To combat climate change, we need radical changes in the way we commute

This is fine. Image: Getty.

This year the average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has hit its highest level in 800,000 years. Yet without urgent efforts to reduce emissions, concentrations, and the damage caused by climate change, this concentration will continue to grow.

One of the sectors where CO2 emissions continue to rise is transport. Recent analysis of the carbon budget suggests that petrol and diesel car sales will have to end by 2030 in order to counter this trend.

We all understand the implications of driving, in terms of CO2 and other emissions, and many of us are acting to do something to reduce the extent of our impacts. So why is this not translating into a reduction in emissions?

The reasons are many, varied, and complex:

  • The move to heavier, and therefore less fuel efficient cars, as the ‘high-end’ car market becomes increasingly dominant;

  • There may be implications of a shift away from diesel to petrol engines as consumers respond to air quality issues. Diesel combustion emits more material that affects air quality, while petrol emits higher levels of CO2;

  • We continue to invest heavily in roads, while neglecting other modes of transport, stimulating more car travel. And this doesn’t even include air travel – another growth area for carbon emissions.

Travel patterns are changing. On the motorway network there is significant traffic growth. And the baby boomers who are entering retirement now have higher car ownership levels than previous cohorts and drive more.

But in major cities, traffic levels have reduced and more people reach the centre by public transport. Young people are learning to drive later and are making fewer trips by car. Young men (17-29 years) are making 44 per cent fewer trips, and young women 26 per cent fewer trips, by car than they were in 1992-94.

These trends suggest that, through our continued investment in a huge roads programme, we are providing for travel demand that future generations may not generate. Worse, we risk locking in the most damaging aspects of travel demand by continually developing the road network.


Some of the problems associated with investing in roads were spelled out recently in a report published by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, based on research by Sustrans, UWE and Nef. The report considers specifically whether there may be alternatives to the £1.4bn proposal for a new stretch of M4 around Cardiff and Newport. It discusses the extent to which the proposal would exacerbate societal and environmental challenges, including the impacts that run counter to the needs of future generations.

The fact that emissions from transport in Wales have only decreased by 3 per cent since 1990 emphasises the need to think differently about transport provision. Apart from anything else, the development is unlikely to be effective in alleviating congestion. Much better options are offered, including improved provision for walking and cycling.

Lifestyle changes key to the decarbonisation of the transport system

A Decarbonising Transport in Wales report, published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, argues that “it is only by changing its relationship with the automobile that Wales can hope to meet its environmental targets”. The report acknowledges that transport in Wales is dominated by roads, and that most emissions emanate from the private car.

But the current reliance on technical solutions, primarily electrification of the private vehicle fleet, will not do enough to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough. The report considers options for reducing car use and mitigating its negative effects, including greater application of 20mph speed limits, a review of parking policy and consideration of ways of increasing the costs of car use to bring it closer in line with the costs of public transport. The report also considers how travel mode choice can be influenced by “changing the relationship with the car, stripping away its role as a status symbol”, possibly by moving away from private ownership to a pay per use model. It also suggests that electric vehicles are only an adequate solution in some settings, such as rural areas.

Similarly, another recent paper, which modelled pathways to lower carbon emissions in Scotland, argues that energy consumption and pollutant emissions from transport are greatly influenced by lifestyle choices and socio-cultural factors. Policies to change travel demand patterns can be implemented sooner, and will impact more significantly, to achieve emissions reduction.

Both of the papers are unequivocal about the role that walking and cycling needs to play in achieving decarbonisation of the transport system. If the UK is to make its contribution to worldwide efforts to stave off the very worst effects of climate change, we need to act fast on UK transport policy, and to urgently rebalance transport investment patterns. We need to prioritise demand management and behaviour change measures above our reliance on technological fixes, and to cease investment in transport solutions that serve an historic and damaging paradigm.

Dr Andy Cope is director of insight at transport campaign group Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.