Climate crisis: Urban transport’s key role in how we respond

Whether it's images of water cascading down the steps of underground stations, asphalt road surfaces melting or railway lines buckling, we are increasingly being served visual reminders that the effects of climate change are already impacting our transport systems.

And each year when official statistics are published, the contribution of transport to the UK's greenhouse gas emissions is confirmed: transport is the largest emitting sector (26% of total emissions in 2021), a position it has stubbornly remained in since 2016.

So, we are faced with the dual challenge of reducing emissions from transport whilst also adapting our transport infrastructure to the more extreme weather conditions we are experiencing.

Fortunately, our member city regions are responding to the crisis. All of member areas have ambitious targets for achieving net zero carbon emissions in the coming years, with the decarbonisation of transport a key part of this.

In the capital, Transport for London has a wide-ranging plan to achieve the Mayor's goal of ensuring London is carbon neutral by 2030. Key aspects of this strategy are converting London's bus fleet to zero emissions, removing fossil fuels and increasing renewable energy use in its operations, reducing energy demand, and reusing waste heat from the tube network to supply local buildings.

Elsewhere, like in the West Midlands, Transport for West Midlands is proposing a 'green transport revolution', with a vision for travel that ensures people can thrive without having to drive or own a car. It is seeking to achieve this by electrifying transport, reducing traffic and improving accessibility on its journey to achieving a net zero carbon region by 2041.

Greater Manchester also has its sights on being a carbon neutral city region by 2038. Its Bee Network, which will include the UK's largest cycling and walking network, is a key part of this, as is the tram system, which is powered entirely by electricity produced from clean energy sources.

As part of their efforts, city regions are also improving the resilience of their transport systems in response to a range of weather events from heavy rain and flooding to stronger winds and extreme heat.

Last year, TfL published its Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which both acknowledged the impacts already disrupting its transport services and identified its assets most at risk such as bridges, drainage and signalling systems. The plan sets out the key areas where action is needed, including leadership and governance, risk management, and capital and operational delivery. And even more recently, the Green Infrastructure and Biodiversity Plan sets out how TfL will meet its commitments to enhance and support green infrastructure and biodiversity across the 2,300 hectares of its land, almost a third of which is covered by vegetation. Actions include boosting tree canopy cover, planting wildflower verges and installing Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS).

As advocates of urban public transport, we encourage the use of public transport and active travel options as an alternative to private car use. But as our recent Inside track report shows, we face a challenging backdrop. Whilst overall people are travelling less than they did 10 years ago, bus use is well below what it was (1.2 billion fewer trips in 2022/23 than 2013/14), cycling rates have remained largely static and the car is still king – by far the most popular travel mode.

These are clearly worrying statistics in the context of the climate crisis. We need to do more to get people back on public transport (and to walk and wheel where possible) as well as decarbonising fossil fuelled vehicles, including cars, buses, vans and other freight vehicles. Not only is this dictated by our legally binding climate change targets (to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050) and regional climate commitments, but also by the necessity for cleaner air within cities, and to mitigate against these more extreme weather-related events.

Our shared goal of transport decarbonisation cannot be achieved in isolation. We need to recognise that the transport sector also faces other challenges that must be overcome: we need to rethink how we sustainably fund our transport networks so that they are affordable for both passengers and operators; we need to restore trust in public transport that has been damaged by disruptions and service reductions; and we need to ensure that transport delivers social value and reflects the needs of the diverse communities that it serves. Only by tackling these issues together, can we create a truly sustainable (in all senses of the word) transport system which supports thriving places. I'm pleased that the Urban Transport Group will be producing future work which seeks to address these challenges and present solutions for how we can move more quickly to achieve this outcome.

There are clearly a range of different approaches being taken to both reduce emissions and improve the resilience of transport infrastructure. What unites them is ambition and a holistic approach, covering not just transport but wider place-making, to address this monumental challenge. Such local and regional action could, however, be further supported by a clear, ambitious and cross-modal strategic approach at a national level. A long-term transport strategy, underpinned by sustainable capital and revenue funding commitments and backed across government departments, would support our members as they develop and implement their own plans.