It’s time for transport to make the connections on climate change

 

Recently it feels like there’s been a shift in the mood on climate change. This is no longer something too big and too distant that we can stuff it in a drawer like a bill we are afraid we can’t pay. Both the ever starker warnings from climate scientists, and the escalation in severe weather, are now hitting home. Saying you can prevent forest fires by raking forests floors ‘like they do in Finland’ feels symbolic of the extractive economy‘s (and their client states) chaotic, fighting retreat in the face of the growing confidence of the clean energy sector and the new economy.

If the mood music is changing, then where do we stand on the race to cut carbon emissions? If you want a succinct summary of where things stand on UK carbon emissions, then then I’d recommend the Committee on Climate Change’s recent ten year progress report and this brilliant suite of blog posts from New Economics Foundation.

Your time would be better spent reading them than this – but if you have time to do both – here are my thoughts on what on earth we do next on climate change…

1. In the UK there has been remarkable progress in decarbonising the grid – mostly through the dethroning of King Coal as the main source of the nation’s heat, light and power. However, as David Powell, Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation, points out in his blog post this was the relatively easy bit. Summarising the Committee’s report, he says: “The Government…needs to pull its finger out on pretty much everything that isn’t electricity generation: that means what we manufacture and consume, and the industries in which we work; how we get around; how we heat our homes and what sort of homes we build; and what we do with the land, and the soil, and our food. All of that stuff isn’t mere technocratic tinkering that happens around the edges of ​‘the proper economy’. It is the economy.”

2. The Government has a strong narrative on reducing carbon emissions but when it comes to the big decisions too many go the wrong way for the climate… and unfortunately, we haven’t got time for this one step forward, one step backwards policy dance. Pumping billions into expanding the inter-urban road network, making motoring increasingly competitive with public transport and bending over backwards to ensure air travel is often crazy cheap are three examples at the level of detail on transport where the need to reduce carbon has not been a consideration. The failure of the Budget to even mention climate change is an example of it not being a consideration at the level of strategic direction.

3. One of the reasons for this is that measures to tackle climate change are seen politically as being a drag on the economy. Not only that, but also unpopular with the public as they are seen to either increase living costs or limit lives (through, for example, increasing fuel prices or making foreign holidays more unobtainable). The tenor of the debate can too often convey a sense that this is a race we will probably lose whilst also consigning us to increasingly austere but lofty lives of penance and abstinence. This also plays into the recent global phenomenon around ‘taking back control’ from the technocrats who are seen as manipulating complex situations in a way which leads to people already struggling, struggling more, whilst those same technocrats ensure their own privileged lives are insulated from the impacts of their advocacy. The current fuel protests in France are an echo of those in the UK in 2000 and show how prices at the pumps can act as the spark plug for wider discontent. However, there is an alternative to environmental policies being seen as technocratic, elitist, hypocritical and life limiting and that is to recast them into a broader transformative vision which also incorporates wider social goals. There are signs of this ‘taking back control’ of the environmental agenda in how quickly the ‘green new deal’’ proposed by newly elected US Congress representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained momentum. The ‘green new deal’ isn’t all about the complex fiscal and taxation measures that makes the economists purr, the technocrats preen themselves, the media bored and the public suspicious – it also emphasises that this means jobs and it means: “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation.”

4. In the UK we also need to move away from the current ‘bittiness’ of carbon policy as an accidental beneficiary or victim of other policies to something which is far more integrated into decision-making as a matter of course. Only then will people start to feel more agency and less anxiety (of which there is more than enough to go around already) over climate change. And only then too can we really scale up and tackle the difficult bits that David Powell talks about. In addition, we can also start to get away from a debate on policies on climate change which tend to be dominated by fiscal and taxation issues to showing how measures which reduce carbon and improve climate resilience can also make peoples’ lives happier, healthier and more financially secure.

5. Some cities are pursuing these connections in a more comprehensive way than others. In Shenzen, China, all its 16,000 buses are now electric and all taxis will follow by 2020. It is also seeking to become more of a ‘sponge city’ through greening its urban landscape so that it absorbs heavy rainfall like nature does rather than the hard concrete surfaces of a conventional city which channel water into drains that fail to cope. With hundreds of years of water management behind them, it’s no surprise that cities in the Netherlands are also taking a comprehensive approach.

