In order to achieve net zero, the country needs to reimagine how people move around its cities, observe Jon Bloomfield and Patrick Willcocks

As the blockages at the UN Climate Change COP26 conference in Glasgow confirmed, shifting the world onto a low carbon axis is going to be a mammoth task – not least when it comes to the way we travel. The car is embedded in culture and while UK energy emissions have reduced since 1990, those from transport have increased. 

This isn’t just a UK problem.

Germany has seen no reductions in its transport emissions since 1990 and in France, where 31% of CO2 emissions come from transport, emissions have been rising rather than falling. 

The Government’s 10-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published in November 2020, contained important commitments to accelerate the shift to zero emission vehicles and extend greener public transport, cycling and walking. 

Yet, behind the promise of prime ministerial statements, its shortcomings are clear: the Government appears to remain distinctly uncomfortable with the scale of investment and regulations needed to encourage and stimulate the necessary shifts. 

The Transitions to Electric Vehicles

The Plan promises “decisive action to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 with all vehicles” with a shift towards electric vehicles and a commitment to “100% zero emissions from 2035”.

The big car companies believe the change is feasible. Norway is already showing what is possible – there, EVs accounted for 77% of car sales in September 2021, and for 15% of the country’s total vehicle numbers.

Making this transition is a huge task. It requires manufacturing infrastructure, such as ensuring sufficient giga-factories able to produce the car batteries. It means the transformation of the country’s transport ecosystem – from establishing a new network of charging stations, to making work and street charging a practicality for those who live in flats, terraced and semi-detached housing. 

It also needs the Government to consider agreeing alternative sources of tax revenue to compensate for the loss of petrol taxes, as well as investing in car mechanic training and expertise. That’s before it addresses the more complex task of de-carbonising heavy-goods vehicles.

Compared to other European countries, the UK’s ambition curently falls short.

The Plan foresees a network of 2,500 high-powered charging points on England’s motorways and major A roads by 2030. By the same date, Germany intends to have 240,000 fast charging points, along with 5 million charging points at the workplace and 9 million charging points at homes, to serve an expected 15 million EVs by 2030. 

Both the German Government and its CBI (Confederation of British Industry) are committed to the country making the transformation to an ecological, social market economy. The willingness of Boris Johnson’s Government to invest and regulate at the scale necessary to make a similar transition is open to doubt.


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The Broader Picture

Electric cars are a start but they aren’t the whole picture – not when mobility is one of the vital eco-systems of all towns and cities. A central ingredient to transforming city mobility is the provision of comfortable, safe and quick public transport.

For decades, Transport for London has consistently benefitted from substantial chunks of capital investment and revenue support from central Government – creating the Docklands Light railway, Jubilee line and Crossrail. As a result, rates of car ownership in the capital are far lower than in the rest of the country – 56% of households in London own at least one vehicle compared to 80% in the rest of England . 

Furthermore, the car is the usual mode of travel to work for only 29% of Londoners, compared to more than two-thirds of people across England. 

The message is clear: good public transport reduces both the need for and use of cars. Yet, outside the capital, the rest of the country has been starved of transport investment, with recent announcements failing to live up to Conservative manifesto promises. These include ditching plans both for the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds, and proposals for a fast East-West link across the Pennines which would have cut in half the journey times between Leeds and Manchester. 

Meanwhile, despite the Plan stating that “we will electrify more railway lines”, no targets have been set. Currently 38% of the UK rail network is electrified. In contrast, the new German Government – where 56% of its much larger network is electrified – has set the goal of 75% electrification by 2030. 

Local transport authorities know that they need to improve the experience of travelling by public transport. They are looking at introducing high performance buses, developing ‘smart card’ systems and extending real-time passenger information. Several major cities are looking to develop light rail/ tram networks.

But, progress has been painfully slow. Nottingham is the main exception to the trend, having introduced a workplace parking levy in 2012. To date, the levy has raised £75 million, which has largely been invested in extending the tram system. The number of people travelling by car fell by 6.6% between 2010 and 2017 while public transport numbers rose by 9.6%.  

Across Britain, bus usage has been falling – with the exception of London which did not suffer the full extent of bus deregulation that other English cities experienced in the 1980s. A combination of integrating its transport services, fare subsidies and infrastructure investment has led to bus usage rising. 

