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Decarbonising Transport

Decarbonising Transport

The target of achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is looming over every policy decision the government now takes. On March 26th, a consultation document that provides a fascinating insight into the future direction of transport policy was launched by the Department for Transport: “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge” (DfT 03/2020).

This document provides a vision for reducing transport-related carbon emissions by encouraging greater proportional use of public transport and active travel, and crucially encouraging everyone out of their cars. It’s a highly controversial idea that many transport planners and interested observers have known needs to happen for some time, but one which our government has largely avoided until now.

The DfT report sets out a series of strategies that could be the start of a huge shift in the government’s long held position on car use, which will impact all of us and require a cultural shift in the way we choose to go about our day-to-day lives.

The vision recognises that whilst private vehicle borne travel needs to be reduced, it is unrealistic to expect this to dramatically fall. With decarbonisation in mind, there is an aspiration to bring about a transformative uplift in the numbers of emissions-free electric vehicles on our streets, which also requires a significant increase in the number of charging facilities. There is a long way to go on this. Fully electric car sales increased by 144% between 2018 and 2019, yet still only account for 1.6% of total sales in 2019. In contrast, sales of petrol cars account for 64% of the market and sales grew by 2.2% in the same period (SMMT 01/2020). The biggest change in purchase trends appears to stem from buyers swapping purely diesel vehicles for hybrid or petrol vehicles. This isn’t enough.

It’s important to note that whilst electric cars may be almost emissions free, they won’t solve the UK’s traffic congestion issues. MA notes that one of the primary challenges that bus transport has is slow journey times along busy roads. This issue can become a real bottleneck for large-scale developments and if congestion cannot be addressed, then achieving meaningful modal shift to sustainable modes will remain a tall order in many suburban areas.

One thing that has really got us thinking; however, is what decarbonisation means for property developers and the wider planning system moving forward. Are we at the start of a momentous shift away from car-dominated housing estates and onerous parking policy requirements? Or will we remove the air-quality issue but retain or exacerbate the parking and congestion issue? Central London has already banned most private vehicles, but the streets remain clogged with delivery vans and taxis (The Guardian, 02/2020).

Thinking more optimistically, perhaps we are at the start of a shift toward forward-thinking, sustainable travel led design becoming mainstream; the type of approach already seen in areas of Europe, such as Vauban in Freiburg. Exciting times lie ahead for transport planners like us!

By Matthew Hunter
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