In Rotterdam any new development has to leave water management better than it found it. So, for example, a significant proportion of the costs of Rotterdam’s transformed Centraal Station were paid for through building a huge water tank above the underground station car park in order to hold excess rainfall and then release it when the drains can cope. In Berlin, there are multiple initiatives to make the connections between renewable power generation, smart electricity grids and smart electric vehicles. Smart grids have the potential to work with smart vehicles and smart buildings to move electricity around so it can be stored within the system – reducing overall energy use. There are ‘sponge city’ schemes there too.

And closer to home there is Nottingham, which has its own power station, electricity grid, electricity retailing arm, bus company, fleet of electric buses, the most extensive programme of greening the council house stock in the country, its own regeneration company, a major university green housing research centre and extensive ultra low emission vehicle initiative. There is enormous potential here for the kind of synergies on carbon that can be harder to achieve in other UK cities where the levers are held by privatised water, energy and public transport utilities, with short term agendas, enmeshed within impenetrably complex nationally organised regulatory frameworks overseen by absentee civil service landlords.

6. Connections also need to be made at the national level. For example, Daniel Button in his NEF blog on climate change and the health, points out that the healthcare system in the UK makes up 10% of our economy and around 10% of the workforce, and the sum total of activities of the NHS, public health and social sector is the largest public sector carbon generator in Europe! But given all this, what is the NHS doing to join the dots with on transport and carbon? Most of the debate around transport and the NHS is concerned with fund raising for helicopters and free parking, yet some estimates are that 5% of traffic on the roads is related to the health sector. There is much more that could be done around location of healthcare facilities, on inefficiencies with non-emergency patient transport and with the promotion of active travel as a way both to tackle diseases associated with inactivity.

7. One of the areas I’m exploring during my Visiting Senior Fellowship at LSE Cities is how we can raise awareness in UK city regions around both what world leading cities are doing in an integrated way on making the connections on carbon and climate change. But as well as that, to provide better guidance on how carbon reduction and climate resilience can be factored in to the day-to-day decisions they make on operations and infrastructure. These are things that they were going to do anyway but where there are choices and add-ons (some of which may be cost-neutral) which could contribute to this much bigger goal.

8. As the grid decarbonises, a big dimension to transport’s role in cutting carbon is always going to be about how rapidly we can ensure more of the domestic journeys that are made are powered by that decarbonising grid. But that shouldn’t be the only game in town – especially with aviation being allowed to let rip and current transport policies making carbon emissions worse from the sector.

It’s time to make as many connections as we can – and make city regions healthier, happier and more prosperous places by doing so.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

My night at NEF – CAVs, data, carbon and the future of transport

Took part in a Chatham House roundtable at the New Economics Foundation last night which, mostly ended up exploring the fault lines between a vision of the future of transport centered on moving as rapidly as possible to the vast majority of journeys being made by electric, shared and autonomous cars – and those who thought that vision was either unachievable or highly undesirable, or both.

