A year on: is the government keeping its promise to radically shift the way we travel?

It’s been a year since the Department for Transport (DfT) published its transport policy paper. This set out the context for the government’s challenge to decarbonise the UK’s largest emitting sector, ahead of launching its Transport Decarbonisation Plan. At that time, many were pleasantly surprised (including Green Alliance) at the change in tone from a department that has traditionally been a climate laggard, and many hoped the promised plan would mark a pivotal moment.

But what has happened since?

The pandemic made us rethink transport
The last year has brought upheaval to the transport world, with developments that could have both positive and negative consequences for the long term decarbonisation of the sector.

In the early stages of the pandemic, and during the warmer months last year, more people were walking and cycling, with summer weekends seeing over three times more cyclists than pre-pandemic levels. The shift to remote working, while it might not continue to the extent observed in recent months, has opened up new perspectives on the future of work and commuting. International travel has dropped dramatically, with around a 60 per cent fall in global air travel in 2020, while many have discovered or rediscovered holiday destinations closer to home. And the widespread uptake of video conferencing has also shown that so many business trips may not be needed in future.

On the other hand, private car use has returned at a much faster pace, while, even with the easing of restrictions last summer, public transport use remained well below pre-pandemic levels. This has not only increased air pollution back up to levels observed before the pandemic, but it raises questions about how to get people to return to public transport once the health crisis is under control, and whether driving the switch away from cars to public transport will now be more challenging. Adding to this, car travel could become more prevalent if people permanently move out of urban centres to areas with poorer public transport connections. And the huge rise in online shopping risks significant pollution from delivery vehicles, unless there is a rapid switch to cleaner alternatives.

Aligning transport with net zero plans will benefit business and people
The pandemic’s disruption is a chance to capitalise on some of the positive trends and use this moment to address, head on, the UK’s big transport challenges, moving quickly towards a more modern, low carbon transport system.

Getting this right should be a major priority for government, given the significant benefits better transport has for the economy and communities. Low carbon transport infrastructure and technologies could create almost a quarter of a million direct jobs for the UK by 2030, as well as being an opportunity to revive and reposition the country’s automotive sector as a leader in clean vehicles. The Climate Change Committee estimates that clean alternatives could bring net benefits to UK consumers of £8 billion per year by 2035. Improved public transport would be good for lower income groups as well, as half of low income households don’t have access to a car. And cleaner and fewer vehicles on the roads would lead to better air quality, reduce congestion and deliver health benefits, thanks to cleaner air and greater physical activity.

DfT shouldn’t delay action
The transport department has taken positive steps to cut emissions, such as bringing forward the phase out of polluting vehicles, funding for active travel and public transport, and the recently launched bus strategy. But other actions clearly point in the opposite direction.

The government’s decision to go ahead with the roads programme will promote greater car use, undermining efforts to reduce emissions, tackle air pollution and congestion. And the recent proposal to cut air passenger duty will actively encourage people to choose short haul flights over more sustainable transport.

Crucially, what is most concerning is that we are still missing a comprehensive, coherent plan to get transport on track for net zero emissions, as the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, due out at the end of 2020, has been delayed until the spring. Without that, the sector could revert to more polluting options, with people relying more on their cars, public transport floundering and missed opportunities to grow new low carbon industries and jobs.

The Transport Decarbonisation Plan needs to herald a new era
So, we are looking forward to the imminent publication of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan as a sign of the department’s intent. This needs to be a plan that takes us into a new era for transport in the UK and we, and others, think it has to do a number of things.

First, it has to establish a quantified emissions reduction pathway for the sector, including interim targets, to chart the progress needed between now and 2050. Targets should be set for the sector as a whole, but also separately for surface transport, aviation and shipping, so all of them can play their part in cutting emissions.

Second, the government should commit now to policies, regulation, taxation and funding for emissions reductions over the next decade. This should provide certainty for the public and investors to speed up the transition to electric vehicles, establish better infrastructure and incentives for more people to walk and cycle, and promote a revolution in public transport.

Third, there should be clear responsibilities for devolved and local government, and transport bodies, to roll out progress across all parts of the country, while ensuring local decisions are compatible with national goals. The recent Leeds-Bradford airport expansion decision is a case in point, highlighting how poor governance can lead to a local economic decision that conflicts directly with UK wide goals. Improving governance also means the DfT should be held accountable, with annual reports to parliament on progress and ongoing opportunities for scrutiny from stakeholders.

Finally, and very importantly, this plan should be a big contributor to levelling up and social and economic renewal across the country. A well run, net zero transport system is at the heart of thriving communities and the ability of the economy to function effectively. It must support greater innovation, promote employment opportunities and UK leadership in new industries, and maximise health benefits from low carbon transport across the country.

With a strong public mandate for a green recovery, and the world’s eyes on the UK as it prepares to host G7 and the Glasgow climate summit, the stakes are high. This plan is a unique opportunity for DfT to show that it understands the scale of the climate challenge and the benefits of early action. It is the moment to show real leadership.

Green Alliance recently launched a three year project to push for a step change in decarbonising the transport system. More information is available on our website

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