Be like Rotterdam and ‘make it happen’

The planet is in danger. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’ – we need to act now

“The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area for which observational data are sufficient for trend analysis (high confidence) and human-induced climate change is likely the main driver.” Climate Change 2021 : The Physical Science Basis, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Get off your train (powered by renewable energy – because they all are) at the modernised Rotterdam Centraal station. Turn north out of the station (crossing the river of cyclists) and turn right. Close by you will find a public square with space for ball games. Much of the square is recessed, because that way the square can hold and store 1.7 million litres of water in a storm. The rain may fall fast but the water collects slowly in the square and then can be slowly released into the groundwater and nearby canal, thus reducing the risk of flash flooding.

Circle round the station and head down into the underground car park. It isn’t obvious but above you is an enormous water storage tank – its construction integral to the wider station rebuilding project. Again designed to hold rainwater to slow its release and reduce the risk of flooding when the hard rain falls.

Keep exploring the immediate vicinity of the station and you will find watercourses that were underground but are now open to the sky, tram lines set in a carpet of green and urban farms (ground level and on rooftops).

Organising principle

Targets, visions, speeches, declarations: the planet is in danger – we must act now. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’, displacement activities. International, national, regional, local, sectoral targets that don’t link up with each other. Hanging wires. On the kind of timescales we need to work on to limit the scale of climate damage what really matters is not what declarations an organisation has signed but what staff do when they go to work on Monday morning. Is it contributing to decarbonisation – or is it not?

The key challenge now of decarbonisation is not Extinction Rebellion finding ever more sensational ways of stopping buses and trams from moving in city centres, or delivering more earnest speeches. It’s organisational strategy and management, because the need to decarbonise is no longer a debating point, it’s a practical challenge. And for national and local government in particular it’s a very complex challenge: a three dimensional game of chess.

The first of the three dimensions is sectoral. The big three carbon generators are energy production, transport and the built environment. Carbon emissions from energy have fallen rapidly, transport is the worst offender at present (but there is some kind of plan) and then there’s the built environment (where the plan is sketchy to say the least). The clock is ticking so we need to move across all the sectors simultaneously and in sync. Like Rotterdam does – but also like Islington, which has sourced waste heat from the underground to heat council estates. Or Leeds, which put in the piping for district heating at the same time as making the city centre roads that sit on top of them favour active travel, buses and trees. You can find further practical examples that link transport and energy, as well as transport and the decarbonisation and adaptation of the built environment in our ‘Making the connections on climate’ report.

The second dimension is temporal. Some things you can do quickly and relatively easily on carbon reduction (replacing old buses with zero emission buses) and some things will take time and are hard (decarbonising the existing built environment). But if you don’t start on the hard stuff now then inevitably it isn’t going to happen in time. We need to get carbon emissions down as soon as possible so it would also be wrong not to crack on with the easier stuff. And different actions have different costs attached – some of which will fall over time (though only if somebody else invests in them when they are expensive so that unit costs can come down for everybody else). So given finite resources how do you get the sequencing right?

The third dimension is the balance between taking measures to decarbonise what an organisation is doing now and reducing the impacts of the carbon that is already in the sky. For example, do you use your land holdings and roof space to generate renewable energy through turbines or solar panels?

Or do you use it for making your city spongier and cooler through urban drainage systems and more greenery?

Winning this three dimensional game of chess is the challenge of the age. It means decarbonisation has to become everyone’s job within an organisation (as Covid was). It means working across disciplines and departmental boundaries and budgets. All this set against finite resources and the danger that if you touch too many public raw nerves then the backlash could set you back by years we don’t have.

Putting the money where the mouth is

As well as reorganising around the climate imperative, organisations will need to put their money where their mouth is.

The most important part of any organisation’s plans and strategies is not the vision at the front – it’s the annex at the back (which shows what the money is actually being spent on). And the annexes at the back on transport haven’t been changing fast enough. There are still too many road schemes in them and not enough roadside gardens.

Meanwhile, car use is too cheap and public transport use is too expensive. As long as this mismatch persists we are in danger of putting more subsidy into public transport just to keep it in the game. Not winning the game, just losing the game more slowly.

The way forward is for national and local government to find the opportunities where they can to level up the score between the car and public transport – which in turn needs to find a new and more attractive equilibrium on fares (lower and simpler than they are now).

A crunch is coming

The forthcoming multi-year spending review will be a key test of whether government is putting its money where its mouth is on decarbonisation. In previous spending reviews the government more widely has not treated transport as a protected department but within its beleaguered budget intercity road and rail spend has been given a degree of protection not afforded to local transport. However, it’s not credible in any way, shape or form to continue to give priority to a bloated £27bn national road programme which will pump yet more traffic into cities (which have tough air quality and climate goals to achieve) and stimulate more car dependent sprawl around junctions.