It made me think this (or in some cases steal the thoughts of others)…

  1. There is a big gulf between those who see transport from a tech / venture capital perspective and those whose background is in wider urban and transport policy. Indeed they are very rarely in the same rooms together. The former look at transport from the outside and they see one vehicle dominates – the car. So that’s where the heroic engineering and renumerative opportunity lies for transforming transportation – and at a global scale. With that clear objective set then everyithing else is about cracking any problems that lie in the way to the goal of fixing the car (ie making it electric and autonomous). And given the amount of money at stake, their faith in technology and their own abilities – they are confident that all problems can, should and will be cracked. The people from a wider urban and transport policy perspective see cities and their transport network as complex systems of which the car is one element – an element which is problematic per se. So you don’t start with the car as the be all and the end all of transport policy because that clearly makes no sense. The global nature of the ambitions of the tech / venture capitalists also makes the gulf even wider as what might work on the empty straight roads of 1950s US suburbia might struggle with being the answer to the future of transport on the constricted road network of European cities with their roots in the 1500s. However is there somewhere within this zone of mutual incomprehension for a space for thinking about how tech could fit with where the reality of the transport needs of denser older major cities where space for any kind of road vehicle is becoming steadily more constrained and where there is a wider vision for healthier streets?
  2. Is the above a first world problem in that it would be easier to establish a whole new mobility system based on the tech / venture capitalists view that the future is about electric, shared, autonomous cars in newer, or even new, cities in developing countries – where city layout, politics and regulation could be more receptive?
  3. In the Eighties there was a brain drain into a deregulated financial sector which ultimately gave us the crash and the strange and frightening world we now live in. Is there now an equivalent brain drain into a tech sector which was never regulated in the first place? And are we living with the consequences of that right now from fake news, and election meddling to lack of control over our personal data and the rise of unregulated internet monopolies? If so what do we do about it? In Estonia the Government uses secure technology to hold citizen’s personal data for them in a way that makes public services easier to use and cheaper to provide. In London there’s talk of cities establishing something that sounds similar – city data trusts. Could these approaches be part of the answer? Or at least part of a more urgent debate?
  4. The carbon footprint of the energy sector is transforming for the better with amazing rapidity in the UK but the same is not true for transport. Will the pressure increase for this to change? At the same time (and there’s a lot of fog of war here) the shift to electric vehicles seems to be picking up pace dragging even the more reluctant elements of the automobile sector with it. Will that lead to panic by Government over loss of fuel duty revenues and could that lead them to react by seeking to slow the shift?
  5. One more on CAVs. One of the big emerging obstacles to full CAVs that the techies / venture capitalists will need to crack if their dream is to be realised is attitudinal. As in just because people could do something that technology allows them to do  – they might not actually want to do it. So, for example, if CAVs need to be shared (given that if everyone had their own nobody would be able to move very far in them without being stuck in a traffic jam) then how do you get round the fact that if there’s one thing that people hate its being in a small space (like a lift) with strangers (even if its only for a minute). Are people really going to want to make the beloved lift experience into their day to day travel experience?

Jonathan Bray

 

 

 

 

Three global transport trends that should reshape our cities

Here are three global transport trends that should be reshaping urban policy in Britain. They already are in the world’s most dynamic cities in developed countries. They are transport trends – but they are about far more than that.

Cities need to be smart to thrive. They need to be dynamic, enjoyable, attractive places where smart, creative people want to be and where things happen as a result.

Cities are also the future – as more of the world’s population becomes urban. As that population expands the challenge of climate change becomes more acute. Smart cities will be the places where the technologies and policies to tackle climate change will be found and put into practice.

And smart cities need smart transport policies.

1. Young people want to cycle – let them – it’s good for your city

Bike with flowers

A bike in Berlin – Creating the right environment for cycling is the next level of membership to the smart cities club.

In leading developed cities around the world – from Los Angeles to Berlin and from London to New York – young people are opting out of car ownership as the be-all and end-all of transportation. They have other status symbols. They are used to rental model (phones, flats) rather than owning depreciating assets – even if they could afford it. They want to be fit and healthy. They want to be independent. They want to cycle. Smart cities ‘get it’ that they should make it easier for them. Most big cities now have their cultural / creative quarters and a modern art gallery. The next level of membership of the smart cities club is to have a city centre where young people are cycling around, sitting at pavement cafes, on their smart devices, working from anywhere, making connections, creating a buzz. Cities that don’t get it are blowing the cash that could have transformed cycling provision in two years on a few miles of highway schemes that will take five years and have close to zero impact on a city’s overall fortunes. It’s the difference between cities still pursuing a shopping list of highway engineers’ schemes from the 1970s and cities which have a vision of where they want to be in the 2020s.

Santa Monica is part of Los Angeles – the car capital of the world. In the 1920s it had some the best public transport in the US, by the fifties Los Angeles had systematically trashed its urban transit network and built the densest network of freeways on the planet with the worst traffic congestion in the US. But even here the same trends on cycling are emerging. Young people want to cycle and Santa Monica is helping them. Streets for cars are being transformed into streets for people. Spending on road building has been slashed and cycle use is on the up. If smart politicians are making it happen in Los Angeles…

2. Smart grid plus smart transport = smart city

In the UK saving the planet through tackling climate change can now appear to be a distant priority behind the need for measures that will promote ‘growth’. Indeed action on climate change is increasingly seen as a potential impediment to growth because many of the measures that rightly or wrongly get to wear the growth promoting badge (such as building massive roads and slashing planning regulations) could be held up by concerns about what they mean for climate change.

