MAPS – a mnemonic for sustainable transport

A couple of years ago I wrote a post asking what the ‘three R’s’ for transport might be. Kids grow up knowing the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ approach to waste. It appears on council flyers and on posters. While some people argue that there are a lot more Rs that could be included, three is short enough to be memorable and easy. Is there an equivalent for transport that could help people to make good choices?

Here’s mine. It takes the acronym MAPS because it’s something you consult before you travel.

Minimise – first of all, is the journey necessary in the first place? Could you call or Zoom instead? Can you reduce the distance? What’s the shortest route? Can you combine tasks to save repeat journeys?

Active – can you reach your destination on foot or by bike? I’m going to go ahead and include hybrid travel modes like e-bikes in there too.

Public – could you take public transport? Is there a bus, train or tram to your destination?

Shared – if you’ve got this far, you’re probably looking at a journey that needs a car. So can you lift-share? Can you travel together? Maybe you can take a taxi.

If you get all the way through MAPS and there’s no good solution, take the car and don’t feel bad about it. Make it an electric car if and when you can.

MAPS works as a personal decision making tool, but these can be policy priorities too. As the UK looks at reducing transport emissions, the easiest way is to minimise the need to travel up front. Working from home is one of the breakthrough habits of the pandemic, and it is going to remain a bigger part of many people’s working lives.

At a local level, a council that was taking the M in MAPS seriously might decline planning permission for an out-of-town retail park, and invest instead in a high street that already has good transport links.

Where are people having to take unnecessary journeys? All across the country there are people who have to go to see their doctor regularly just for a repeat prescription of their medication. Make it possible (and optional) to do this by video call and you could save millions of miles of travel every year, as well as saving people’s time.

Active transport is the first priority for actual journeys because it brings the most side-benefits to health and wellbeing. Supporting active transport means investment in cycling infrastructure, safe walking routes and designing walkable neighbourhoods. It could include cycle training in schools, lower traffic speeds, and attention to public space along particular walking routes to make them attractive.

Public transport comes next, and picks up where distances are too far for most people to walk or cycle. In too many places the bus is considered second-class, an option for people who can’t afford to join the traffic in their own private car. But every well-used bus clears a huge amount of road space, transporting many more people in less space. They free up road space as well as reducing emissions. It’s possible to switch the dynamic and give buses priority – something that’s been done successfully in Latin America in many places. If public transport is the faster and better option, the case for it is easily made.

Shared transport, which would include things like calling an Uber, fills a particular niche in between public transport and private cars. Where it can really make a difference is where it is done at scale. For example, when sporting or cultural events calculate their carbon emissions, audience travel is by far the largest component. There often isn’t an easy public transport solution, so encouraging and facilitating ride-sharing or chartered coaches is a good option.

With attention on all of these different modes of transport, the need for cars is dramatically reduced – and with it traffic, emissions, pollution, noise, and road accidents. What remains should be electrified. But if the first bullet point in your list of policies for sustainable transport is electric cars, you haven’t done your homework.


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