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A holistic approach to active travel is needed to decarbonise transport

Leigh Stolworthy, Director, Transport Planning, Stantec, is optimistic about the UK’s chances of decarbonising our transport system – but it’s easy to see why the last few years have been dominated by cynicism. We have ambitious targets but aren’t doing enough to meet them...

Leigh Stolworthy
10 July 2024


The UK has ambitious decarbonisation targets, but isn't doing enough to meet them. However, with a new government committed to planning reform, further devolution, and intervention in our rail and energy sectors, we have a chance to get active and sustainable travel firmly on the agenda.

From my perspective working in the infrastructure sector, all of this provides a chance to improve the way we make decisions about transport: at a more local level in partnership with communities, while at the same time taking a more strategic view of what’s needed to create sustainable networks at scale.

Behavioural change and the role of technology

Recent government policy has heavily leaned on electric vehicles, renewable energy, alternative fuels and other emerging technology to support planned reductions in carbon emissions.  

Hear more on this topic at the Active City Conference in Leicester on 16 and 17 July

Even if we overcome challenges relating to EV production, infrastructure and cost, it is acknowledged that to lower emissions we also need to reduce the overall demand for car use.  This was clearly demonstrated in Stantec’s study ‘Bridging the Gap’.  It showed people and place need to play a much bigger role in securing net zero mobility by optimising travel demand and thereby decreasing reliance on the car. 

Perversely, some technological advancements can end up reinforcing existing travel patterns and make it harder for people to leave their vehicle at home.  Travel planning apps, for example, are still notoriously poor at offering easy active travel solutions, compared with how advanced they are at real-time road traffic reporting or estimating driving times.

To meet carbon reduction targets, traffic levels need to drop considerably.  As shown in Stantec’s Bridging the Gap report, if we continue with current growth patterns and place design practices, transport sector emissions will miss targets.  In addition to nationally and regionally led public/mass transit infrastructure improvements to increase capacity, speed, and efficiency, we need to focus on replacing car journeys between 5km and 30km.  These trips are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions and the easiest to avoid.  

So how can we help people get to and from their local train station or bus stops, and avoid using a car for the last leg of their journey?

In some cases, there is a clear need for better choice – by creating better cycle and walking routes, or making public transport facilities more pleasant and conveniently located.  

There is also a need to increase awareness of the available choices and make them more accessible.  Technology can have a role to play.  Imagine an app that prioritised active travel.  That seamlessly offered multi-modal trip chains with single point pricing.  One cost that covered a short bike rental to a station and the subsequent train or bus journey.  For trips between 5km and 30km, active travel and public transport should be the obvious choice, not the second choice after the car.

This is an example of how technology and cross-sector interoperability could be used to generate real results.  However, while technological advancements are useful and important, they won’t ever be a silver bullet – and can distract from dealing with more fundamental problems.

Grand plans and practical ideas

We have barely begun to address the systemic changes needed in travel habits.  There are many radical ideas and creative solutions, but policies often sidestep the complex issue of demand management.  We need more attention on behavioural shifts, which are essential to achieving a net-zero transport sector.  

Often, community engagement in development and transport projects focuses purely on the benefits of the proposed plan to local people, rather than trying to understand their real-life behaviours and preferences.  As part of Bridging the Gap, we argue that designing places and transport options differently is futile if people aren’t inclined or equipped to use them.  

What’s often missing is true interdisciplinary thinking that plans for active travel from the first stages of design and development and prioritises it through the process.  For a model to succeed, it must address community needs, be practical, usable, and genuinely improve people's lives. It must also be presented in the right way – as an extension of choice, not a restriction.

This is why concepts like better active travel integration in travel apps are so important to embed new choices and ways of travelling in people’s everyday lives.

Achieving a real modal shift requires truly holistic solutions developed by bringing together everyone from community representatives and residents to transport planning experts, engagement specialists, urban designers, landscape architects and more.  It is this approach that multidisciplinary businesses like Stantec understand deeply – it’s inherent in the way we pool our ideas across teams, work to span specialisms, and focus on the solution to draw in all the relevant expertise.

Too often active transport strategies are reduced to less than the sum of their parts – poorly maintained public realm, or a cycle path that leads to nowhere.  I have tried multiple routes on my own daily 10-mile cycle to work and can’t seem to find one that is completely seamless, easy to navigate and doesn’t require me getting off the bike at least once.

Sometimes it can feel like we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope: focusing on what is required by policy rather than what is needed by people.

Starting from scratch and approaching problems through a multi-disciplinary lens allows for greater influence on travel patterns, a real modal shift, and long-term reductions in carbon emissions: an approach adopted at the Waterbeach settlement. Human behaviour is imperfect and difficult to predict, and people that we plan for in the future will have different travel behaviours than the people we talk to about it today.

But thinking beyond the basics, building convenience and comfort into transport planning, and understanding how to introduce and communicate the new options can have a transformative impact.

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