To tackle poor air quality, we need to talk about modal shift

Air quality has shot up the agenda
Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 2nd February 2016 by Claire Haigh.

Air quality has shot up the agenda. It is estimated that poor air quality may cause 29,000 early deaths a year, and transport has been identified as a major contributor. Government is rightly focused on the issue, as recent announcements on the Clean Air Zones and Clean Bus Technology Fund demonstrate.

But why has there been no mention of the elephant in the room? It is astonishing that the Clean Air Zones will focus exclusively on HGVs, buses, coaches and taxis, with nothing planned for private cars. Government should be taking this opportunity to encourage modal switch from car to more sustainable transport. By imposing additional costs on bus, but no change for car, this appears to do the opposite.

It has been a long time since Government has dared to talk openly about “modal shift”. That sort of parlance hasn’t been given any real prominence since the 1998 Transport White Paper. But until we reduce our car dependency, any real progress both in terms of improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions will elude us. The fact is we are going to have to make it more expensive and less attractive to drive if we are to address these burning issues.

And the challenge is becoming increasingly urgent. The world is awash with cheap oil, with no sign of that changing any time soon. Supermarkets routinely price below £1 a litre, and recent estimates suggest that petrol could drop to 86p a litre. All this cheap oil may be giving a temporary boost to household incomes, but it is extremely damaging to efforts to tackle climate change. In the past year the number of cars on England’s roads has risen by almost 600,000. And as congestion in our towns and cities worsens, buses find it harder than ever to compete with the car.

There needs to be much greater consideration in policy terms of the benefits of modal switch. It is also time to set the record straight on a number of issues pertaining to bus vehicles on which general perception is sharply out of kilter.

One of these issues is testing. The Volkswagen emissions scandal lifted the lid on the open secret that the current testing and monitoring of car vehicle emissions do not reflect the experience of motorists in “real world” conditions. And it is not just diesel cars that have been in the spotlight, stated fuel efficiency gains of petrol cars are now in question. An overhaul of the whole car manufacturing testing regime will be needed if confidence is to be restored.

Testing for bus manufacturing, on the other hand, tells a very different story. Euro VI buses are subject to much more rigorous testing than Euro 6 cars. Not only is the factory test much closer to real world performance, but one of the requirements of Euro VI is that manufacturers have to carry out ongoing tests to validate in service emissions levels throughout an engine’s lifetime.

There is an exceptionally good story to tell on Euro VI. Real world testing for Euro VI buses carried out by Transport for London (TfL) shows a 95% decrease in NOx emissions compared to their older Euro V counterparts. And recent figures from the SMMT reveal that 53.5% of new buses and coaches feature the latest low emission Euro VI technology, marking a threefold increase compared with 2014.

There has been a misperception that buses have been lagging behind. But buses are getting cleaner, and more efficient thanks in part to successive rounds of the Green Bus Fund under the last Government. The Clean Bus Technology Fund will help stimulate the adoption of retrofit technology for older buses. And as Euro VI demonstrates, in many important respects bus manufacturing is leading the way.

The real opportunity of course lies in modal switch. Buses provide an immediate solution for improving air quality and reducing carbon by taking cars off the road. Research for Greener Journeys has shown that the best used bus services in urban areas are reducing carbon emissions by up to 75%. Moreover, investment in buses and bus infrastructure delivers very high value for money. Analysis by KPMG demonstrates up to £7 of net economic benefit for every £1 invested.

Pro-bus measures ought to be a no-brainer, but Ministers remain reluctant to bite the bullet. Instead they are putting their faith in electric cars as the main route to decarbonisation of the transport sector. However, it appears that the electric car market is failing to ignite. SMMT figures on the size of the EV market show that whilst there has been growth in the sector in recent years it still only represents 2.1% of the total market and includes a large number of conventional hybrids. It would take a total transformation to achieve 40-50% uptake of plug-in vehicles by 2030.

It’s time Government starts addressing the real issue. The chief barrier to improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions is our car dependency. The best immediate opportunity lies in encouraging modal switch.


Image by: Andy D’Agorne

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. Founder & CEO of Greener Vision & Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub. Claire was previously CEO of Greener Transport Solutions (2021-2022) and CEO of Greener Journeys (2009-2020).