Coronavirus and decarbonising transport: How compatible are they?

Deserted london blog pic

In late March, our transport landscape changed in a way that none of us could ever have imagined as the COVID-19 outbreak and nationwide lockdown measures lead to a dramatic drop off in movement in the UK. In April 2020, mobility – the extent to which people are moving beyond their home – dropped to 15% of normal levels. This reduction in travel will affect our efforts to reduce emissions from transport. So, rather coincidently, just days after the lockdown was imposed, the Department for Transport published its draft decarbonisation plan, setting out how transport should meet the UK’s target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Transport Decarbonisation Plan was widely welcomed across the sector for its strong ambition and six clear strategic priorities:

  1. Accelerating modal shift to public and active transport
  2. Decarbonisation of road vehicles
  3. Decarbonising how we get our goods
  4. Place-based solutions
  5. UK as a hub for green transport technology and innovation
  6. Reducing carbon in a global economy

But the world looks very different in the context of COVID-19. How will the pandemic shape our view of decarbonising transport and what will it mean for sustainable transport going forward? Let’s take each of these strategic priorities in turn and look at them through this new lens.

Accelerating modal shift to public and active transport

This priority has seen mixed results as a result of lockdown measures: active travel has seen huge increases, with cycling rates in the week at 165% of pre-lockdown levels on average in the week and at 265% at the weekend during May and June, see the graph below (cycling rates are more variable due to weather conditions). In London, Santander Cycles has seen its busiest ever day (on a normal working day) on Wednesday 24 June, with 51,938 hires, and an additional 1,700 bikes and eight new docking stations are being added to the scheme. There have even been reports of shops selling out of bikes. However, public transport ridership has fallen off a cliff, typically less than 20% of pre-lockdown levels, with passengers being told to stay away unless their journey is essential in order to maintain social distancing.

Clare blog grab July 2020

Clearly public transport needs to provide a service for those key workers making essential journeys and they must be prioritised while social distancing restrictions are in place. But it is unclear how and when passengers might be encouraged to return, and if people will have the confidence to do so. The Government has allocated funding to emergency measures to support walking and cycling, including delivering pop-up cycle lanes to help people travel while public transport is less available. However, the money has been slow to arrive, and there are real concerns that people will return to their cars as lockdown is eased, with the negative consequences this has for carbon emissions, as well as air quality and road safety. Car use is already creeping up, we need to maintain the shifts people have made during this period, including working from home, shopping more locally and choosing active travel, in order to lock in the benefits for decarbonisation.

Decarbonisation of road vehicles

As shown above, people are returning to their cars as lockdown measures are eased, in part due to restrictions on public transport use. We need a concerted effort to ensure that road vehicles no longer contribute to climate change, and this is a key priority for the decarbonisation plan. There is a movement building behind the idea of a green recovery, and the electrification of road transport vehicles should be a key part of that. Whether it’s the installation of charging infrastructure or positioning the UK as a global leading in the production of electric vehicles, decarbonisation of road transport presents a real economic opportunity, as well as a key pillar to meeting the 2050 Net Zero target.

Decarbonising how we get our goods

Decarbonisation of freight is a tricky problem. Alternative fuels are not readily available for heavy goods and we have become ever more reliant on white vans to deliver our online packages. However, there are a number of options that can help, from moving more goods by freight and rail to supporting low emission last mile solutions. During lockdown, many of use have been ordering goods online, which often turn up in the ever increasing fleet of white vans driven by gig economy workers. This is problematic in a number of ways, from worker’s rights to the air quality and carbon emission impacts of fleets of diesel vans. There are shining examples of low emission distribution activities, including Gnewt, who use electric vehicles to conduct last mile deliveries and cargo bike solutions. We highlighted a number of these in our report ‘White van cities’. But we need to do more, including support for low emission last mile solutions, R&D for decarbonising larger freight operations and examining options for efficiency such as consolidation centres.

Place-based solutions

Locally-led solutions to a range of policy challenges, including decarbonisation of our cities and enhancing climate resilience, can deliver greater positive outcome for our places. City-led projects have installed green roofs and walls on public buildings and transport infrastructure, used former transport infrastructure to create urban green spaces, and installed renewable energy across transport assets, from interchanges to bus garages. Our 2019 report Making the connections on climate gathered a number of these examples together, from the UK and abroad. Further devolution of powers and funding to enable local areas to develop place-based approaches to decarbonisation and enhanced resilience could accelerate the transition to a low carbon future.

