Sustainable transport - a green roadmap?

| 1st June 2009

Illustration: Clare Nicholas

Sustainable transport offers not only a golden ticket out of our pollution- and traffic-choked cities, but also a means of improving the health and well-being of travellers and society alike.

People have always moved to cities for opportunities, and cities have always been places where jobs and services are concentrated. The inherent advantage of cities is accessibility to other people, to goods and to services – what might be called ‘location efficiency’. People travel fewer miles by car in cities, consume less energy per capita in cities, and providing them with energy, water, transport and food is more efficient than in suburban or rural settings.

Particularly in the United Kingdom, our ambivalence about cities has led to a tradition in planning and development that sought to marry the advantages of urban life – convenient transport, good jobs, reliable power, water and services – to the ideal of life on the manor or in the village, with trees, capacious gardens and housing standing together in a manner isolated from work, shops and schools.

The Town and Country Planning Act promoted the separation of uses into distinct districts connected by roads optimised for speedy travel by car. This was called zoning, and in pursuit of quality of life it has tended to destroy the inherent environmental advantage of urban living, as it has forced travel by car from isolated suburban locations to accomplish the daily activities of our lives. And so the suburbs, which sought to merge the best of urban living with the best of country life, have resulted in cancelling out both.

Climate congestion

As a result, transport is a growing part of the climate change problem. As emissions from other sectors of the economy have declined in recent years, transport’s carbon emissions have continued to grow from 14 per cent of Great Britain’s CO2 emissions in 1980 to 23 per cent by 1997. According to the UK’s Environmental Accounts, ‘household use of private vehicles’ accounted for 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector in 2005.

Automobile byproducts, including brake and tyre particulates, air toxins and pollutants and road chemicals, run off into groundwater and are increasingly acknowledged as a major source of both ground and surface water pollution. Impervious surfaces such as roads and pavements also prevent rainwater from percolating into groundwater, leading to increased levels of runoff into canalised river systems and increasing the risk of flooding.

The recent Foresight Tackling Obesities: Future Choices report by the Government Office for Science looked at the alarming rise in the incidence of obesities in Great Britain, concluding that by 2050, 60 per cent of adult men, 50 per cent of adult women and approximately 25 per cent of all children under 16 could be obese, leading to increased chronic disease risk from diabetes, stroke and coronary disease, and economic costs to society and business of more than £49 billion in today’s dollars.

The report noted: ‘Human biology is being overwhelmed by the effects of today’s obese-ogenic environment, with its abundance of energy-dense food, motorised transport and sedentary lifestyles’. Indeed, although doctors recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day, the actual amount of time Britons spend walking and cycling has declined from 12.9 minutes in 1995-6 to 11.8 minutes in 2005-6, a decrease of eight per cent in just a decade. The Foresight report concluded that there might be a win-win solution:

‘Many climate-change goals would also help prevent obesity, such as measures to reduce traffic congestion, increase cycling or design sustainable communities.’

Signs of change

All is not gloom and doom, however. In the past decade it is possible to see that progress has been made in providing greener travel options and getting people to use them. While London has led the way in shifting consumers toward public transport, walking and cycling, there is a Europe-wide trend toward increased intercity passenger rail travel, and there is some evidence of a decoupling of economic growth from its long relationship with growth in travel by car.

Pioneering projects such as Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’s own development with the Duchy of Cornwall in Dorset, have shown that mixed-use, mixed-income development centred on walkable neighbourhoods can succeed in the marketplace. Poundbury challenged conventional paradigms for street design, reducing
widths, eliminating road signs and forcing drivers to respond to the urban environment rather than tailoring the urban environment solely for the car. Its innovations and similar efforts by English Partnerships with the Prince’s Foundation at Upton and elsewhere, have informed the Department for Transport’s new Manual for Streets, which incorporates many of these ideas.

A step beyond the notion of once again making walkable streets and neighbourhoods is the idea of developing communities at public transport hubs, to improve access and reduce the need to drive for work or shopping. The Northstowe ‘ecotown’ outside Cambridge, promoted by English Partnerships and designed by Arup, is aligned around a rapid bus system, as is the Sherford New Community, designed by the Prince’s Foundation and Paul Murrain.

