Transport planners – this is your moment!

If ever there has been a moment in time for transport planners to step up, step in and save the planet, then this is surely it. Recent events in the UK have converged to produce the opportunity of a lifetime, that we as a profession must seize and exploit to transform the sustainability of our transport systems.

Climate emergencies are breaking out across the country. Spurred on by the Extinction Rebellion protest and the amazing influence of 16-year old activist Greta Thunberg, the UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency, as have the Scottish and Welsh governments. A number of towns and cities have done the same, including Bristol, London and Manchester.

Whilst the legal implications of these declarations are unclear, there is an obvious ambition to become carbon neutral as soon as possible, at least by 2030 rather than the government's target to reduce carbon emissions by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. And progress needs to be significant in our sector, with surface transport now the largest source of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with the trend actually rising from 2013 to 2017.

And air quality is reaching crisis levels in many of our towns and cities. Estimates vary but there are certainly tens of thousands of air pollution-related deaths in the UK each year. Whilst this pollution comes from many sources, it is clear that the major threat to clean air is posed by transport emissions.

So why is this our moment and what can we do? Two things are vital. We need to draw on all of our skills and experience to reduce the emissions of individual vehicles and reduce the demand for motorised transport.

The Committee on Climate Change's Net Zero report on the UK's contribution to stopping global warming identifies a number of surface transport interventions needed. It has a strong focus on low-carbon vehicles, such as electric or plug-in hybrid cars - it needs all cars and vans to be electric and all HGVs to have very low emissions by 2050.

This means that we transport planners need to be urgently planning for a large-scale shift in infrastructure and policy to support the mass roll out of electric vehicles. We need to plan for this infrastructure in car parks, in residences and in commercial developments. We also need to develop policies to support the shift, such as restrictions on non-electric vehicles in urban centres and other particularly sensitive areas.

Positive as that would be, we also need to provide high-quality infrastructure for walking and cycling as alternatives to the car. We need to ensure that new developments are designed with really convenient access to public transport. Of course most of us have been trying to do this for years, but there is a new urgency to focus on these outcomes even more strongly in our day-to-day work. We need to create successful places where people can live, work and play without being dependent on or impacted by the negative effects of cars, in particular.

One other recent development may hold the answer to achieving the above - the perennial debate on road user charging is back with a vengeance. The London Mayor's Transport Strategy (2018) stated that it will investigate proposals for the next generation of road user charging systems. And the recent Centre for London report on next generation road user charging rises to that challenge, setting out a proposal for how London should lead the way in making the most of new technology by replacing the growing patchwork of road charges with a fairer, simpler and smarter single digital platform.

With a number of cities already planning Clean Air Zones, where dirtier vehicles will be charged for access to urban centres, you really get the sense that we will be paying for vehicle use very differently in the not too distant future.

So let's consider that in our planning, and let's not be afraid to be more radical about bold active travel schemes, to ban polluting vehicles from our town and city centres, and to consider very different scenarios for how we use and pay for car use in future.

People's views on climate change and the environment are developing rapidly. Whilst the transport system has improved dramatically in a number of areas in my lifetime, we still need radical change when it comes to a shift to more sustainable modes. Transport planners often know the right answer, but we have struggled to persuade our clients or key decision-makers of the need for fundamental change. Their views may now be changing.

So let's harness this wider shift in attitude, and use it to our advantage to get the public and the people that represent them behind us.
Let's engage and have a dialogue with each other, with other professions, and with decision makers.

Let's be bold and ambitious in our everyday work to help shift the transport system to one that truly supports a reduction in emissions and one that improves air quality. This will surely have much wider benefits for people, by improving health outcomes and creating great streets, great urban centres, great transport hubs, and great places to live.

Transport planners – this is your moment, don't miss it!

Stephen Bennett is Chair of the Transport Planning Society