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UK transport is heading in the wrong direction

There was some disappointing news from the transport sector in our most recent report to Parliament. Whilst new cars continue to meet tighter and tighter emissions standards last year, that was more than offset by increased usage of cars as total kilometres travelled rose from 386 to 394 billion kilometres. This is one of the main factors that caused emissions from transport to actually increase in 2014 from 25% to 28% of the UK total.

The Government’s target of an 80% reduction in UK greenhouse gases by 2050 will require our cars to be practically zero emission by mid-century. Whilst the Committee on Climate Change projects this will be achieved in the long term with ultra-low emission vehicles or ULEVs (for example, battery electric, hydrogen, plug-in hybrids) there are many quicker and cheaper ways to reduce emissions now.

Brighton and Hove, for example, has made a series of sustainable transport improvements by investing in better bus services, installing cycle contraflows and 20mph zones, and upgrading public spaces. Together, these changes make walking, cycling and taking the bus a much more attractive option. Car ownership in Brighton is currently the lowest in South East England, cycling to work doubled between 2001 and 2011, as did the number of bus journeys between 1993 and 2013.

Central and local government recognise the benefits of reducing car use, not just to help cut emissions – nearly 60% of UK road transport emissions are from cars – and meet climate change targets, but also to improve air quality and health, save money and increase employment through improved transport to work. As a result, projects up and down the country are aiming to get us out of our cars and walking, cycling or on the bus instead.

So what’s the problem?

As a nation, we love our cars. In 2013, about half of the UK adult population drove most days. Yet about 40% of car trips are less than 3 miles long and, most of the time, our cars aren’t being used.

If we are to successfully reduce our emissions from transport in the long-term, a shift in our relationship with our vehicles will help. For that to happen we also need good, reliable alternatives that get us where we want to be, when we want to be there. Given that about 80% of the UK population live in urban areas, focusing on cities is the obvious place to start.

Just like in Brighton, small steps are being taken to make the UK’s transport more sustainable by providing us with alternatives to driving. But has enough been done for you to give up your car? Probably not.

Our transport needs are diverse and sporadic, so our transport services need to be fully integrated, and offer a consistently better option than driving, to stop us getting behind the wheel. There are multiple cities around the world we can take lessons from.

Amsterdam is one. In the Dutch capital, about 63% of residents use their bike on a daily basis on the 500km of bike paths available. In Zurich, 46% of all journeys were made by foot in 2010, a result of city planning since 1977. And in Copenhagen’s pedestrianised shopping area Strøget, which began in 1962, 80% of all inner city journeys are estimated to be made on foot.

It’s clear that a city without cars needs to have well maintained, easy to navigate walking paths, safe and direct cycle lanes, reliable bus services and an extensive rail network. Roads need to be reallocated to buses, cyclists and walkers or given up in favour of green spaces.

Time for a change

Perhaps advances in technology and concerns over air quality could finally provide the push we need to effect real change on the UK’s roads.

High tech solutions are being developed every day, helping to make our lives easier. Now we can find a spare room in almost any city in the world, borrow a car from our neighbours, share a ride with people we’ve never met or plan a travel route to our exact specifications. Giving up your wheels doesn’t have to mean compromising your freedom.

With air quality a serious problem up and down the country, and devolution high on the Government’s agenda, local authorities have the opportunity to revolutionise their roads.

Some changes are already being made across the UK; from active travel promotion in Scotland to discounted bus travel for young people in Wales. However, for the scale and pace of change required, more effort is required to share best practice and to better understand what works.

Providing they receive the appropriate support, greater control over implementation and new abilities to raise revenue, local governments can play a leading role in cutting carbon emissions and reducing fatalities from air pollution, while ensuring our towns and cities are better places to live and work.