A look at London

London has been in the forefront of cities dealing with sustainable transportation globally, due to its leadership in proposing congestion pricing and improvements in
London’s bus services alike. At the same time, London has England’s most widespread and accessible public transport, its areas of greatest density and a street network that precedes the development of the suburban cul de sac system. Residential density, street connectivity and access to public transport are the three variables, once one accounts for wealth and family size, that reduce driving, and hence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One only needs to compare the share of total trips by public transport between London and other British cities to learn that Greater London outperforms all of them in terms of public transport use. In Great Britain as a whole, two-thirds (64 per cent) of all trips are taken by car, as compared to London, where less than half of all trips (43 per cent) are made by car.

A revival of rail travel

The long-awaited arrival of the first Paris train into St Pancras station in London awakened many to the renaissance in high-speed, high-quality passenger rail service on the Continent. This growing network is reducing journey times and improving connections all over Europe, and it is coming about as a result of European policy.

The shift has been promoted in order to provide a realistic alternative to short-distance air travel, as air trips of less than 500km are more damaging per kilometre than longer trips, due to the greater emissions from the take-off and landing cycles. Over shorter distances, highspeed rail competes well with air travel both in terms of time and convenience, and may be superior in terms of the quality of the journey.

As a result passenger rail-use has been growing across the European Union, but the rail patronage per inhabitant of the UK lags behind that of other leading European nations. Germans travel 865 rail-passenger-kilometres per inhabitant each year, the French travel 1,231 rail-passengerkilometres per person annually, while the average UK resident travels only 674 rail-passenger-kilometres a year.

Demand for rail travel in the UK is projected to grow by an additional 30 per cent over next 10 years. In fact, in the past decade the rail system has regained all of the passengers it lost in the 40 years since the wholesale cuts to the national rail network that resulted from the Beeching report to Government in 1963.

Rather than extending the European high-speed rail network beyond St Pancras station to the north and to the west, Government policy has tended to focus on dealing with commute overcrowding and extending station platforms. While it is clear that improving the performance and capacity of existing services is critical – achieving a step change in rail-use and a shift from short-distance air travel and car-use to rail travel will necessitate integrated thinking and planning.

Looking ahead

What’s needed is a linked set of policies and investments to promote not only greener travel modes such as public transport and cycling, but also the reduction of the need to travel through the locating of many of one’s daily needs within walking distance and trip-substitution through telecommuting (see box below).

There are a series of stark choices ahead of us. As the evidence about climate change has mounted, it has become ever clearer that the time for action is now. Common sense would dictate dramatic improvements to the overtaxed networks for rail, public transport and cycling funded from road-pricing or carbon taxes.

What’s needed is courage and leadership. As we have seen, the vision for the urban environment is one in which quality of life is improved rather than degraded, and the changes are ones that can improve one’s interactions with family, with colleagues and with community. The alternative can also be clearly seen: crowded roads and trains, longer commutes and higher costs to fix the problem if we fail to act.

Hank Dittmar is chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and the author of Transport and Neighbourhoods (Black Dog Publishing, £7.99)


What Happens Next?

If we want greener urban transport to be part of our urban future then our investment, as well as government policies, needs to encompass the following:

  • Linking transport and growth, so that new housing is well served by public transport and within walking distance of shops. New communities or ecotowns must be located at major public transport hubs, and be built around the concept of walkable neighbourhoods.
  • Congestion and road-pricing should continue to be a key tool, not only for the purpose of lessening congestion but also, through land-use strategies and travel behaviour change programmes, for the purpose of supporting the shift to greener travel modes and the reduction of the need to travel.
  • Programmes to reduce the energy consumption of rail, bus and tram should be undertaken, along with programmes to regulate fuel economy, both through vehicle technology fixes and changes in driving behaviour.
  • The growth in rail travel should be continued, with expansion of high-speed rail systems from Europe into the UK, including both a north-south high-speed link from St Pancras and a service running from London to the west. Public transport links to outer London stations should be considered to relieve bottlenecks coming into central London, and incremental improvements in speed and capacity should be continued, along with major investments in stations.
  • Strategies to improve the walkability of existing neighbourhoods and introduce mixed-use should be implemented alongside programmes to retrofit existing buildings for energy efficiency. It is essential to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and transport alike.
  • Travel behaviour change programmes, already being piloted by government, should accompany all new commercial and residential development, with introductory information and public transport discount packages provided to new employees and incoming residents alike. Studies have shown that the most effective interventions in travel behaviour occur immediately after relocation.
  • The greenest travel modes are walking, cycling and avoiding travel altogether, and programmes need to be in place for these modes too. The creation of continuous cycle networks, interconnected walkable streets, the encouragement of flexible working, job-sharing and satellite and home-working will all play a major part in this change toward a networked, sustainable city.


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