilities placed off-street, and at Derwenthorpe outside York where higher density living lends itself to more active travel.

Stephen adds that the introduction of mobility hubs in new developments could provide consolidated collection services for delivery drivers, helping to reduce congestion further.

Campaigning as a child

Stephen Joseph grew up in north London and, like many children, showed an interest in trains and transport. It might have stopped there, he recalls, were it not for the Government of the day proposing to widen the Archway Road through Highgate.

“My parents were involved in a hard-fought campaign to prevent it from happening, and they were successful. It gave me a taste for transport campaigning.” At around the same time, there was also a plan to close the North London Line, so Stephen joined a protest – and the line stayed open.

Stephen studied history at Oxford and got involved in environmental issues and community action, before joining Transport 2000 which he went on to lead.

“At the point when Government wanted to start thinking about the impact of road building and traffic, we were there to help them.” Stephen was later appointed by Government as a member of the Commission for Integrated Transport.

Looking back, he feels his efforts made an impact. “Nobody is talking about building urban motorways any more. When I arrived at Transport 2000, the Government was funding studies looking to revive a series of large road building projects through London.”

Stephen also successfully pushed for a reform to the company car tax system, “which moved from a system rewarding people driving very big cars for long distances, to one that rewards them for driving vehicles with low carbon emissions.”

On the railways, he supported a central London rail study in the late 1980s which proposed Crossrail – now the Elizabeth Line – and spoke up for the reopening of several redundant railway lines. He and his colleagues were also instrumental in championing a workplace parking levy 30 years ago, which when applied by Nottingham City Council paid for new tram lines and improved bus services in the city.

“I don’t do lots of direct campaigning now, but I’m in still in touch with people who do that kind of thing. Sometimes they need academics to help them.”

Stephen offers this advice to others who are hoping to get a new transport project off the ground: “Look for allies; create networks of people who will support your project.”

So what is next for him? “Well, at some point I’ll retire,” he replies, “but before then, I want to help the University of Hertfordshire further establish its Smart Mobility Unit and attract research, funding and people to work with it. Plus, I want to see people pick up the theme of transport outside of cities and do good things with it.”


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‘Fair Fares Now’ photograph courtesy of the Campaign for Better Transport.