Transport and Net Zero: Why Won’t We Walk the Walk?

UK Policy

Transport and Net Zero: Why Won’t We Walk the Walk?

Posted on: 19th November 2021
Christina Palmou
Senior Economist

Active travel and public transport were a minority concern at COP26 transport day which was centred almost entirely around electric vehicles (EVs). A week later the government is cancelling the HS2 link to Leeds, something that would have been a significant investment in public transport in one of the less connected cities in the country. There is no question EVs are key to decarbonising transport. But failing to approach decarbonisation as a joint challenge of electrification and getting people out of their cars altogether may not only undermine the delivery of climate goals but also be detrimental for productivity and living standards.

We use our cars a lot. In 2018, 87% of terrestrial passenger kilometres in the UK were travelled by car, greater than other European countries like Denmark (72%) or the Netherlands (50%). Calls to use our cars less are principally about reducing emissions, as British surface transport accounts for 27% of Britain’s total CO2 emissions. Switching to EVs is undeniably a core part of driving down this impact. But EV uptake is still low, its trajectory compared to the phase out of the combustion engine uncertain and the pace of electrifying the fleet will have to be matched with cleaning up energy.

Even if we succeed in rapidly adopting EVs, this could exacerbate some wider social costs from driving. Estimated at roughly 70bn a year or 17p per kilometre driven, congestion comprises 78% of the cost society endures because of cars. With electricity taxed at low rates and significantly cheaper than fuel, the marginal cost of driving collapses for EV drivers, encouraging many more to get on the road. That could mean 32 hours a year stuck in traffic for the average driver, and far higher than that for those in cities. As we decarbonise transport, some reduction in driving will be needed.

If we end up in traffic jams, why do we use our cars so much? There are good reasons for this – driving can offer a freedom and convenience other modes do not match. But there are structural issues at play, too: the quality and reliability of public transport, the integration of mobility and the layout of our lived environments and economic incentives, are working to keep us driving.

According to the National Travel Survey the British blame first and foremost unreliability of public transport for sticking to their cars. On commuting trips, over 60% of those who find leaving their car at home a struggle say public transport information is scarce, transport itself unreliable, expensive, poorly connected or simply not there for the trips it is needed for. This is unsurprising. Transport is one of the areas that has seen the largest cuts (42%) in net spending since 2010, and with post-pandemic work patterns changing, public subsidy could be more thinly stretched.

Source: TBI calculations on NTS table 0808

The planning system has a lot to answer for too. Many developments spring up on the outskirts of cities and towns with little infrastructure to connect them to local transport, walking or cycle paths.  This leaves little option but for residents to drive even for short journeys. The inevitable result is air pollution and increased car traffic in neighbourhood roads making cycling and walking even less desirable.

Economic incentives are heavily misaligned with a low car dependency future as well. Years of frozen fuel duty, increases in vehicle fuel efficiency and a decade of spending cuts for local transport have made motoring significantly cheaper compared to other modes of travelling.

Source: RAC foundation, recreated using ONS

Reform of motoring taxation towards a per mile or a dynamic road pricing tax could bring the price of motoring more closely in line with its social costs, or at the very least pre-empt the congestion rises associated with maintaining the strong tax advantages currently experienced by EV drivers.  If designed right, the tax could also realign incentives towards using other modes of transport without disincentivising EV take-up and recent research suggests such a transition would have the public’s support.

The EV shift is urgent but the transition needs to address driving’s wider social costs. Modal shift needs to be a joint priority. The government has made several commitments to increasing active travel. The Department for Transport has set a target to double cycling trips by 2025 compared to 2013 and Grant Shapps has committed to a vision where public transport and active travel are Britain’s default. More recently the government’s Net Zero strategy is promising £2billion over five years so that half of all journeys in towns and cities are cycled or walked by 2030. Micromobility devices such as electric scooters are under trial from this July until Spring 2022 in 32 areas across the country including a mixture of towns and cities such as Slough, Newcastle and mayoral combined authorities such as the West Midlands. If deemed safe for road users, legalizing their use and developing sharing networks for them may open the door for faster reductions in car dependency.

But something more than commitments and piecemeal funding is needed. The government is about to back out of one of its biggest rail infrastructure investments in favour of smaller projects in Conservative held constituencies. The cancelled railway line would have reduced road usage by 58,000 car trips a day in some of the worst connected parts of the country. This is a step in the wrong direction in delivering cleaner transport, unclogging the country’s roads, or ensuring a fair and just transition. Policies to get people out of their cars do work. London’s congestion charge, ULEZ zoning, bike sharing, network of high-speed cycle lanes and hop-on fares have made driving in the capital a minority activity. Only 56% of London households own a car and cars are the main mode of traveling to work for only 29%of Londoners compared to the English average of 67%.

With 58% of car journeys less than five miles, there is plenty of scope for this vision to become a reality for more places in the UK, but as things stand getting out of the car will not be easy

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