UK as a hub for green transport technology and innovation and reducing carbon in a global economy

These two can be looked at together because, by investing in green transport technology and innovation, we can contribute to the decarbonisation of the global economy. Economic stimulus will be key in the UK’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and construction and manufacturing look set to be at the heart of this. But in order to secure a recovery that is compatible with our 2050 Net Zero targets, we need to ensure that we are investing in green projects and manufacturing the technology that the UK and the world will need in order to transition to a low carbon economy. Positioning the UK as a leader in the development and manufacture of green vehicles and other low carbon technologies can be a part of this ‘Green Recovery’. For example, the West Midlands Combined Authority has outlined how it plans to create green manufacturing jobs, as part of its £3.2 billion economic recovery strategy, with a £614 million investment package, including investing £250 million towards a gigafactory producing batteries. We should continue to work with colleagues within Europe and the rest of the world, even as we leave the European Union, because the climate crisis is global, carbon does not respect boarders, and we must collaborate with nations across the world to truly address this crisis. And we can learn from how cities and countries worldwide are tackling the challenges that they face in decarbonising transport and their wider urban environments.

There is no doubt that the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and the resulting economic consequences represents a huge challenge for the UK, the scale of which remains uncertain. However, despite initial estimates of emission reductions of 8% in 2020 compared to 2019, the climate crisis has not gone away. The need to decarbonise our transport system, as part of the wider target to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, is still as pressing as it ever was. The draft transport decarbonisation plan sets out a strategy for doing this: we now need to see serious and rapid action as part of a green recovery plan for the coming months and years.

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

COVID-19 and urban transport – the message, the money & the future

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The message

We’ve had the first weekend in England since the latest easing of COVID-19 and now the first working week has begun. Early signs are that public transport patronage is picking up sharply but it’s too early to say at the time of writing to what extent this will stretch the capacity of public transport which is already heavily constrained by social distancing.

However, the time is surely approaching when we can move away from a single national approach to messaging about the use of public transport (in effect based on London’s unique conditions) to one which can be fine tuned locally to take into account the capacity that may be available in very different geographies. We don’t want public transport which is too busy to be safe in some areas – but at the same time, it makes no sense for public transport to be running empty in other areas whilst the roads fill up with cars bringing road casualties and air pollution in its wake.

More widely, the top down approach to the response to COVID-19 leads to other problems too. Perhaps this was most starkly illustrated recently by the withholding of information about the full details of local COVID-19 infection data from those local authorities and Directors of Public Health who need that data to ensure local responses are as effective as possible. On transport, this top down approach has settled down into a consistent pattern which consumes vast amounts of time which could be spent more productively. First comes the speculation, probing and rehearsing different scenarios whilst we wait for key decisions to be made. Then an announcement comes largely out of the blue on a key issue (such as making face coverings compulsory on public transport). Often the announcement lacks all the guidance and information needed to implement it. So then there is the second guessing, probing and speculative implementation of policies at short notice whilst we await the full details. Then the details emerge – and then there is a process of reorienting policy and delivery around that. And so it goes on. This is time wasted that could also be spent looking ahead and planning in a more considered way for what the next operational challenge of the COVID-19 response could be. It’s also not effective overall either – as the UK’s poor record on its coronavirus response in comparison to other countries shows.

The money

The additional COVID-19 money runs out for light rail and bus (in England outside London) in less than a month’s time. Emergency funding for private operators of national rail services runs out in September. Transport for London’s additional funding runs out in mid-October. There are different rules and timescales for different modes – but all the funding deals were time limited and they are all approaching the end point. The funding deal for local bus and tram (outside London) being the first to expire. If the past is any guide to the future, then HMT will insist on taking it to the wire and find anyway it can to get public transport used to the idea of starting to come off financial life support in advance of the Autumn (when the hope is life will have settled down to a new normal which is closer to pre COVID-19 life than it is to the national lockdown). The trouble is, that with Government advising people to steer clear of a socially distanced public transport network, fares income has collapsed and it’s only the additional COVID-19 financial life support which is keeping public transport alive. And even when and if the messaging changes about the use of public transport and capacity is restored, it’s hard to see patronage returning to its pre COVID-19 rates any time soon, if ever (and certainly not by the Autumn).

Meanwhile, there is no money yet for the additional costs of getting kids to school in September, the Government is still expecting transport authorities to continue to pay bus operators for concessionary trips that aren’t being made and Merseytravel hasn’t seen any funding for its Merseyrail Electrics franchise.

Much angst lies ahead on funding – but much time wasted too on trying to keep the show on the road on the basis of short-term, cliff edge deals and complicated one-size fits all funding packages (this also compounds the time already wasted on operational issues set out above). This is why we continue to make the case for additional funding for bus to be devolved to transport authorities. We can then deploy it alongside light rail funding in an integrated way that meets local needs whilst at the same time replace a system which means we pay for bus journeys that aren’t being made with a system where we can support bus networks that are being provided.

