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.

 
 
 
 

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.