This is money which is being squandered at the same time as active travel and bus strategies have set out ambitious aspirations for delivering everything which the national road programme won’t do – reduce pollution and carbon, less social exclusion and fewer death and injuries on the roads. And although the £3bn promised for transformational bus funding sounds a lot – if you subtract what’s been spent already and then divide what’s left by three years, then by capital and revenue, and then by 79 local transport authorities – then it won’t come even close to the magnitude of what the bus strategy rightly envisages.

Utopias and dystopias

The strange thing about the moment we find ourselves in, at a time when we face a dystopian threat at a global level, is that the most practical thing we can do is be inspired by what might be seen as utopian ideals; greener cities, public transport as a universal service. But only if we organise ourselves methodically and adopt the slogan of the City of Rotterdam: ‘Make it Happen’.

Jonathan Bray, Director, Urban Transport Group.

A pdf of this article is available to download here.

What the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport

Here are five key takeaways, based on an initial run through, of what the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport.

1. It accelerates the shift in tone and emphasis in urban transport policy and delivery towards active travel and public transport and makes moves to lock this in (in a quantifiable way) through resuscitating previously out of favour Local Transport Plans (LTPs) as the vehicle for doing so. So ‘LTPs will…need to set out how local areas will deliver ambitious quantifiable carbon reductions in transport.’

This will be part of a wider pincer movement through consolidation of local transport funding. Importantly, the plan states: ‘For future local transport funding, we will transition to a state where this is conditional on local areas being able to demonstrate how they will reduce emissions over a portfolio of transport investments through LTPs, which will become a focus of engagement between central and local government about future funding.’  

A further element underpinning this will be a green shift in the guidance and rules on how schemes are appraised. Particularly interesting is that it signals a desire to  move away from a ‘predict and provide’ approach to transport planning towards planning that starts from the outcomes communities want to achieve and providing the transport solutions to deliver those (‘vision and validate’). This would be a ‘revolution in the head’ for transport planning if it’s followed through on.

2. The ambitions for world class cycling infrastructure everywhere and a big shift to bus (with more, cheaper and greener services everywhere) are what we want too. The Government has also put money behind the bar for more spending on both (£5 billion in total). This sounds a lot and is a lot. But given the scale of the ambition it won’t be enough – especially on bus where the starting point is declining patronage and services and high fares.

So all eyes on the multi-year spending review in the Autumn. If DfT loses out to other Gov departments, and if local transport loses out to other parts of the DfT (as it did in the last spending review) then buses and active travel provision can still improve but not at the pace or scale necessary to meet the objectives of the TDP.

3. Tech optimism and tech fixes are preferred to hard decisions. We can have our cake (more travel, more roads and more flights) and eat it too (by decarbonising everything that moves). For urban transport one hard decision that is dodged is around the relative cost of motoring and public transport.

The cold hard stats show the relative cost of public transport has been rising fast compared with the cost of motoring in recent years. Although there is talk in the Plan about cheaper bus fares, there is only a brief veiled reference on the other side of the equation – vehicle taxation – where it says: ‘we will need to ensure that the tax system encourages the uptake of EVs and that revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with this change, to ensure we can continue to fund the first-class public services and infrastructure that people and families across the UK expect.’

Of course it is also right that we do press ahead and at pace on the decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets – and solid progress is being made. However, it’s disappointing that the approach to decarbonising vehicle fleets is still modally divided, focussed on the vehicles rather than how we get sufficient green energy to where it needs to be to power those vehicles.

It also doesn’t recognise sufficiently that if all urban vehicles (buses, vans, fire engines, cars) are to be zero emission – and therefore have access to the green power they need – then city regions need to be at the top table when decisions are being made about how to make all this happen.

4. The bloated £27bn national roads programme which is set to pump more and more traffic into urban areas looks increasingly vulnerable. Gone is all the macho rhetoric about ‘biggest road building programme since the Romans’ and in comes ‘nothing to see here’ – it’s all about enhancements, renewals, tree planting and cycle lanes. The TDP says there will be a review but is cagey on the detail. It could and should be the beginning of a more common sense approach to the use of the £27 billion in a climate crisis.

5. The car is king in terms of journey share but in the UK occupancy rates are low. So the maths says if you increase car occupancy, even by a small percentage, you can make a significant cut in carbon emissions. The TDP signals that it gets this and that more needs to be done to make this happen but recognises that more thinking needs to be done on how.

The TDP could be the start of a process of bringing vehicle sharing from the margins to a more central position in transport policy which is positive. However it misses a trick on this (and more widely on other topics in the Plan including decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets) on how the public sector (education, healthcare, local government and so on) could be taking more of a lead. After all this is a lever that the Government should more easily be able to pull.

