If Labour really want to solve Britain’s transport problems, they should redirect road funding to buses

Mmmmmm buses. Image: Getty.

Good policy has three elements: it correctly identifies a problem, it finds an adequate solution, and it ticks both those boxes in a way that can command enduring popular support.

Labour has a new transport pledge: to cut train fares by a third by redirecting funds from the Department for Transport’s road-building budget towards further subsidising train fares. The problem is correctly identified: successive British governments have become addicted to building more and more roads, which stokes further demand to use them, which increases the amount of car journeys – and the only way the United Kingdom can meaningfully meet even the Conservative Party’s 2050 zero-carbon target, let alone Labour’s much more ambitious 2030 pledge, is to sharply reduce the number of individual car journeys in the United Kingdom.

Electric vehicles can reduce the carbon footprint for essential journeys, which will largely be the preserve of deliveries to private homes and businesses, and to people such as carpenters and plumbers, whose jobs cannot be adequately delivered by public transport alone. But private consumption is going to have to reduce, which means drastically increasing the availability and quality of public transport – and discouraging, via the removal of hidden subsidies, the use of car ownership.

What about the solution: those subsidised train fares? Well, this bit isn’t as good. Why? Because while increasing the availability, quality and frequency of train journeys is part of reducing the number of individual journeys by car, it is only a part, and it is the part that takes the longest to do. High Speed Two, a vital part of increasing the capacity of the United Kingdom’s railways, is going to take decades. In addition, train travel will never be able to solely replace car ownership alone. Other modes of public transport will play a bigger role.

The argument being put about by some, that the subsidy is bad because it targets “middle-class” or middle- to upper-income voters, is I think a bad one. Ultimately we all urgently need everyone, regardless of where they are in the income distribution, to take fewer individual car journeys and to use public transport more. That will likely involve a degree of subsidy. We, in any case, have been intensely relaxed about – in common with the rest of the democratic world – large subsidies, both overt and hidden, towards personal car usage.

The problem is that this subsidy isn’t being targeted at the most effective agent of reducing car ownership around – buses – but is instead being spent on trains.

Governments could and should do more in terms of increasing railway infrastructure, but in the short-term, the easiest, quickest and most effective way of doing that is by spending more money on bus journeys. This sounds obvious, but it bears repeating: it takes a matter of months to get a new bus on the road. It takes considerably longer to increase train capacity. British trains are already over capacity, which is why they are almost always so crowded. The United Kingdom badly needs to fix this, but in order to hit all three parties' climate targets, the immediate solution of buses is require. Bus journeys are, any case, always going to form the backbone of a decent public transport system. Labour should instead divert these funds into cutting bus fares, not train fares, by a third.

Doing this would build on the already very positive direction of travel in Labour's transport plans, of diverting funds to buses and away from cars and road-building. Vehicle excise duty will go towards providing free bus travel for the under-25s - a crucial demographic because if you don't start using a private car, then successive governments don't have to spend ages working out how to wean you off it. Another large chunk of the roadbuilding budget has been diverted into not only reversing cuts to bus routes since 2010, but to effectively double the UK's bus services. 

So why, given Labour already has a very serious offer on buses, not give people commuting by train a little bit extra? In addition to the issues already discussed, there are other reasons why, in Labour's shoes, I'd be putting my fare subsidy on buses not trains. 

It comes back to the third part of the equation: is this a policy solution that can command enduring public support? I use the word “enduring” for a reason: decreasing train fares is obviously going to be popular. But if you want the level of system change necessary to reduce our carbon footprint, you need it not just to be popular today but in a year’s time, and indeed for it to be so popular that it commands cross-party consensus. In the short term, because of the longterm neglect of railway infrastructure and the pressure on existing services, it's not clear if you can increase the number of people commuting by train - and those who do commute will do so in increasingly crowded conditions in the short term, potentially triggering a backlash. 

The advantage of using the money freed up from the roads budget to subsidising bus fares is that the benefit is swift and immediate – over the course of a parliament, you will see real shifts from car ownership to bus travel. The more popular and widely-used alternatives to car ownership are, the harder they are to unpick. We can see this in London, which, because of its far more advanced and widely used bus system, was the only public transport system in the United Kingdom to survive the 1980s passion for deregulating and defunding bus services almost unscathed.

So Labour has correctly identified the problem: but if it wants to meet its climate targets, it is bus fares, not train fares, that it should be further subsidising.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

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