I recently participated in the DfT roundtables on decarbonising transport, making the case for a radical policy experiment to trial a substantial shift away from car use.
We need radical thinking about policy implementation, because we need to go much further and faster than current European best practice. A 2008 Lancet study found that to meet London's 2030 carbon targets would mean getting rid of private cars across Greater London. While London has made great strides in reducing car use, like other global cities, we're a long way from this. Other UK urban areas, and more broadly freight and servicing, seem even more stuck in a high-carbon groove.
So we need much more than bus priority and bike tracks, important as these are. Nor will tech save us: we can hardly wait for electric vehicles to percolate through the fleet, when right now 40% of new cars sold are SUVs and full EVs less than 2%. We need a radical shift in how transport systems are organised, allied to changes in other systems that affect transport demand (e.g. work, retail, housing).
Yet even small, localised changes that threaten the dominance of private cars – like low-traffic neighbourhoods – frequently meet loud and vehement opposition. While consultations and surveys often show this is a minority view, it frequently stops any change.
Complicating matters further, it is genuinely hard to predict the impacts of changes, and which barriers can be overcome more easily than we thought (and vice versa). For instance, many academics traditionally assumed our teaching had to involve face-to-face interaction. Under Covid-19, however, much has effectively moved online, with many of us surprised how well things have worked, even with hasty changes out of necessity.
So while we may think we know in advance the barriers to change, and its impacts, we rarely do until we try. We are often change averse, understandably. Yet change can bring unanticipated benefits, as well as showing us which are the truly immovable barriers, and what mitigating measures are needed to help those disproportionately affected by these.
Hence, I propose a low carbon experiment. This would cover an urban area outside London, with radical targets to reduce car use, and funding and new powers available to the transport authority and other relevant organisations.
Targets would be translated into organisation-level changes: for instance, a large office would commit to closing 90% of its commuter car parking spaces by a given date. In consultation with staff and the transport authority, it would develop a package of measures to make this possible. The remaining car parking would be prioritised; for instance, as Blue Badge spaces.
For the 90% of spaces that would disappear, detailed and realistic plans would be developed for employees. Some could work from home or local co-working hubs, with support provided. Others might switch to public transport, given incentives or additional services (such as a collective bus).
Others could potentially cycle, jog, or walk, and scrutiny of routes needed would help local authorities create experimental schemes including protected bike tracks, new walking cut throughs and priority crossings. The employers could provide e-bike hire, and facilities for changing and showering. This would all happen quickly, at scale across the region, supplemented by changes in other areas, such as School Streets to facilitate active school travel.
One benefit would be freeing up large amounts of space dedicated to cars. The workplace mentioned above would suddenly have space available for other uses, and staff could help decide on this. Surface car parks might become workplace gardens, allotments, or outdoor dining areas. Basements would have different (indoor) possibilities. We could find out what people might create if we stopped putting cars first.
The experiment would be constantly monitored and evaluated, with a participatory 'Living Lab' approach. To succeed, zero carbon transport must create substantial co-benefits (e.g. better health) and must not reproduce existing inequalities, whereby those with most need of private cars often have least access. So it will be crucial to ensure that groups such as disabled people and single parents get the mitigation measures they need to benefit from this radical shift: such as priority access to the private motorised mobility that continues to exist, alongside inclusive active and public transport infrastructure planning. For instance, women are more likely to make trips with children than men, so building bike routes that are unsafe for children perpetuates male bias in cycle planning.
A zero emissions experiment has the potential to trial and test radical social and environmental change, forming a blueprint for others to follow. Can we afford not to try it?