Chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, Darren Shirley, argues there is a chance for real change in transport and we can't afford to let it slip by.
When the Government published the first step towards its transport decarbonisation plan in March, the implications of COVID-19 for the transport sector were far from clear.
Campaign for Better Transport, along with others, welcomed the strong vision in the document, which laid out in unprecedented terms a vision of modal shift, with fewer journeys being made by car and more being made by public transport, on foot and by bike.
The need for a step-change in efforts to decarbonise transport had been clear for some time. In the UK, domestic transport emits more carbon than any other sector. To put its poor performance in context, while emissions from the energy supply sector have fallen by 62% since 1990, emissions from transport have fallen by just 3%.
It was also clear that supporting electric cars and investing in charging infrastructure, while important, would not be enough to bring transport in line with net zero emissions targets. In 2019, only just over 3% of new cars sold were battery-powered or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. So the commitment to modal shift was welcome.
As the effects of the pandemic on transport became more apparent, of course, new challenges to decarbonisation loomed.
Public transport suffered: reduced passenger numbers had profound financial implications for operators, and the need for social distancing continues to impact on fare revenue. In the longer term, passenger demand could be affected by increased home-working and the economic downturn. Mistrust in the safety of public transport risks driving people into cars.
Other effects were more hopeful: walking and cycling levels rocketed during the lockdown. And as the UK begins the process of recovery, the need for sustainable transport has only strengthened. By supporting public transport, walking and cycling, the Government can not only improve our environment and our health but also create jobs, tackle social exclusion and help the economy to recover.
So, work towards the transport decarbonisation plan is continuing apace, as it must. At present, the Government is running a public consultation on the plan, to gather views and ideas. There's a danger that this vital consultation risks being crowded out by other concerns, so Campaign for Better Transport is encouraging as many people as possible to take part: we've published a guide, which makes it easy for people to respond and suggests some things for them to mention.
We hope that people will spot the opportunities in the consultation to call for modal shift. Questions such as 'What do you think government should be doing to reduce the greenhouse gases that are produced from cars?' may seem at first glance to be about electric vehicles, but respondents should remember that we can also reduce emissions from cars by using them less.
We hope that people will take the chance to call for better alternatives to driving:
- Better connections, including new and reopened stations, bus priority measures and safe cycle routes
- More affordable travel, including multi-modal ticketing and more flexible season ticket options
- Reducing the need to travel, including building new communities around local amenities
What we hope above all is that the appetite for change that we have seen throughout the pandemic makes its way into public responses to the consultation. We're asking people who respond to also spend a minute filling in a short form on our website, so we can show that there's a strong movement speaking out for sustainable transport. Some of the responses have been inspiring.
I'll finish with the words of one of our supporters, Stephen from Norwich, who told us: 'Getting people out of their cars will be tough, but after COVID-19, people are up for change (I am) and what is more, they get why. We just need to get moving. It doesn't have to be seen as 'anti-car', more 'pro-city' or 'pro-people' or 'pro-planet'. I’m looking forward to it!'