Governments should make it as easy to quit driving as to recycle

Amsterdam, where cycling is easier. Image: Getty.

Our reliance on cars means they get an easy ride in the fight on toxic emissions. Transport is the worst performing sector for carbon emissions, down only 3 per cent since 1990, and cars emit 18 per cent of all the CO2 in the UK. Cars are also a huge contributor to our air quality crisis, with 60 per cent of particulate matter coming from vehicles in London, and in places where legal limits are being broken they are responsible for 80 per cent of NO2 emissions.

Carbon emissions from cars continue to rise in all parts of the world. The common factor is that it’s politically off-limits to tell people they can’t go somewhere because of climate change.

However, people are increasingly aware of their impact on the climate. A YouGov poll published today by Sustrans has revealed that 83 per cent of parents said their awareness of environmental problems had increased in the last year. Over three in five (61 per cent) of those have reduced plastic usage, followed by recycling more (57 per cent) and walking for shorter journeys (38 per cent).

However, almost a third (27 per cent) of respondents said the inconvenience of planning a sustainable journey was a key barrier, and 26 per cent cited the cost. The survey shows there is public appetite to travel more sustainably, but families need the right infrastructure to help them act.

I recently travelled from Edinburgh to Corfu without going on a plane. It’s possible to get from the UK to Corfu by train and ferry in 36 hours. And just like cycling through town, overland travel makes it easy to break up a journey so that you can stop off somewhere interesting. My route from Edinburgh used the ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam, where clean, efficient, comfortable trains can take you on wherever you fancy.

I took my time, stopping in Utrecht, Dusseldorf, Innsbruck and Bologna, before a ferry from Ancona to Greece. Watching the geography and greenery of Europe pass by was beautiful and it makes you value the distance you cover.

What made this easy was high-quality public transport. If people are to choose walking, cycling and public transport, this needs to be quick, affordable and convenient.

Closer to home, National Cycle Network makes it possible for 4.4 million people to travel actively every year, to work, school or for leisure.


Research by the University of Oxford demonstrates that walking or cycling can realistically substitute 41 per cent of short car trips, saving nearly 5 per cent of CO2 emissions from car travel. In combination with better public transport that’s a 12 per cent reduction in CO2 by 2030.

Electric vehicles are being developed, and they will help. But the energy they use is far from zero-carbon and they have a limited impact on reducing air pollution: 75 per cent of particulate matter from vehicles in London comes from tyre and brake wear, which electric cars won’t change.

So making active travel and public transport networks as convenient as driving is the only answer we have to tackle carbon emissions and pollution.  

Really making walking and cycling an easier choice requires money and cross-government action.

Public spending tells you how much of a priority walking and cycling is. Only 2 per cent of transport spending in England goes on walking and cycling. Outside London, it’s about £2 per person ringfenced for cycling and walking. This isn’t enough to prompt change. Scotland is comparatively lucky to see almost £16 per head spent on active travel. Wales isn’t far behind on £10 per head. We need more than this, but a similar level of investment across the UK would be a good start.

Our survey found that walking, followed by cycling are seen as the top sustainable ways to travel and our villages, towns and cities need to reflect this with more space for people on foot and cycles. There is public support for taking space from vehicles, like car parking, to make room for dedicated cycleways and wider pavements.

Individual choice is important, but on its own is not going to win the battle on carbon emissions. Government has the pivotal role to ensure that our streets and recreational areas promote walking and cycling and that everyone has reliable, affordable public transport options.

Alexander Quayle is senior policy officer as Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

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