How can Britain’s cities get commuters out of their cars?

Those were the days: a traffic jam on the Embankment during the General Strike of 1926. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Last month the government published the first part of its clear air plan, with a particular focus on reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations (a second instalment targeting zero emissions for all road vehicles is due next year).

The government’s pledge to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 gained media headlines, but the plan also set out measures to address congestion pinch points on the roads, and to encourage greater use of public transport.

As such, the central issue for local government will be reducing car usage and its negative impact on air quality. But what is the relationship between car usage, other methods of transport and commuting patterns – and how does this play out across the country?

Analysis of the ONS data on distances and methods of transport chosen to travel to work in England and Wales shows that Milton Keynes is the car-use capital, with more than two thirds of commuters driving to work, reflecting the fact that the city was designed around car usage. Out of major cities (excluding London, which is an outlier because of its extensive public transport system), Birmingham has the highest car use, with 62 per cent of commuters driving to work. The lowest car commuting city is Brighton with only 39 per cent of commuters driving to work, 19 per cent using public transport and 23 per cent walking or cycling to work.

In trying to reduce car-use, targeting short journeys is likely to be more successful than longer ones. The ONS data shows that, in most cities, those commuting less than 5km distance still choose their car as their main method of transport. In Hull, for example, 54 per cent of people live less than 5km from their workplace, but 48 per cent of those take their car to go to work. In Cambridge, despite being the most popular place for cycling commuters, more than a third of those living in a 5 kilometres area still drive to work.

Looking even closer, it’s clear that only a very small share of commuters in cities who live 2km from their workplaces choose alternative forms of transport to driving. This trend is particularly strong in smaller cities such as Blackburn and Swansea, but is also an issue in major cities, where we might expect public transport provision to be more extensive. In Birmingham, for example, only 9 per cent of commuters living 2km away from work take public transport, while 44 per cent drive. In Bristol and Leeds, over a third of commuters in this group travel by car to work.

For most people, these distances could easily be walked or cycled, and in many cases using public transport would make their journeys faster. So how could cities begin to encourage people to make the switch from car use to alternatives for such short distances?

Improving public transport, by making it more attractive and reliable, is an obvious first step towards reducing private vehicle usage. In particular, targeting short car journeys that could easily be walked or cycled should be on top of the list for cities.

Introducing a congestion charge, modelled on London’s, should also be a consideration for the most congested cities. Not only would such a charge help to cut down car-use, it could also generate revenue to improve public transport, especially in less well-connected parts of cities (this was highlighted by the Centre as a priority for Greater Manchester’s mayor).

Of course different places will face different challenges. A clean air strategy in Cambridge, one of the most congested cities in the UK despite the popularity of cycling, won’t be the same as in Milton Keynes, where streets were built for expanding car usage. But it’s clear that for most cities, cutting down on car usage in the coming years and improving public transport should be important priorities.

Adeline Bailly is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.