Decarbonising transport outside cities

In discussions about transport and decarbonisation, there is a strongly expressed view from some quarters that while it might be possible to decarbonise transport in cities, outside these there is no alternative to cars for any of the journeys people make and that any attempts to reduce car use outside cities are unrealistic.

Yet the levels of carbon emissions from transport in places outside cities are substantial. As Richard Walker at the University of Leeds has shown, non-metropolitan districts account for 63% of the population and 74% of transport carbon emissions. Shire counties have transport carbon emissions per head over twice the level of London and almost two thirds higher than the met districts. Districts classified as rural account for 21% of population and 32% of transport carbon.

So if we are to decarbonise transport, then transport outside as well as inside cities needs to be addressed. There has been less policy and research attention on this, so this year the University of Hertfordshire's Smart Mobility Unit, where I'm a visiting professor, has been running a set of roundtables to explore options for the future of transport outside cities. And the good news is that, once you dig down, there are lots of ideas, good practice and research that suggest ways to tackle transport problems in non urban areas. These are some of the directions of travel we uncovered:

First, public transport can be made an option outside cities. Of course, Covid has taken its toll here, but the opportunities for safe public transport are still there. Cornwall's "one public transport network" plan, with an integrated timetable linking buses and trains, good interchanges, a single brand and a single ticketing system with contactless payment on all operators (paid for partly by the Local Enterprise Partnership), offers some features that can transfer elsewhere (see here). There is also lots of interest in demand responsive transport, and a wide range of services. Some are reshaped bus services responding to apps or phone calls, like ArrivaClick, powered by ViaVan - and, while others are aggregating demand for business or education travel and co-ordinating existing coach or taxi operators to provide the services (see Zeelo and Tandem). There is a debate on how far DRT can and should supplement or replace fixed route services – and even those involved acknowledge that some authorities have unrealistic expectations of what it can do. But it is clear that the environmental and social benefits justify funding a mix of fixed route, demand responsive and – vey importantly - community transport, as a real alternative to many car journeys.

Second, there is active travel. Even outside cities, many journeys currently made by car are very short and could transfer to active travel modes with the right conditions, infrastructure and support. The "propensity to cycle" tool developed by Dr Rachel Aldred and colleagues at the University of Westminster has ben applied to many smaller towns and rural areas, see can also substitute for short car journeys, if given priority on roads and at junctions. And there is good evidence of the potential for e-bikes in providing an alternative for longer car trips; recent research suggested that e-bikes could cut carbon emissions by up to 50%, especially outside cities. Building wide lanes for e-bikes alongside main roads linking towns, as the Danish Government is doing, would provide the infrastructure to support widespread use. E-cargo bikes can offer first/last mile distribution even in small rural settlements, see

Third, there is lift sharing and new mobility options: given low densities and spread out travel patterns, increasing car occupancy looks like a good bet for reducing carbon outside cities. The Commission of Travel Demand reviewed this last year and found significant opportunity for cutting carbon through shared transport. Many employers and others outside cities have developed liftshare schemes – the organisation Liftshare has worked with these. Car clubs and shared bike and e-bike schemes, and the new e-scooter trials also offer alternatives to traditional single-occupancy/privately owned cars in rural areas. See

Finally there is the idea of mobility/accessibility hubs. These can bring together transport services in a single place; at hubs in other countries bus, trains and tram services meet, local (shared) taxis and e-bikes can be hired and there can also be local car hire or car clubs. However, some argue that we should think about "accessibility hubs" – with local services, cafes and workspaces, where people can work remotely but not at home, can receive deliveries of goods ad can meet others. This seems very appropriate in the post Covid environment.

There are a lot of other features that the roundtables discussed – spatial planning, visitor travel, public engagement and the need for long term funding and planning frameworks for decarbonising transport outside cities, as argued for example here. We will be writing up the roundtables and reporting on them later this year. But I was struck at just how many people are out there thinking about this, from all sorts of different angles, and we are now looking at how to continue the networking the roundtables have started.

Stephen Joseph is a visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire Smart Mobility Unit and a member of the DfT's Net Zero Transport Board. The roundtables were supported by the DfT, England's Economic Heartland, Gascoyne Estates, Hertfordshire County Council and the Connected Places Catapult.

This blog was published as part of the Decarbonising Transport series with Greener Transport Solutions