A Vision for Change

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 6th June 2023 by Greg Marsden.

The recent publication of my analysis of the downgrading of transport decarbonisation ambition as set out in the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (Reverse Gear) is a pretty depressing read. 72% of the ambition for change set out in 2021 seemingly set aside. The analysis shows that, even with the ZEV Mandate emissions from vehicles will reduce more slowly than had been hoped in the more ambitious reading of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP). Instead of planning for traffic reduction, which was part of the TDP (even if it was never transparently acknowledged) it seems that the Department for Transport (DfT) is planning for traffic growth. The circle cannot be squared. The two key vectors of decarbonisation are not on a combined course to meet the expectations of the Climate Change Committee from the 6th Carbon Budget. The Carbon Budget Delivery Plan seems to be a recognition of this reality. It is better that we have clarity on this. It would be better if we had some other answers.

It feels like a good time to clear the air. Over the past 20 years, as a profession, we’ve been advocating behaviour change, developing new innovations to facilitate behaviour change, nudging and, in a few cases shoving to try and improve alternatives to the car. Whilst things are better than they otherwise would have been for sure, it is difficult to mount a case that we’ve done anything other than slow down the dominance of the car in society. Some of the externalities from this rise in traffic have improved (e.g. fatal accidents) some are improving (e.g. air quality where action was eventually taken), whilst others have worsened (e.g. congestion, pavement parking). Whilst it is genuinely uplifting to see great new cycle schemes and the introduction of e-buses and bus priority improving some corridors in our towns and cities, it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Certainly not for national politicians to have felt that reducing car traffic could be anything other than bad for the economy and bad electorally and not actually worth touching despite the ‘climate crisis’.

Even with all of the good implementation examples one can point to the cold reality is that we haven’t affected change at a pace that we now understand is necessary for the climate. Carrying on with our usual funding envelopes (if DfT does well with Treasury negotiations) will perpetuate past performance. We are also about to legislate for the phase out of fossil fuel powered cars and the staged phase up of electric vehicles. All good, all necessary, all about to make driving a bit more expensive up front and quite a bit cheaper per mile (particularly if you have a driveway). This creates a further important headwind to those hoping that behaviour change will indeed bend the curve. Of course, DfT, Treasury etc. know all about this headwind but there is no sign of a change on the horizon on pricing. This is a critical debate which the Greener Transport Council has advocated must happen urgently.

So, do I conclude with the words of Private James Frazer – “we’re doomed”? If we continue on a pathway of business as usual planning then we quite definitively are doomed to failure. Not just on climate but on congestion, on the public realm (as we electrify for 30+ million vehicles), on safety (an extra half tonne of batter weight) and on social equity (who pays what per mile). There are other ways forward however, if we want to try and grab them. We could, for example, look at electrification in a new light and ask “what kinds of electric vehicles could service our mobility needs?”. This is quite different to asking “what range will make my EV feel equivalent (but better) than my petrol car?” and “how many charge points and of what capacity do we need?”. 97% of car trips are less than 35 miles in length. These are the ones people make regularly. Powered light electric mobility comprising a mix of 2, 3 and 4 wheel could service this very differently. It would require a substantially cheaper charge infrastructure to do so and would be lower impact on our streets. Or (or and!) ”What if we really bent the taxation system to encouraging shared mobility rather than individual ownership?” This is not about taking away mobility but providing it in a better way. I don’t want to get too idealistic. There is a proportion of the population (around 20% according to work by Professor Jillian Anable) for whom the car is a key part of their identity. This might never change (although it is not a genetic property) or change slowly. We have to embrace and find ways of building dissent into our planning processes rather than trying to manage it out. The pathways we have to adopt need to look quite different if we are to really change and that does mean some people doing things differently. It means being honest that the hypermobile well off should change more whilst those who don’t have enough access to mobility today expand their horizons. There is no real mandate for change unless we are up front about why things need to change. I think it is a false prospectus to say that business as usual planning with business as usual funding envelopes will deliver what we need. It will deliver what we can without disturbing the status quo. Now is the time for some positive and radical thinking that can change our pathways quickly and which our politicians, both local and national, can buy into.

About the Author

This post was written by Greg Marsden. Greg is Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds. Greg is also Chair of the Greener Transport Council.