Six ways transport can help combat climate change

car splash flood

Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s climate watchdog,  recently called on the transport secretary to “Do more to cut transport CO2 emissions”.

This follows hot on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report on global warming of 1.5°C. The report suggested that limiting global warming to 1.5°C could reduce some of the more catastrophic impacts of climate change, rather than 2°C, which has in the past been used as the threshold for ‘dangerous climate change’. At 1.5°C, the proportion of the world’s population exposed to water stress could be 50% lower than at 2°C and food scarcity would be less of a problem. Limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C requires ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, cities, and of course, transport. CO2 emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 (from 2010 levels) and reach net zero by 2050.

In the UK, transport contributes 26% of greenhouse gas emissions and, in 2016, transport became the largest emitting sector. Transport has seen the slowest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of any sector in the UK between 1990 and 2016, just a 2% reduction, the next lowest reduction being in the residential sector which has seen a 13% reduction over the same period.

CO2 figures

So what needs to happen so that urban transport can play its part in reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change? Here are six key headlines and areas that we at the Urban Transport Group are working on:

  1. Creating healthy streets allows city environments to support active lifestyles and encourages green spaces, which can create urban spaces which are more resilient to the effects of climate change. Additionally, if urban spaces are pleasant, then people will remain living in the urban area, rather than moving away, and this can help reduce travel demand. We are supporting areas to implement a Healthy Streets approach as part of a year of action.
  2. Active travel is the ultimate low carbon travel choice. Increasingly cities are developing infrastructure and wider supportive measures to encourage active travel (as outline in our report Active Travel: Solutions for changing cities). Shifting journeys to active modes can help reduce carbon emissions from transport. New research from Sustrans showed that walking or cycling could substitute for around 41% of short car trips, saving nearly 5% of CO2 emissions from car travel.
  3. Boosting public transport can offer low emission alternatives to private car use. In order to maximise the public transport offer and ensure that it can contribute to reducing carbon emissions it needs to be ‘available, accessible, affordable and acceptable’. Ideally public transport should increasingly be electrified, and great work is happening in Nottingham, for example, with the electrification of the bus fleet.
  4. Low emission public service fleets can offer a way for local authorities to reduce their carbon emissions and to boost awareness of low emission vehicles. We highlighted Leeds City Council’s vehicle fleet in our recent report on vans.
  5. Managing urban freight can offer opportunities to reduce carbon emissions, as van traffic is the fastest growing sector of road traffic. Shifting freight to water and rail can offer more sustainable options than road freight. Urban consolidation and last mile innovations can also help to reduce the impact of deliveries. We set out how urban freight should be part of the effective functioning of city regions in ‘Delivering the future: New approaches to urban freight’.
  6. Ensuring smart mobility is part of the solution, not a contributor to the problem. By this, we mean that it is shared and electric, it delivers environmental benefits and it isn’t just more vehicles clogging up our streets and emitting carbon. We set out our vision for Smart Futures for Urban Transport here.

Climate change is happening, and we need to take dramatic measures now to avoid the worst impacts of it. Urban transport will need to play its part, and we should heed the advice of Lord Deben and climate experts. There are already examples of great work happening in our cities. We must learn from these, double our efforts and accelerate progress.

Clare Linton is Researcher at Urban Transport Group

Out and about in towns

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

It would be fair to say that I’ve covered a lot of ground, literally, in the 23 years which I have worked on transport in the West Midlands.

But it was during a recent secondment to the Urban Transport Group that I really hit the road (and rails) – travelling from Strathclyde to the West of England, and all city regions in between – while writing the report About towns: How transport can help towns thrive. Below are a few personal thoughts and reflections on what I’ve seen and heard as I’ve travelled the country for this project.

Firstly, like many urban areas the world over, the story of our towns centres around how people and places can make a living post-coal. Most of our city regions are on coalfields, and directly or indirectly depended on coal as they industrialised.

Some places have adapted, survived and are clearly on their way to prospering post-coal. There were signs of public investment and signs of private investment (the latter following the former perhaps); there were many examples of attractive high quality public realm; there were people busy going about their business, clearly with money in their pocket; and in some places a real sense of community spirit, or “gemeinschaft”, as the Germans call it.

Some places though are still struggling to achieve this change, with wealth fizzling out the further you travel from the buzz and activity of the regional centre. These places are characterised by unemployment, low education and skill levels, hollowed out high streets and low productivity – all of which, as our report argues, transport can help to overcome.

Thriving towns through transport

So how does transport help people in these towns lead more prosperous lives?

The overarching thought is that transport has a role to play as part of something bigger: concerted, long term efforts to make towns good places to grow up and live, good places for businesses to invest in and provide good work, and places where neighbouring towns and cities and the countryside, which are all just down the road, are within grasp of all residents.

One of the issues to tackle is how to get people to contemplate visiting our post-industrial towns in the first place. Negative perceptions need changing but can be changed. Trendy travel guides have details of many cities and towns across Europe and the US which, 20 or 30 years ago, many people would have said “really?”

What was striking was how first impressions matter. When you get off a train in an unfamiliar town, if you see graffiti, tatty information displays, or litter, you get a sense that this is a place that’s been left behind. In sharp contrast, when you step onto a platform at a clean, bright station or interchange where the people responsible clearly care, it can make a big difference to your initial reaction – you feel welcome.