Now, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is clear that his city region needs to follow London’s example. He wants to bring buses and trams together in an integrated system, with central Government giving the city region a bus improvement settlement to enable lower fares. He’s not alone: the Core Cities network believes that all city regions should benefit from these London-style powers. 

One of the key tests of the Government’s much-vaunted ‘levelling up’ agenda will be whether it provides resources to the rest of the country proportionate to those received by London. Otherwise, its Plan’s claim, that “our long-term aim is to improve public transport in city regions to make it as good as London’s”, will quickly ring hollow.

Mobility and the Digital Revolution

The application of digital technology to contemporary ways of urban living is already having a profound effect on the ways people move around – from integrated ticketing and new computer apps which give a huge range of mobility information, to hiring a personal car journey via an app.

The speedy application of the diverse elements of the digital revolution to public transport could have a major impact in accelerating its modal share within the overall mobility mix.

The IT mobility revolution has the potential to disrupt traditional transport patterns, most notably by undermining the economic model associated with personal car ownership. In several European cities, big car-sharing networks enable users to rent vehicles using their phones. Users can see electrical cars are available via an app, and where they can be found. Such models promise a radical reduction in car ownership. 

Then there’s re-emergence of cycling across western Europe. More people are recognising that cycling is both a cheap and healthy form of mobility. For decades, Copenhagen was the trend-setter but since 2000 Berlin, Paris and London have all shown the potential. 

Recent technological innovations such as the manufacture of electric bikes have accelerated this shift. E-bike sales across Europe have risen from the 1.7 million recorded in 2016 to 4.5 million in 2020

The UK has lagged behind, but Mintel estimated that 170,000 e-bikes were sold in 2020, – a twentieth of all bike sales. The promotion of introductory e-bike loan schemes for residents and businesses, along the lines of the Veligo scheme in Ile De France, could extend the market further. While every place is different, there is no doubt that cycling should be a vital and growing component of every town’s sustainable mobility strategy.

To complete the picture, there needs to be a wider reconsideration of the use of urban space so as to create compact, liveable neighbourhoods and street space which puts citizens first. Here, the example of Jan Gehl in promoting the re-organisation of Copenhagen from the 1970s onwards stands out.

Key features include measures to design and plan neighbourhoods to prioritise pedestrians and facilitate walking and cycling – such as providing dedicated cycle paths and and improving the density around the main transit stations and transport nodes within cities, rather than at the outskirts. The latter facilitates the use of public transport and to improve the connectedness of cities. 

Some of this thinking lies behind the introduction of low traffic neighbourhood schemes that were set up during the Coronavirus pandemic under a programme introduced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

In some suburbs, this has produced a volatile public reaction as car users reacted angrily on social media to favoured shortcuts being blocked off and main roads becoming more clogged with traffic in the short term. As things bed-down, research suggests that many are accepted by residents and they do reduce traffic levels overall.

Road Revolution

The controversy around low traffic neighbourhood schemes, and the way it has been whipped up by climate-sceptic tabloids, shows that disrupting the dominance of the car in contemporary urban life will provoke fierce opposition. 

To be truthful, Boris Johnson’s promise that we can achieve zero carbon “without a hair shirt in sight” and that “our cars will be electric, gliding silently around our cities” is a fantasy.

Cars don’t ‘glide’ around cities anywhere in the world. The shift to low carbon requires changes to our social, planning and travel patterns, not just a change of power under the car bonnet. Climate change campaigners recognise that the new mobility culture will be more diverse, digitalised and healthier. Private cars will have their role but not ride roughshod over everything and everyone.

Many councils and councillors realise the scale of the challenge and are taking steps to implement the type of transport and planning reforms needed. But they will need the active backing of climate change activists and the broader public in the tough battles ahead – both in the face of climate-sceptics and those in government unwilling to make the changes necessary for wholesale low carbon transformation.

Jon Bloomfield is an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham and the author with Fred Steward of ‘The Politics of the Green New Deal’. Together, they run a regular blog on the Green Deal. Patrick Willcocks, based in Birmingham, is a freelance policy advisor focused on cities, sustainability and creativity


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