The delivery of place-based solutions to support the decarbonisation of local communities is a core component of the Department for Transport’s Decarbonising Transport plan. How can local authorities and sub-national transport bodies respond to the challenges of delivering rapid transport decarbonisation in different places across the UK?
All parts of the UK need to deliver rapid reductions in emissions if we are to maintain any hope of ‘Keeping 1.5 alive’.
Future emissions in different places will depend on changes in economic activity and changes in people’s travel behaviours. But the forecasts do not look good; the shift to active travel is too slow, the bus market could take several years to recover from the pandemic, and zero emission vehicles are not yet mainstream.
Across the UK, there is currently unlikely to be a significant reduction in emissions during the 2020s, whilst carbon pathways typically require a 50% reduction (from a pre-COVID baseline) by 2030. Most areas face a yawning gap between ambitions and reality by 2030. And conventional approaches to transport planning will fail to bridge this chasm.
We first need to really understand the issues and needs of different places to make decarbonisation a reality. The recipe for success is not the same in Birmingham, Berwick, and Bodmin. We must understand the differences in the issues between cities, market towns and rural areas, both travel patterns and the underlying reasons behind why people travel.
This needs to include what’s driving transport demands and the quality of travel choices. Urban areas have significantly lower per capita emissions because of shorter distances and more comprehensive choices.
It is no surprise that per capita transport emissions are highest in rural areas, where residents travel further for commuting, shopping and services – usually by car because there is no practical alternative.
It is not just residents who generate transport carbon emissions. The visitor economy sees large amounts of travel into many areas, so how can the Lake District, Cornwall and the Cotswolds address the heavy emissions generated by visitors?
In many areas, trips longer than 10 miles generate around three-quarters of emissions. Transport planners’ comfort zone is in planning for active travel and local public transport, but how do we also create viable choices for longer-distance movements where cars are the dominant mode?
In developing solutions, we must consider the reality of where people choose to live, work and access services; and the availability of viable choices to meet their needs.
Delivering rapid reductions in emissions will require transformational change across all sectors and modes. We’ve been talking in vague terms about ‘supporting sustainable travel’ for the last two decades, but to little effect.
We need fresh approaches to reduce the need to travel, shorten journeys, and reduce the need for car ownership.
We cannot rely on converting the existing car fleet to electric vehicles alone as it will take too long. Many people have issues with the up-front costs of buying electric vehicles and the availability of charging points.
We also face challenges from a ‘rebound effect’ with people expected to drive more due to the lower running costs of electric vehicles. This could create further problems with considerable increases in traffic in the 2030s.
We need a new model for mobility over the next decade, with transport serving the diverse needs of different places.
We need to be thinking about size, scale, and speed of change in delivering new mobility models for different places. This means recognising the size of the markets for travel – and targeting movements generating the most carbon.
It also means focusing on where we can deliver the most change: by reducing, shortening, and shifting trips. And it means acting boldly and at speed: what we can achieve over the next 5-10 years.
We cannot rely on major infrastructure alone to support this shift. We must capitalise on disruptive changes in the mobility sector to reframe choice architecture.
Apps with information on journey choices, real-time bus location and ticketing can overcome knowledge barriers. Micromobility can provide first mile / last mile solutions to increase the reach of buses and trains.
Shared car schemes can offer all the benefits of brand-new cars without ownership: imagine walking 200 metres to a mobility hub with fully charged EVs that are ready to go.
These changes might be more viable for urban settings where alternative options are available. But rural areas face tough challenges in how they balance policy options: local service hubs, demand responsive and shared transport and mobility hubs, or speeding up EV adoption.
The time has also come to rethink our approach to planning new infrastructure. Over the last decade, road planning has looked to ‘improve connectivity’ and ‘unlock development’. But the benefits to local economies and communities have not always been clear.
We must now plan to make best use of existing infrastructure for a future where people travel shorter distances, make smarter travel choices, and with less traffic.
This will mean less space dedicated to cars and more areas for walking, cycling, micromobility and shared modes.
There must also be an emphasis on interchanges, to enable seamless connections between different modes. And we must design these to meet the specific needs of different places, respecting the local environment and supporting the regeneration of our left-behind towns.
It is critical to consider the embodied carbon of infrastructure options from the outset and take this into account in local carbon budgets. All embodied carbon will need to be justified to support reductions in user emissions in the transport system.
This is likely to mean limiting new road construction unless we can show that this will enable shifts to alternative modes, through the reallocation of roadspace elsewhere.
Spatial planning must also play a central role in enabling place-based decarbonisation. We must locate new housing and employment in places with good connectivity to existing towns and cities.
It also means retrofitting our villages, towns, and cities. This must include planning for 15-minute neighbourhoods with high-quality services within a short walk or ride, redesigning infrastructure to support biodiversity and ensuring resilience to flooding and heat in a warming world.
We can re-shape our investment programmes, shifting to support local and digital accessibility and smarter ways of travelling, retrofitting existing networks and improving resilience for a changing climate.
This can deliver multiple benefits for local areas, reduce social exclusion, improve air quality and health, and support local economies.
What does this mean for how we work across our sector? We must build new partnerships across local authority boundaries to deliver solutions to meet people’s travel needs.
We need to be prepared to re-shape our strategies for a world where we travel differently. And we must be open to new ways of thinking about how infrastructure can support the vitality and wellbeing of different places.
The time has come for bold thinking about how we deliver a Net Zero transport system that meets the needs of all the places it serves.
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