The future

The big task ahead is to fuse a green recovery from COVID-19 with the decarbonisation agenda in a way that makes better places. The Committee on Climate Change recently reported to Parliament on how it thinks this should happen with its top five investment priorities being:

  1. Low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future.
  2. Tree planting, peatland restoration, and green infrastructure.
  3. Energy networks must be strengthened for the net-zero energy transformation in order to support electrification of transport and heating.
  4. Infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
  5. Moving towards a circular economy.

The opportunity that the lockdown brought to address number four by reallocating road space to active travel has been one of the most positive aspects of the last few months. But there are big challenges ahead in retaining and developing the levels of lockdown modal shift to active travel and in maintaining the road space reallocation momentum (including turning the temporary and rudimentary into long-term quality). But leaders at the local and national level have got religion about active travel – and that’s half the battle.

We are gearing up on number three on the list – as we need a coordinated approach to the electrification of transport (rail, bus, car, e-bikes) which integrates approaches to both the vehicles and the infrastructure to get the juice where it needs to be. City regions should have a key role to play in this and we are working with other bodies – like the Energy Systems Catapult and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership – to ensure that they do.

Transport can also play a role in priorities one and two – which we explored in our Making the connections on climate report looking at good practice from the UK and the wider world on how transport authorities and providers can decarbonise their own estate whilst improving its resilience through green infrastructure.

We can build back better from this crisis and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether we aim to play our full part.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Finding comfort in a crisis – my ever-changing role in the new world of urban transport

Coronavirus smile blog pic

Over the last few months, my job has looked drastically different to what went before. The Urban Transport Group has turned its attention to supporting its member network of city region transport authorities to respond to and manage the coronavirus crisis. And whilst working with, and supporting, our members has always been a part of my role, the change in focus and the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic has meant a change in pace somewhat.

In ‘normal times’, a large part of my role is research and thought leadership work, taking time to research key urban transport policy areas in detail, from taxis to climate change, freight to Mobility as a Service. These reports can take many months of detailed research and can be incredibly time consuming. In the new world, the burning issues come and go from day to day, even hour to hour, with hot topics demanding responses on an altogether different timescale to that which I am used to.

I have been working closely with various groups across our network, but in particular with our Heads of Human Resources group. At the beginning of lockdown, they were navigating how to support large numbers of staff in working from home and how to keep frontline transport workers safe from the virus. Sharing ideas and best practice has been incredibly valuable to their work. And they continue to collaborate on longer term issues that are emerging due to the crisis, such as how to proceed with recruitment in a socially distanced way and support some staff who may be required to return to work places ahead of others.

I have also been working on our ‘issues logs’, in which we are tracking key developments across a range of topics for our members. I’ve been responsible for producing the ‘staff and passenger protection issues log’ which covers issues such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), social distancing, and testing and hygiene.

Looking forward as the crisis shifts to recovery and lockdown is tentatively eased, I’m turning my attention back to some of the issues I more commonly work on, and how they might look in the new world. The climate crisis hasn’t gone away, people are widely discussing the need for a ‘Green Recovery’ from the current situation and ensuring that transport is part of those discussions will be critical in the coming months. This is not without its challenges, with public transport capacity much reduced, the groundswell of interest in active travel will need to be maintained and accompanied by an acceleration in decarbonising motorised travel. Supporting people to change their behaviours, both to enable social distancing and more sustainable lifestyle choices, is going to be critical if we are to realise our climate objectives.

Another area of focus that has returned is taxis and private hire vehicles, something I last spent a lot of time thinking about in 2017. With people avoiding public transport due to social distancing, we may see an increase in their use. But how can we keep drivers and passengers safe and what are the consequences for air quality, congestion and road safety in a world where more people are choosing active travel? Ensuring that taxis and private hire vehicles are part of the solution and play a positive role in the recovery phase are thorny challenges that will need careful consideration in the coming months.

It’s not all been a bed of roses. I do miss many face to face elements of my job: the larger group meetings which can’t be replicated in the same way over telecons, the major events and conferences where I learn so much about the diverse range of topics I research, and of course, the company of my fellow colleagues in our office. But whilst my job may have looked different over recent months, I’ve never been prouder to be a part of our small team and our wider group of members. From PPE to social distancing, supporting frontline staff and those working from home, liaising with senior leaders and decision makers both within our network and more widely with Government and other stakeholders, feeling useful and busy has felt positive in these strange times.

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group