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Professors at odds over transport decarbonisation costs

Rhodri Clark reveals how a Welsh parliament committee session on how best to make the transition to electrification and decarbonisation sparked a difference of opinion between eminent transport professors

14 June 2022
John Whitelegg and Graham Parkhurst
John Whitelegg and Graham Parkhurst
 

Two academics who advocate measures to reduce car use have expressed contrasting views over the costs of such actions.

Prof Graham Parkhurst, of the University of the West of England, told a Senedd committee hearing on bus and rail in Wales: “It’s going to be very expensive to deliver the decarbonisation of public transport, and the revenues from passengers will be a relatively small part of that. It’s going to need big decisions by politicians to put money into that or persuade the private sector to engage in that.”

Prof John Whitelegg, visiting professor at Liverpool John Moores University, took issue with the form of words used by Parkhurst.

He told LTT: “Detailed empirical work, now out of date but still relevant, shows that the total community costs of transport, public and private, go down as the proportion of trips made on foot by bicycle and public transport go up.

“All costs of transport (public and private) are at their highest when the proportion of walk, cycle and public transport trips are at their lowest.

“This fiscal reality identifies serious flaws in transport policy and spending. Public bodies frequently choose to cut bus services, as in London in June 2022, and even more frequently quote cost as a reason for not building high quality segregated networks of bike paths and not adopting wide-area traffic reduction policies.

“The same nervousness about costs does not apply to road building, e.g. Shropshire Council will spend over £20m of its own money on the North West Relief Road (Shrewsbury). If this was spent on world-class bus services or networks of traffic free bike paths we would lower the costs of transport.

“A well-directed, evidence-based sustainable transport policy would consider the economic reality associated with current transport spending plans and adopt interventions that reduce traffic.”

Prof Mark Barry, of Cardiff University, told the committee that if sticks are to be used to encourage modal shift away from the car, they should be waved more vigorously in cities than in rural areas. “We need to start conveying this not as a charge but as a reduction in the discount that people have enjoyed subconsciously for 50 or 60 years. Cars are not free to society. Cars have a cost – the externalities – and we need to have a conversation and understand what those externalities are.”

Examples included road deaths and injuries and premature deaths from poor air quality. “These are real costs. They’re not just fictitious things made up, and actually people need to understand, if you get in a car, you have actually an obligation to take on board some of those costs, rather than dump it on everybody else in the way we have done for 50 years.

Parkhurst told LTT: “The cost differentials are far greater than for electric cars. Depots need to be converted. Many small bus operators rely on second-hand vehicles, which will not be available in zero emission form for many years. Railways would need electric supply infrastructure or battery or fuel-cell technology.”

The large scale modal shift to public transport will take years to deliver, said Parkhurst. “The technology needs to be upgraded now, so the public transport is setting the pace for decarbonisation, not following in the wake of private transport. Indeed, an improved environmental offer is part of the way to attract people to public transport.

“The state could help, for example by purchasing clean technology vehicles to be leased to operators, but the UK government grants identified so far will cover only a fraction of the cost. It is not clear where the rest of the money is coming from, if not the state. In the current financial climate that is unlikely to be either operators or passengers. This was the dilemma I was trying to put across to the Committee.”

Whitelegg stressed that he “very much admired” Professor Parkhurst’s work. “I am not attacking him,” he said. “I am attacking the idea that sustainable transport initiatives are expensive when they are not. All any well- directed local authority has to do (and DfT as it gives out c£34bn for Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2) and Large Local Major (LLM) schemes) is to compare the costs of road building and all car-friendly spending with

the costs of delivering significant modal shift (more walking, cycling and public transport) and publish the results.

“The current model of policy and spending is hugely expensive and far more expensive than the alternatives that reduce traffic, reduce congestion, reduce carbon, reduce road deaths and injuries and improve health.”

The professors on the cost of decarbonisation in their own words...

John Whitelegg

Economics is sometimes called the “dismal science”, but it is not as dismal as poor quality thinking and spending by local authorities and the DfT on infrastructure projects.

Clear thinking about economics has a lot to offer as a strong input into the choices we have to make if we want value for money, improvements in health and quality of life and improvements in accessibility, environmental quality and carbon reduction.

The very large costs associated with current transport policies are discussed in detail in Whitelegg (2016) and Whitelegg (2020).

All costs of transport (public and private) are at their highest when the proportion of walk, cycle and public transport trips are at their lowest.

This fiscal reality identifies serious flaws in transport policy and spending. Public bodies frequently choose to cut bus services, as in London in June 2022, and even more frequently quote cost as a reason for not building high quality segregated networks of bike paths and not adopting wide-area traffic reduction policies.

