Can industry meet government’s decarbonising transport challenge?

Achieving net zero in the transport arena will require a massive effort, but the coronavirus pandemic has shown that it is possible for society to change quickly, say Ramboll’s Elad Eisenstein and Bram Miller.

The Department for Transport’s consultation Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, outlines the UK government’s plans to progress towards achieving net-zero carbon through transportation. Whilst the paper is a positive first step in addressing the UK’s carbon footprint, if we are to create the widespread societal changes required to achieve a permanent reduction in transport emissions then there is still much to be done. In addition, we must also consider how the current coronavirus crisis might impact on our ability to deliver the recommendations and changes needed.

The consultation document suggests that the use of cars should be substituted for other modes of transport, whether this be through walking or cycling. Similarly, the document promotes public transportation, such as through buses, trains or trams. 

Whilst persuading people to reduce their reliance upon cars is certainly a step in the right direction, the paper does not consider enough how this may affect those in areas where alternative forms of transport are simply not viable. For example, those who live in rural or even suburban areas often have no option other than to travel by car, as a result of inadequate public transport systems or distances that are too far to travel on foot or by bike. And with a significant proportion of the UK living in such rural areas - 17%, in fact - there needs to be more consideration of how vehicle reliance can be reduced in these communities.

Of course, the focus on electric vehicles is an important potential solution for the problems faced by rural communities and will be key in helping the UK reach its commitment of net zero carbon by 2050. With electricity increasingly coming from renewable sources, by inference the electrification of all modes of transport should play a significant role in helping transportation reach zero carbon emissions. 

However, further thinking is required around how we will be able to implement the infrastructure required for charging these electric vehicles. Despite a significant increase in the number of charging points around the country, a clear-cut strategy on how to effectively extend this and support the increase in vehicle numbers is urgently required. Similarly, encouraging the use of alternative types of vehicles, such as hydrogen fuelled cars, may also be worth considering as part of a decarbonisation strategy. 

The emphasis on place-based solutions is particularly positive to see. The thinking being that if our towns and cities are desirable places to live, people will be more willing to consider alternative means of transport. We are now starting to see more examples of smart, liveable places across the world, where an integrated approach is applied – rather than just designing a road for vehicles, the inclusion of green space, shelter and tree canopies need to be factored in too. 

However, in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, there is a question as to how quickly these strategies can be adopted, as it may have a far wider impact on the use of transport than initially expected. 

In the short term, it is likely that health-conscious commuters may be wary of using public transport, avoiding over-crowded modes of travel, which could potentially have a negative effect on the decarbonisation strategy. However, we will also likely see an overall reduction in demand for travel to work, with many businesses realising the viability of home working, which should reduce vehicle numbers and strain on public transport. 

As such, we need to consider how people will live after the crisis. Perhaps, for example, demand-led networks can be implemented in suburban areas, using data to run these transport systems more intelligently and based on the number of people looking to travel. Transport infrastructure will be vital to supporting economic growth and historically, smaller communities have not seen as much investment. However, we may well start to see a shift towards investment in transport services for suburban and rural communities, as the number of people working from home increases. 

Reaching net zero carbon will require huge changes and societal shifts, and although the steps required may be daunting, the coronavirus pandemic has shown that it is possible for our society to change quickly. A number of cities across the world have demonstrated the possibility of implementing dramatic changes to transport infrastructure quickly – Vienna, Berlin and Vancouver capitalised on the reductions in traffic volumes and closed streets for traffic, signalling longer term transformation. 

The strategy undoubtedly moves us in the right direction, and by learning from international counterparts as well as our own communities’ responses to the current pandemic, it is clear that the societal shifts required should be possible and a zero carbon future is achievable.

Elad Eisenstein is Ramboll’s director of cities and regeneration and Bram Miller is a technical director at Ramboll.