Many of the towns I visited were once grand old places in their prime. Much of the new work that has come to these towns in recent years hasn’t seemed to emulate those proud places of old where there was clearly dignity of labour. The timeless phrase of trade unionism: “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” doesn’t seem to ring true for some of the new jobs which have been created in these towns on our coalfields. And there is a wider societal debate to be had on what are fair and acceptable levels of benefits for people not in work.

Beyond national legislation for statutory minimum wage levels, working conditions and benefit levels, transport has a role. It can help attract people to visit more interesting and attractive town centres. Transport gets workers to work and students to skills. It can get people in need of healthcare to doctors’ surgeries and all the other places where people need to connect up with one another. As significant local employers, transport organisations and businesses can be exemplary employers providing that fair pay for fair work, and act as anchor institutions, spending significant sums of money on local supply chains and support services.

The bigger picture

Taking a slightly wider look, a big challenge is to help people move across our city regions and towns to all the opportunities afforded by a bigger geography. And key to this is enabling movement in ways which don’t clog up our already congested motorways and main roads. We need cool, Scandinavian-quality designed, German-quality engineered, rail and rapid transit networks, which, while we’re at it, are integrated with decent local bus networks and are really easy and cheap to use through smart ticketing.

As well as this big investment, what is also striking is how important it is to get the smaller details right. I often found that local bus services in unfamiliar towns were a confusing mixture of different liveries, colours, numbers, tickets, rules and conditions. I needed to be bolder, or in receipt of a helping hand, if I were to venture across the threshold of one of these services.

I travelled extensively by rail as part of the project. My impression of rail in the UK from this experience is that we have a lot of rail services, with our main centres well joined up with regular services on the national rail network. What we don’t have is enough carriages, enough space for comfortable seating, and fast enough trains: some line speeds are dismal. What was also a bit irksome was that often trains would be a bit late, or a door wouldn’t work, or the coffee trolley wouldn’t accept cards that day – lots of little things that collectively add up – some operators seemed to be able to do these things consistently better than others.

As I worked on the project, a recurring thought I had was that it would be great if central, city region and local government were able to work together efficiently for the common purpose of inclusive growth and regeneration of our city region towns: a bit like some sort of painting of a picture. Central Government specifies the overall aims of the painting, the general theme of the work and the types of things to consider for the composition. The city region is then able to select the tools it needs and sketch the outline of the picture and put on broadbrush colours. The local level then completes the picture with the finer grain of detail, in accord with how a good picture will go down well with the local public.

It is this joined up approach that could put our post-industrial urban areas back on the map, and get people out and about in thriving and prosperous towns.

Jake Thrush is Associate Policy Advisor at Transport for West Midlands, and the primary author of the About towns report whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group

Grayling’s review can get rail devolution back on track

Merseyrail train in new livery at Stanley Dock on canal bridge.

Last month, the government launched what it called a ‘root and branch’ review of the UK’s railways. And rightly so. On the same day as transport secretary Chris Grayling announced the review, the ORR published the results of its own interim inquiry into the May timetable meltdown, concluding that nobody took charge with a “gap in responsibility and accountability” for mistakes that were made (read more on p20).

The ORR’s initial findings expose an important question: who has – and who should have – responsibility for the effective running of our railways? We believe that urban rail systems must be controlled locally, by the regions and cities which are served by them.

Rail devolution has been a huge success story – for passengers, for cities and for regions. Take, for example, Merseyrail Electrics (now fully devolved to the transport authority Merseytravel): it was – prior to devolution in 2003 – dubbed ‘miseryrail.’ Just a year after devolution, passenger satisfaction leapt from 82% to 90%, and it now stands at a staggering 92%.

We have seen a similar pattern of success in Scotland, where its railway has become  a symbol of the nation’s ambition. Its extensive rail reopening programme – which followed in the wake of the first devolution agreement in 1999 – is unrivalled, with more stations and rail lines opening in Scotland than any other part of the UK in the last 15 years or so. This has resulted in a surge in patronage, and extended beyond rail travel itself, with the additional benefits of boosted local economies through urban regeneration and tourism and new housing schemes. Further stages of devolution have handed more control to Scottish ministers, including over Network Rail’s budget and the ScotRail franchise – leading to a programme of electrification to increase capacity, provide faster journeys, and reduce carbon emissions.

The capital too has enjoyed the fruits of devolved rail systems. Until TfL took over in 2007, London’s orbital railways had suffered from unreliable services and rundown stations, endured under both British Rail and when privatised by government. Yet under the control of TfL, they flourished, with patronage increasing by 32% in the first year alone. TfL’s understanding of the city’s integrated transport, economic and social needs meant demand that had not been envisaged by central government and private train operators was recognised, planned for and exceeded.

This example demonstrates how devolution beats remote control by Whitehall. This is because cities and regions understand how important rail is to their local context far better than any centralised rail decision-making machine could. They see how modern and efficient rail services are important to travellers every day, important to reducing road congestion (and associated air pollution and carbon reduction), important to building strong agglomeration economies, and important to meeting housing needs without leading to more sprawl and road congestion.

Grayling has promised to leave no stone unturned and makes bold recommendations for the future as part of the review. Will he be bold enough to put power into the places our railways serve and get devolution back on track? We certainly hope so, and we look forward to feeding into the review.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece was originally published in Rail Technology Magazine