In Berlin things look very different (see also this BBC article).  Renewables will make up half the electricity supply, and a third of total energy, including transport, by 2030. Brandenburg (which contains Berlin) is aiming to get to 20% in seven years’ time. On some days of the year it is already producing more solar and wind power than it needs. In short, Berlin will ultimately become one giant battery which can store or sell on energy when there’s an excess. Where individual buildings and electric vehicles will also act as smart batteries using, generating, storing and selling back energy on the basis of sophisticated IT that can factor in generation levels, electricity prices and weather forecasts to manage these complex interactions.

Electric car, Berlin

An electric car in Berlin

A smart grid meets smart transport because carbon-powered vehicles are on the way out. Vehicles powered in one way or another from the grid are the future. It’s not just cars that will go electric. There are buses running now that can recharge their battery wirelessly, as they go, from coils set in the road. Siemens will soon be trialing a system of powering lorries from overhead wires where lorries doing regular quarry or port shuttles can operate electrically, whilst still having a diesel engine for working away from the wires. There are a host of other technological options too for the electrification of transport – and it’s just too early to say which will be the ultimate winners. But the trend is clear.

In Berlin this all comes together on the EUREF campus. Based on a former gas works the site brings together academia with small and large companies working on both smart grid and electric transport technologies. The campus uses on-site solar and turbine power managed by sophisticated IT to power the electric vehicles that are being developed – or that are making the transition to mainstream. And electric rental cars are starting to go mainstream in Berlin. This is all good for Germany and Berlin because it’s German firms (large and small) that will benefit and Berlin as a city is where smart people will want to be to be at the centre of the fascinating, worthwhile and ultimately remunerative challenges involved in saving the world.

Smart cities will want to be looking very hard at what Berlin is doing.

3. Total mobility is nearly here – but who will be Amazon?

Who will be the Amazon of transport, delivering total mobility packages?

Who will be the Amazon of transport, delivering total mobility packages?

In the future your smart device will be the way you find the fastest way from A to B, and means of making that journey by any mode. It will unlock a hire bike, be the key for an electric rental car and your ticket to ride public transport. Who is in charge of the ‘total mobility’ offer will become more important than who provides the individual services. They will be the Amazon of transport.

That future is not too far off now in countries like Germany and Austria. It’s not here yet as making such a system pay is a challenge, and because the key players are still developing their strategies and jockeying for position. And there are a lot of players including mobile phone companies, automobile manufacturers, public sector transport authorities, private sector public transport providers, power companies and who knows – even internet giants like Google and Amazon.

In the UK at present only TfL in London has the powers and resources to be the Amazon for London. Elsewhere in the UK the danger is we get a fragmented series of sub-standard total mobility offers as neither the public or private sector has the scale, position or resource to do the job. However if the nettle of TfL-style control of rail and bus was to be grasped then there’s no reason why the kind of total mobility offers that Vienna or Hamburg are moving towards couldn’t be led by UK public sector transport authorities forging strategic, dynamic alliances with the private sector on key areas like technology and car hire.

So…

  • if you want your city to look, feel and be dynamic, you’ve got your modern art gallery and your creative/cultural quarter – now you need to throw everything at cycling for a few years
  • it may take a while but it has begun – transport is going electric and the grid is going smart and clean. There are big opportunities for both public and private sector in cities that grasp this and act accordingly
  • whatever you do, bear in mind that the long game is about providing total mobility packages. It is best these are rooted in where cities want to be in the 2020s rather than on the purely commercial objectives of some yet to be Amazon of mobility. Decisions now on ticketing, cycle hire schemes, rail franchising and Quality Contracts will echo down the years in terms of whether UK big cities are at the heart of total mobility – or a peripheral player.

Jonathan Bray