The same nervousness about costs does not apply to road building e.g. Shropshire Council will spend over £20m of its own money on the North West Relief Rd (Shrewsbury). If this was spent on world- class bus services or networks of traffic free bike paths we would lower the costs of transport.

A well-directed, evidence-based sustainable transport policy would consider the economic reality associated with current transport spending plans and adopt interventions that reduce traffic.

Budget setting and spending plans would take into account the high costs associated with low levels of physical activity. The costs of obesity (UK) are £27bn each year.

Budget setting and spending plan would factor in the high costs of carbon associated with infrastructure and embodied carbon. This would lead inexorably to the cancellation of carbon intensive infrastructure such as the Silvertown Tunnel.

Burke et al (2019) suggest a carbon shadow price consistent with a net zero target would start at £50 per tonne of carbon dioxide (tCO2) (with a range of £40 - £100) in 2020. This would provide a strong case based on economics for cancelling tunnels and roads building.

Current transport policy and spending ignores economics. Switching transport spending to measures and interventions that boost walking, cycling and public transport delivers proven economic benefits and value for money. If value for money and alignment with public health and climate change policies are important we must have alignment.

Transport spending and priorities that directly reduce traffic levels and shift trips to walk, cycle and public transport are essential, better value for money than roads and tunnels and urgent. All arguments that spending on sustainable transport cannot be supported because it is costly is not supported by economics.

Business as usual is unacceptable. Building new roads is unacceptable. Sustainable transport in all its manifestations reduces public and private spending, widens transport choices, helps all income groups and delivers value for money as well as social justice.

Graham Parkhurst

If I  have understood John Whitelegg’s point correctly, he is arguing that were it possible to reverse the national modal split of approximately 80% car use and 20% other modes, then providing for public transport, cycling and walking would be much more financially viable and not be expensive to the state.

If that is his position then I broadly agree. Indeed, this was broadly the situation in the UK up until the interwar period, when public transport subsidies began to be necessary for rail, and later on also for bus. I say ‘broadly agree’ because it would be a bit more difficult in the 21st Century given decades of urban and suburban sprawl and people with high mobility expectations choosing to retire to rural areas. Technologies with greater efficiency would have to be deployed at scale as well e.g. we would probably need a national network of digitally-enabled taxibuses and elimination of peaking in demand through flexible working policies.

However, the focus on the discussion at the Welsh Parliament Committee session was not about ‘possible futures’ it was about what should happen now, at the beginning of the transition to electrification, and hopefully decarbonisation. I was seeking to stress to the Committee that:

• The electrification of the car fleet is now well underway. It is not entirely desirable (it perpetuates road space inefficiency, offers modest energy efficiency improvements, does not eliminate all emissions, and perpetuates transport inequalities), but like it or not, it is happening.

• People who buy and use electric cars are likely to become even more car dependent, because they are more expensive to buy and cheaper to use than internal combustion engine cars. There is also the psychological factor that the EV driver may tend to take the view, particularly if recharging on zero-carbon electricity, that his or her motoring is now environmentally benign, and in particular, cleaner than diesel-powered public transport use.

And, at the same time as EV cars are now being taken up in noticeable numbers, public transport is suffering from a round of cutbacks linked to the non-return of a share of pre-Covid patronage. Fuel and labour costs are rising – part of the inflation being seen nationally – which further threatens service viability.

But the main point that John seems to have seized upon - and I think misconstrued - was about the costs of actually replacing or converting diesel-powered public transport to zero-carbon and zero noxious-emission power sources. The cost differentials are far greater than for electric cars. Depots need to be converted. Many small bus operators rely on second-hand vehicles which will not be available in zero emission form for many years. Railways would need electric supply infrastructure or battery or fuel-cell technology.

I don’t think this can wait until modal shift to public transport occurs at large scale. The technology needs to be upgraded now, so the

public transport is setting the pace for decarbonisation, not following in the wake of private transport. Indeed, an improved environmental offer is part of the way to attract people to public transport. The state could help, for example by purchasing clean technology vehicles to

be leased to operators, but the UK government grants identified so far will cover only a fraction of the cost. It is not clear where the rest of the money is coming from, if not the state. In the current financial climate that is unlikely to be either operators or passengers.

However, both I and Prof. Barry were in agreement that charging for road use could offer a solution by raising revenue, whilst also tackling the increase in traffic and congestion that are predicted to arise within DfT road traffic forecasts from cheap EV motoring.

 
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