We are at a fork in the road, having taken an unscheduled detour that none of us could have imagined 4 months ago.
Leaving aside the personal tragedies involved in this pandemic and looking at it through sustainable transport goggles, Covid-19 has proved to be a mixed blessing. We have seen a resurgence in local walking and cycling and a collapse in travel demand beyond the very local that is unprecedented. Air has been palpably and measurably cleaner; harmful air pollution cut. Temporary cycling facilities have started to come in and e scooter trials progressed with hitherto unthinkable speed.
On the other hand, public transport use has collapsed and is now wrapped in warnings to stay away from it if at all possible; and the private car has undeniably been the mode apart from walking and cycling which has remained available and accessible through the crisis to date.
One year on from net zero becoming law and with one year and one season to go until Glasgow hosts the UN climate summit, now is the time for us to make some significant pivots. And stick with them.
While I do not pretend to have all the answers, I am here to argue that the sharing of cars, bikes, e-scooters, new forms of bus service alongside public transport, walking and private cycling must be the compound answer for far more journeys than is currently the case. All these things need each other. In the case of shared transport such as bike share and car club schemes we were generally at all-time highs in usage before the pandemic. But we are a long way from maximising on what shared transport and indeed sustainable transport generally can deliver for the UK.
So what to do? The Committee on Climate Change is quite right to welcome the Department for Transport’s setting the challenge document on decarbonisation, and also quite right to say it needs policies to take it forward. We need to move beyond setting the question and into answering it. That means a reset on how we plan transport investment, transport planning and land use planning. The new filter is labelled ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ and it will radically question some current plans and reinforce others. In doing this we must – think of the embedded greenhouse gas emissions alone – make best use of what we already have where that fits the net zero agenda. That should include: lift sharing in existing cars where they are going to make those journeys anyway; maximising the utilisation of car clubs and bike share schemes that we already have. Then we must invest in expansion of public, shared and active travel at an ambitious and sustained scale (year after year after year). For example that means understanding what e-scooters and other novel (to the UK) sustainable transport options can give us; spreading shared transport options across the country; adapting and building hubs where these elements can come together to better serve people’s needs and shift the needle on the dial.
It also means resetting the incentives on bodies such as Highways England and Homes England to align their practices with net zero; measuring employers on all emissions including those from travel to, from and for work; making the parking and use of private cars more inconvenient and expensive for those journeys where there are alternatives (while boosting those alternatives). Vital as net zero is, we don’t have to rely on that solely for our motivation – let’s remember the quieter, cleaner environments we have all been in since or before the start of lockdown not as a nostalgic past but as some flavour of a more pleasant and viable future.
About the Author
This post was written by Richard Dillks. Richard is the Chief Executive of CoMoUK