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Natural Environment

Changing how we travel – part 2: Adopting new behaviours

Policymakers across the world are looking at means of pandemic-proofing large urban centres in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. One oft-cited solution could be a reallocation of funds earmarked for mass transit systems into active travel infrastructure.

London Cycling Campaign
2 June 2020

The Committee on Climate Change reported in 2019 that surface transport in the UK is responsible for 115 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year[1]. This equates to roughly a quarter of all emissions.

Accordingly, the committee set out the following priorities:

  • A sales ban on conventional vehicles moved to 2030-2035
  • A clearer approach to EU vehicle standards and testing
  • Stronger incentives to purchase cleaner vehicles
  • Plans for the roll-out of zero emission HGVs
  • Stretched targets for carbon dioxide reductions
  • Schemes to support walking, cycling and public transport.

These are set out as the first steps in the journey towards the UK being carbon-zero by 2050.

The longer-term milestones given are:

  • The continued development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure
  • A decision on how to switch HGVs to zero emission to be made in the 2020s
  • A 98% reduction in transport emissions by 2050.

While it is encouraging that more walking, cycling and public transport are referenced as part of the solution, it is hard to see how these modest priorities would lead to the carbon-zero target by 2050, let alone sooner. They do not represent sufficient pressure for the necessary change, and this means that they also provide weak incentives for the private sector to develop new services. In addition, perhaps due to its faith in technological prowess, the government has failed to insist that mayors, or other local authorities, implement policies that would make their citizens and businesses change behaviours.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee noted in its 2019 report Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets[2] that “the Government wants ‘almost every car and van to be zero emission’ by 2050 – equivalent to removing almost 20,000 conventional cars every week, from now until 2050.” It goes on to observe, however, that only “around 1,200 new ultra-low emissions vehicles were registered each week in 2018.” Electrifying the UK vehicle fleet is not the solution to our transport emissions challenges.

Although the report devotes little space to the other, more effective transport changes we need, it provides a helpful reminder of the fact that the Committee on Climate Change has argued that “the continued rise in road transport emissions highlights the urgent need for stronger policies to reduce growth in demand for travel.”

It also notes the Government’s admission that the estimated impact of all sustainable travel interventions since 2009 has been a reduction in the number of car kilometres travelled per year of just 0.5% by 2021. In the context of this dismal record, the Science and Technology Committee hits the nail on the head when it states that “one important factor in consumers’ decisions to purchase a vehicle or not would be the availability, quality and cost of public transport, alternative options such as walking and cycling, and car share schemes.”

Accordingly, the committee states that: “The Government must develop a strategy to stimulate a low-emissions transport system, with the metrics and targets to match. This should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required, for example by: promoting and improving public transport; reducing its cost relative to private transport; encouraging vehicle usership in place of ownership; and encouraging and supporting increased levels of walking and cycling.” In other words, both the Committee on Climate Change and the Science and Technology Committee agree that, in terms of transport changes required to meet the climate emergency, what’s needed most is a reduction in car traffic through a shift to sustainable modes (walking, cycling and public transport). This can be achieved through improving the attractiveness of sustainable modes of transport and deterring car use.

The UK Government must develop a strategy to stimulate a low-emissions transport system. This should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required by supporting increased levels of walking and cycling.

Committee on Climate Change

Such an approach is also recommended by the European Academies Science Advisory Council in a 2019 report entitled Decarbonisation of Transport: Options and challenges[3].

It notes that there is no ‘silver bullet’ concerning what needs to be done to facilitate the transition to a decarbonised future. While electric vehicles are often talked of as though they are a panacea, the report promotes the Avoid-Shift-Improve order of priorities[4], which puts better vehicle performance in last place in terms of its potential benefits.

Avoiding or containing demand for passenger and freight transport services can be achieved by enabling people to live closer to where they work, shop or study. This would reduce travel distances and make non-car modes more attractive for more trips, and thus promote mode shift. Improving the tailpipe performance of vehicles must be part of the answer to decarbonising transport, but it is clear that we cannot carry on as we are, simply in cleaner vehicles.

What’s really needed is that we travel differently.

  • Next week: Towards a radical change in how people and goods move 


  • [1] Reducing UK emissions; Committee on Climate Change, 2019

    [2] Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets; House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2019

    [3] Decarbonisation of transport: options and challenges; European Academies Science Advisory Council, 2019

    [4] Sustainable Urban Transport: Avoid-Shift-Improve, Transport Service Advisory Services