Building the Covid-19 recovery on sustainable transport
The effect of Covid-19 on transport has been seismic, but as the UK begins the process of recovery, the need for sustainable transport has only strengthened, says Darren Shirley, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport.
And while the Government’s support during the crisis has sustained the sector so far, the planning, design, scope, scale, funding and management of transport all need to be explored in the changing context.
In their new report, Covid-19 Recovery: Renewing the Transport System, they look at how to transform the transport system to facilitate economic growth, meet legal obligations around carbon emissions and air quality, and tackle social exclusion.
In it they call for a world-leading public transport network with improved connectivity; 100 per cent zero-emission road transport and railway; permanent improvements to sustain greater levels of walking and cycling; and changes to the way transport is paid for, including new means to raise revenue.
Lockdown led to immediate impacts on both the amount, and the way we travel. At its lowest point car use dropped to a quarter of its usual level, whereas cycling increased two fold and nearly three times its previous levels on weekends.
This drop in motor traffic resulted in significant air quality improvements, with a 60 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide concentrations in many cities. In central London average nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell by 40 per cent during the lockdown, in addition to a 44 per cent reduction before the lockdown due to the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission Zone.
In order to maintain and build on these improvements – and ultimately achieve net zero carbon emissions – we need improvements to road infrastructure to support active travel, public transport and zero emission vehicles.
In the short term as we continue to emerge from the crisis, the use of road space will need to be managed to prevent an overloading of the road network. Recent polling suggests six in ten people are more likely to drive than to use public transport as travel restrictions are relaxed, and as the number of journeys permissible increases, there should be clear communication on what is acceptable travel so that road space is utilised more efficiently.
Active travel and public transport should be encouraged as a first choice, with car journeys discouraged. To provide an alternative for residual private car journeys that cannot be easily walked or cycled or done by public transport, shared mobility, such as car clubs and car pooling, should be facilitated.
Longer term, road layouts should be carefully planned with sufficient segregated provision for pedestrians, cyclists and buses so that reliable journey times can be maintained, particularly if temporary measures already instated are to be made permanent. London’s Streetspace plan includes a number of examples where separate cycle and bus lanes have been maintained alongside general traffic, as well as car-free, cycling-and public-transport-only streets on key corridors.
As the pace of electrification of road transport grows, a new approach to road funding is needed. Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and fuel duty need to be replaced with a road use charging mechanism that is better for the consumer and business. Technology currently available would allow a more sophisticated approach to charging based on distance travelled, time of day, location, and level of emissions and impact on the environment of the vehicle. Such variable, distance-based charging would reflect the impacts of individual journeys more appropriately and, unlike clean air zones or congestion charges, account for both pollution and congestion at the same time.
Local authorities in England have had the power to implement road use charging since 2000, but this needs to be simplified and accompanied by new guidance. The government should also introduce a national distance-based charging scheme that local transport authorities can participate in. A national scheme would also apply to the Strategic Road Network, with revenue retained by Highways England for road maintenance.
As the UK begins the process of recovery, the Government must now focus its ambition on accelerating the shift to sustainable transport, and the delivery of infrastructure improvements that facilitate this, to ensure that transport better serves communities across the country.
Read Covid-19 Recovery: Renewing the Transport System on Campaign for Better Transport’s website.