All in all, the TDP should perhaps be seen as the latest stage (and a consolidation of recent progress) of a journey for greening urban transport policy which had been long overdue, but remarkably rapid once it got underway. For example, it’s hard to believe now but a decade ago cycling was at the far margins of urban transport policy and investment priorities. It couldn’t have been any more fringe. But now it’s front and centre.

The TDP also sets the stage for the tougher decisions that are still to come – most notably on taxation and pricing of travel, and on how the totality of available transport funding is prioritised.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Shared mobility in the new normal?

Reflecting on my blog post after last year’s CoMo Conference brings home to me just how much the world has changed. Pandemic, social distancing, face coverings, R-number were all things that were unheard of or vague and distant threats. For most of the last year we avoided non-essential travel and public transport patronage has suffered. But how has shared transport fared? And what might its role be in the ‘new normal’? CoMo held its 2020 conference online last month, exploring some of these questions and more. Here are some of my thoughts.  

Shared transport in the pandemic 

Shared transport operators stepped up in the early days of the pandemic, particularly seeking to support key workers to access jobs as people avoided public transport. Many bike hire schemes offered discounts and free rides to those working on the frontline. There was a huge growth in cycling over the Spring and Summer, 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, as people made the most of good weather and quiet roads. Shared bike schemes saw increased use, with Santander Cycles in London having its busiest ever day (on a normal working day) on Wednesday 24th June, with 51,938 hires. 

The UK Government accelerated e-scooter trials to support those who needed to travel. These are still in the early stages but initial results from Nottingham’s trial show that they are popular. In the first four weeks, 3,000 people registered to use the scheme, 19,000 rides had taken place, with over 38,000 miles ridden. And a key worker scheme will be launching soon that will provide an e-scooter on longer-term hire.  

Transport decarbonisation  

These facts, from Ali Clabburn at Liftshare, made me stop in my tracks. 50% of commuters drive alone and they are responsible for 82% of commuting emissions. Pre-Covid, commuting by car contributed 15 million tonnes of CO2 every year, 5% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Given we are seeing a return of car travel to pre-pandemic levels while public transport patronage remains lower, this could be exacerbated in the coming months and years. Shared, sustainable and public transport options are key to decarbonising our transport system. The Government is set to publish its Transport Decarbonisation Plan shortly and you can find our response to their consultation here. Richard Dilks from CoMo has also written about the role for shared transport in decarbonisation here: Decarbonisation: cutting edge ideas from the past – CoMoUK.  

Social inclusion  

Where it’s designed well, shared mobility can help to address challenges associated with social inclusion. In Portland, Oregon, the Bureau of Transportation worked with their e-scooter operator to ensure that low income areas were served and found high support for e-scooters amongst people of colour and low-income groups. It is also important to engage with disabled people in the design of shared mobility schemes to ensure inclusive design, enable the widest range of possible users and to mitigate any negative impacts for example around street clutter or riding on pavements. And as one operator suggested during the CoMo conference, the majority of people will not be using shared micro-mobility schemes, so making sure that these systems work well for non-users is important.  

Revenue funding and resourcing at transport authorities 

A theme that appeared throughout the CoMo conference is the need for cities and towns to develop a strategic and joined up approach to shared mobility as part of wider transport and spatial planning. However, declining revenue funding for transport, coupled with more than a decade of austerity that has stripped much of the expertise and capacity from local authorities, makes this a challenging prospect in many areas. If we want truly joined up, integrated planning for a sustainable and decarbonised transport future, then we need to invest in building capacity in our local and regional authorities to enable this. 

Shared mopeds 

Shared electric mopeds were a mode I was vaguely aware of, but presentations from operators during the CoMo conference brought them to life for me. And personally, I’m excited about them! The idea of being able to hop on an electric moped to make the last mile (or two) of a multi-modal public transport journey is attractive to me, and I think it could be a good gateway to car-free or car-light living. Though I would be slightly concerned that this would abstract from active travel trips, with potential negative health outcomes.  

A swiss army knife for personal mobility 

Finally, this phrase from Sandra Phillips from movmi really appealed to me: ‘a swiss army knife for personal mobility’. Having the right tool for the right job is what sells a swiss army knife, and we need the right modes and options for the right journeys. Shared mobility can offer multiple options in distributed locations, so you can hop on a shared bike or e-scooter when you arrive in a city on a train. Sometimes you might need to make a journey by car, but maybe if all the other tools or options are available then those car journeys are fewer and car club membership looks more attractive than owning your own private car? Taken together, we could see more agile journey patterns and more sustainable lifestyles as a result. 

You can catch up on all the presentations from the CoMo 2020 conference here: Conference – CoMoUK 

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group, and is on the Board of Trustees at CoMo