We need to create a level playing field between public and private transport
Britain, like most of the industrialised world, has developed something of a motoring addiction. Passing your driving test has become an essential part of growing up, like graduation, or sneaking into a pub for the first time and asking for one of the three drinks you've heard of.
This is obvious when recent statistics from the Department for Transport (DfT) show that there are 34.7 million vehicles in the UK. The mind boggles at the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere by all these motors, and how much damage our commutes, trips to the shops and mini-breaks to the country are actually doing to the planet.
But what are the alternatives? We all need food, and the substitute of not driving to the supermarket is having the supermarket drive to us - which doesn't exactly help in terms of emissions.
These same statistics also showed the scale of public transport use throughout the country. Around 5.2 billion bus tickets were purchased in 2012, with the average person hopping on around 44 times. It sounds a lot, but it tends to be the same people getting on the same buses at the same stops. That may be great for ensuring that Gladys bumps into Ethel on the early bus to Dunston, but it doesn't do too much for getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. Add to this the fact that the average UK bus has only 9 passengers on it and the motivation to get bums on bus seats becomes clear.
But how exactly can this be done?
"We need to create a level playing field between public and private transport," says Andrew Allen from the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT). CBT is an independent charity set up around 40 years ago to promote affordable, green transport that is community based, rather than geared towards making a profit. They have previously supported protests against rising train fares, and are involved in a number of campaigns designed to improve public transport, including a ‘Save our Buses' scheme to fight bus funding cuts.
Schemes such as the Oyster card in London - which passengers can use on tube, train and bus services - help as they make it much more convenient for people to use public transport.
"I.T could also be used to improve services as well, such as real time information in bus shelters about when the next bus is." According to CBT, merging different types of public transport into a single interconnecting network, which allows passengers to jump on and off with the same ticket, is vital in showing drivers they can easily get where they want on public transport, and possibly for a cheaper price.
"We find that this works best where both train and bus services are run by one, single authority - such as in London and built up urban areas. Quality Bus Partnerships as they're called, such as Network St. Albans, are starting to address this by encouraging bus companies to work together, to increase the number of people using their services."
St. Albans is proof that schemes encouraging interconnectedness in public transport work, according to CBT. In this case, a body consisting of local government and business leaders, the University of Hertfordshire, local transport companies and passenger groups all joined together to form an organisation that runs transport in the area.
"It's a really good example because it's an affluent area with a high level of car ownership," explains Andrew. "But over the last 18 months bus companies have been working more closely together and bus patronage has gone up. It's a trend that we've seen continuously over the past couple of decades."
Of course, buses aren't the only mode of public transport that drivers can be lured onto to help the environment. If buses are responsible for ferrying would be car addicts around their local neighbourhood, then trains need to step in to get petrolheads from A to B nationwide - and there are signs this has already begun.
Again, DfT number crunchers claim there has been a 60% rise in the amount of people chugging along the rail network in the last decade, with the number of business trips by train tripling in that time. If these trends continue then the traditional ‘drive-time commute' could soon be overtaken by its track bound counterpart. So can the commuting revolution on railways spread to holidays and other journeys?
Andrew is confident that trains can prove to be just as useful as cars - whatever the excursion. "For some journeys, absolutely! We need a public transport system that works for as many people as possible, and across as many modes as possible. The cost of driving a car has gone up exponentially in recent years in terms of maintenance, tax and fuel. People should be in a position where they can make an informed choice about the transport options available to them."
"If you're heading to a rural location then the likelihood is that you will need a car, but if you're travelling between two major urban areas then public transport should be able to provide you with a viable alternative."
Yet there is certainly ample scope for buses to become greener. Tom Druitt is co-founder of Brighton-based bus company The Big Lemon, who specialise in powering their services using recycled vegetable oil from chip shops, restaurants and hotels - which is then converted into biodiesel.
"It isn't the holy grail in terms of sustainable travel as there isn't enough waste cooking oil in the country to power everything, so the main thing is still about cutting down on what you need," Tom explains.
"Once travel has been cut to a minimum, using things such as waste cooking oil could be the way forward. We're mainly about reducing the amount of car journeys that are needed, so we can reduce the burning of fossil fuels to the greatest extent possible."
This may be the case, but the reduction in greenhouse gases is still astounding when comparing a fleet of buses running on cooking oil based biodiesel to standard petrol, with a 75% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions alone. There's 79% less waste water and 96% less hazardous solid waste generated, with lower emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and virtually no sulphur dioxide released according to the Low Impact Living Initiative.
And just to add green icing to the carbon emissions cake, biodiesel decays four times quicker than mineral diesel, plus there's no need to go drilling in the Arctic for it as most restaurants can provide you with a decent supply. "I think most companies don't bother with it because it's a bit more hassle to source and to make sure your vehicles can run on it well. It's a bit more of a headache than going to the garage and filling up normally."
Tom thinks local councils could support similar schemes by improving how they support new, small-scale businesses. "Quite a lot of the barriers are actually put there inadvertently by councils. They need to look at the historical practices they use that make it harder to set up companies such as The Big Lemon. They could also look at their procurement practices and start-ups, and see how they are making it difficult for smaller companies to compete with already established businesses."
Car-sharing schemes are another alternative to the tonnes of CO2 released from manufacturing a new car and hurtling around in it for its 100,000-mile life cycle.
According to Dr Keith Tovey, an environmental scientist from the University of East Anglia, if the average number of people in a car increased from its current rate of 1.6 to 2, then British cars would release around 9 million less tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year. Carpooling network Liftshare estimate that around 91% of commuters travel alone, meaning a staggering 38 million empty car seats crawl to and from work every day. Just filling a quarter of these with other commuters could take 9.5 million cars off the road every morning and evening.
As well as the average member removing about a tonne a year from their carbon footprint, Liftshare also claim members save around £1,000 annually on petrol and car maintenance costs. Both environmentally and financially, carpooling really is the way forward!
Britain may be suffering from a petrol-crazed addiction, but there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel - whether it's seen through the window of a tube, bus or train. And while for the minute getting your driving license remains a rite of passage, projects focused more on the rights of passengers and the wider environment are slowly coming into play, ensuring a greener alternative exists for those unwilling to take their place in the latest rush hour, three-mile tailback.
So if you're travelling for work or play, the environment or your pocket, on public transport or as part of a carpool - one simple rule could make Britain's roads a whole lot greener.
Sharing. Is. Caring.
Paul Creeney is a freelance journalist focusing on environmental and human rights issues.