A green recovery must have public transport at its heart

We have had a glimpse of a world with clean air, but it is fading fast. The lockdown emptied the roads, cleared the skies and precipitated a 60% drop in nitrogen dioxide levels. However, as economies restart, global emissions have already bounced back to just 5% below pre-pandemic daily levels. And now as Government urges people to avoid public transport we risk gridlock on our roads and a surge in emissions to levels higher even than before the pandemic.

Commensurate to the scale of the challenge is the strength of sentiment that we cannot return to business as usual. Calls are growing from businesses and policy makers at all levels, including even the Prime Minister, that we must build back better.

We have learnt from past experience what doesn't work. The recovery following the 2008 financial crisis saw a sharp rebound in emissions due to a wave of carbon-intensive stimulus packages. Whilst it may be tempting to rely on familiar levers, green stimulus packages are proven to be more effective than traditional ones at supporting increased economic activity, generating higher numbers of jobs and long-run cost savings1.

A legacy of COVID-19 will be a sharpened focus on risk. The pandemic has demonstrated the unpreparedness of the global economy to systemic risks, despite early warnings from scientists. The public will be unforgiving if governments leave them exposed to future systemic shocks. We must put an end to economic short-termism and the maximisation of economic efficiency over the resilience of communities.

One of the biggest risks we are running right now is that we replace one health crisis with another. Transport is the main contributor to air pollution causing 40,000 early deaths a year. Diesel cars and vans are responsible for 70% of NOx emissions from transport. By discouraging use of public transport to ensure social distancing we remove one of the most efficient ways to tackle air pollution. A modern diesel bus produces fewer NOx emissions than a modern diesel car despite having the capacity to carry 20 times more passengers.

These aren't easy trade-offs. It is imperative that we do what we can to tackle immediate Covid crisis. But we need simultaneously to protect the essential foundations of any strategy to build back better, including promoting the responsible use of public transport as central to achieving net zero. Furthermore, recent research has demonstrated a direct link between long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, much of which comes from diesel cars, and higher infection and death rate from Covid-192. A spike in air pollution from increased car use would aggravate any future respiratory pandemic.

The massive increase in walking and cycling is one of the bright spots of the pandemic. The £2bn investment for active travel announced last month will further support this shift and is a welcome step in the right direction. However, not all journeys can be walked or cycled and bus travel is central to reducing emissions. Without decisive intervention, it could take years for public transport usage to resume to pre-pandemic levels, as confidence in the safety of the networks has eroded.

If public transport networks suffer long term damage, there will be serious consequences for society. Rising demand for car and van travel is the central reason why transport emissions remain stubbornly high. A double decker bus can take 75 cars off the road. And having reduced carbon emissions from its own fleet by a third, the bus sector has made more progress than any other form of road transport in decarbonising over the past decade. Public transport access has a vital to play in reducing deprivation and tackling loneliness. A 10% decrease in public transport connectivity is associated with a 3.6% increase in social deprivation. 77% of all job seekers, and 87% of young jobseekers, have no access to a car, van or motorbike and are completely reliant on their local bus networks. A third of people in the UK have deliberately caught the bus to have some human contact.

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing fault lines in the UK economy. The IFS has warned that Britain risks entrenching deep class, ethnic, gender, educational and geographical divides unless Government acts to tackle inequality. With the exception of key workers, most people in the bottom tenth of earnings are in sectors that have been forced to shut down, and 80% are either in a shut-down sector or are unable to do their job from home, compared with only a quarter of the highest earning tenth. The young and the BAME community have been disproportionately affected3.

As we move from the rescue phase to the recovery phase, it will be more important than ever that we protect the role of public transport. Covid-19 may have accelerated many structural changes already underway, for example digitalisation has revolutionised how we participate in the economy. However, the fundamental role of mass transit in facilitating essential economic activity, reducing emissions and providing equal access for all remains. The immediate priority for the forthcoming National Bus Strategy must be to reboot buses, but it must also maximise the wider social, economic and environmental benefits.

Government must double down on its levelling up agenda, push forward on net zero and focus on building a stronger more resilient economy. If we are to build back better from this global pandemic we need a green recovery with public transport at its heart.

Claire Haigh, one of the speakers at the Worldline webinar on 18th June discussing how public transport across the UK can build back better.


1. https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/publications/wpapers/workingpaper20-02.pdf

Clean energy infrastructure investment has positive high long run multiplier impact and positive climate impact. Airline bailouts without attaching climate conditions score lowest on both counts. It is interesting to note from this analysis that traditional transport infrastructure investment has high long run multiplier impact but negative climate impact. By contrast, connectivity infrastructure investment has potential high long run multiplier impact and positive climate impact. This would seem to support the Committee on Climate Change recommendation that the £27bn roads budget would be better spent investing in broadband.

2. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/link-between-air-pollution-covid-19-deaths-coronavirus-pandemic/

Almost 80% of deaths across four countries were in most polluted regions. Coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France, Germany 78% occurred in just 5 regions and these were the most polluted. Study concludes that long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide is one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by Covid-19 virus

3. https://www.ifs.org.uk/inequality/covid-19-and-inequalities/

Claire Haigh is CEO of Greener Journeys & Executive Director of Transport Knowledge Hub