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

shutterstock_477610840

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

Is transport the cure-all that the NHS needs?

cure-all_44264497

Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman was recently quoted as saying “Pick a crisis: congestion, obesity, inequality, air pollution, global warming, safety…Investing in cycling and walking is as close to a silver bullet as you’ll get.”

The NHS is certainly in the market for a cure-all, unveiling last month the ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign. The campaign aims to ensure that the NHS and its staff step up efforts to tackle what it calls the climate ‘health emergency’. It recognises that what is bad for the planet – global warming, flooding, air pollution – is also bad for people’s health, with evidence linking these conditions to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, asthma and the spread of infections and diseases.

The campaign involves the establishment of an expert panel to chart a practical course to get the NHS to net zero emissions; a new NHS Standard Contract calling on hospitals to reduce carbon from buildings and estates; and a grassroots movement to encourage staff and hospitals to reduce their impact on the environment, and in doing so, improve people’s health.

Transport is recognised in the campaign as having a key role to play in placing the NHS on the path to net zero. It is estimated that patients and visitors to NHS facilities alone generate 6.7 billion road miles every year. The NHS Long Term Plan has previously committed to making better use of technology to reduce the number of face-to-face appointments patients need to attend. Staff travel is also a problem and the grassroots campaign will encourage more employees to travel on foot or by bike. In addition, NHS fleets are acknowledged as needing a clean-up, with NHS Chief Sir Simon Stevens pledging last year to help ‘blue lights go green’ to reduce their impact on climate and air pollution.

Transport, health and climate are inextricably linked to, and dependent on, one another. The transport choices we make as individuals, organisations and policy makers influence the speed of climate change and the quality of our air. They also help determine the amount of physical activity a person undertakes, their mental wellbeing and their access to opportunities.

For many years we have been calling for greater recognition of the connections between transport and health and for more collaboration between the two sectors. The tools and evidence base we have built and collected over this time can be found on our Health and Wellbeing hub. The ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign presents a big opportunity to strengthen and maximise those connections and relationships.

To this end, we have written to the newly appointed Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, Dr Nick Watts, welcoming him to the role and expressing our wish to work with the NHS in a strategic way to address our shared challenges. Our letter includes four propositions that we believe could help:

  1. A health and transport champion in each region charged with making the connections between the sectors and bringing leadership on the issue.Evidence suggests that progress on making the connections between transport and health is frequently driven by passionate individuals keen to make a difference above and beyond their day jobs. When these individuals move on, or when their organisations are restructured, the momentum can be quickly lost.Creating a specific, permanent role within each NHS England regional team to champion and drive forward joined-up thinking between health and transport could provide a stable footing for strategic, long-term collaboration.
  2. A health and transport convention in each region of England co-owned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Department for Transport (DfT) to seek to broker ways forward.Our research shows that despite growing collaboration between our two sectors, significant barriers remain, from differing standards of evidence to the use of codified languages. From a transport perspective, even identifying whom to engage in the NHS – and maintaining that engagement – can prove very challenging.There would be value in enabling key health and transport stakeholders in each region to meet, build relationships and broker ways forward.
  3. Require the NHS to consult with transport authorities when making decisions on healthcare locations. The DfT and DHSC should co-commission good practice guidance on ensuring sustainable transport access to healthcare to support this.Evidence gathered from our members suggests that consultation by the health sector with transport bodies about decisions to open, close, merge or re-locate healthcare settings is patchy. When transport bodies are consulted, too often location decisions have already been made. Sites that are poorly integrated with public transport, walking and cycling networks generate more car journeys, contributing to congestion, poor air quality, climate change and physical inactivity.These issues can be avoided if transport authorities are consulted at the earliest possible stage. They can provide expert advice about which sites would be most accessible, minimise traffic and support non-car access (and therefore positive climate and health outcomes), enabling these factors to be designed into the scheme from the outset.
  4. An independently chaired government review to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of non-emergency patient transport services (NEPTS) and potential reforms.We believe that there is considerable scope to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of NEPTS to reduce the number of journeys and vehicles on the road.In 2017, we worked with the Community Transport Association and the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers to explore alternative approaches to commissioning non-emergency patient transport and found that taking a ‘Total Transport’ approach to NEPTS has the potential to generate significant savings for the NHS as well as deliver better outcomes for patients.

    Total Transport would see multiple public and community sector fleets (e.g. NHS, social care, education) bought together into a shared pool under a single point of access catering for a wide range of passengers (from patients to school children). Often there is considerable overlap in the vehicle standards and care components required across sectors. The pool of vehicles would be coordinated and scheduled centrally, taking into account options on the mainstream network. It would ensure that the entire public sector vehicle fleet is put to maximum use throughout the day and that the right vehicle is deployed for the right job (avoiding over-specification).

    In doing so, NHS and other public sector partners could achieve more using fewer vehicles and reduce the number of trips made overall. The benefits would be further extended if the pooled fleet was made up of zero or low emission vehicles.

As well as the Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, we have also shared these ideas with HM Treasury, Sir Simon Stevens (CEO of the NHS) and the Director of the Sustainable Development Unit (the body which supports the sustainable environmental, social and financial development of the NHS, public health and social care).

We hope that colleagues in the health sector find the ideas useful and take up our invitation to work more closely together at strategic level to fully realise the potential of clean, active transport as a prescription to cure the ills of people and planet alike.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group