politics transport

Is sustainable transport finally on the British government’s agenda?

In all the coronavirus news last week, it would have been easy to miss the launch of a new consultation on decarbonising transport in Britain. It’s an interesting document, and it might just suggest a turning point in the government’s approach.

Britain’s carbon emissions continue to fall – the provisional 2019 figures were out last week and showed a 3.6% drop on 2018. As I’ve explored before, this has been driven by renewable energy replacing coal for electricity, with emissions from electricity falling by 62% since 1990. That progress is not shared across every sector though: transport emissions have registered a tiny 4.6% reduction over that same three decades, and have been rising in recent years. In 2016 transport overtook energy to become the most polluting sector of the economy.

By transport, we mainly mean cars, and recent governments have been generous to motorists. Fuel taxes have been frozen for a decade, which makes driving cheaper. Bus travel – the most sustainable form of transit – has been critically underfunded. Compared to some European neighbours, Britain spends much less per capita on active transport. With the country committed to net zero by 2050, some strategic thinking about decarbonising transport is long overdue, and this new paper sets out the parameters for a new consultation. Over the coming months, people will have an opportunity to feed back on how it should be done, but for now the document sets out the overall objectives.

In the words of Transport Secretary Grant Schapps, these objectives are:

  • Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.
  • From motorcycles to HGVs, all road vehicles will be zero emission. Technological advances, including new modes of transport and mobility innovation, will change the way vehicles are used.
  • Our goods will be delivered through an integrated, efficient and sustainable delivery system.
  • Clean, place-based solutions will meet the needs of local people. Changes and leadership at a local level will make an important contribution to reducing national GHG emissions.
  • The UK will be an internationally recognised leader in environmentally sustainable, low-carbon technology and innovation in transport.
  • We will lead the development of sustainable biofuels, hybrid and electric aircraft to lessen and remove the impact of aviation on the environment and by 2050, zero emission ships will be commonplace globally.

That phrase “we will use our cars less” is really good to see. The last time a transport secretary shared that view is John Prescott in 1997, before his public transport plans were bullied off the agenda by the car lobby, the tabloids, and Gordon Brown in the Treasury.

That focus is repeated in the document, suggesting that we need to “make public transport and active travel the natural first choice for daily activities”. The paper highlights the possibility of co-benefits for health as more people choose to walk or cycle. It nods to environmental justice too, recognising a “reduction in inequality where those who generate less noise and air pollution are disproportionality impacted by pollution.”

Sustainable transport campaigners don’t get everything on the wish list. (“Airport expansion is a core part of boosting our global connectivity and levelling up across the UK” for example.) But it’s a useful start, and there will be plenty of time to feed back on any shortcomings.

Of course, this is only the announcement of the consultation parameters. We’re a long way from policy yet. Many things could happen in between. The automotive lobby will be responding to the consultation alongside bus and cycling advocates, and we know who carries more weight. A sustainable transport agenda could be derailed by vested interests, just as Labour’s was 20 years ago. So I won’t hold my breath. But this is a pretty good place to start from.


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