Large cities have the mass to steer society and industry onto a pathway that is greener, more socially inclusive and more sustainable than the one we’re on at present. In this contribution to London Climate Action Week, Neil Henderson explains how.
Some big numbers. 9M people served by Transport for London. 2.7M by Transport for Greater Manchester. 11M by Transport for the West Midlands.
The travel choices and habits of those 22.7M people – nearly a third of the UK population – are tightly bound up with some of today’s big, difficult problems including climate change and public health. Far too many of us are making journeys by car, and the Earth, our families, friends and colleagues are paying for it. Surface transport is responsible for a quarter of UK greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018 research by the Universities of Bath and Oxford for environmental charity Global Action Plan indicated that pollution from UK road traffic is responsible for 10,000 premature deaths and costs the NHS £6bn a year.
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and breathe life back into our cities, it is clear that everyone is eager to resume ‘normality’, but also that the new normal won’t be the same as before. Professionals embraced homeworking and are reluctant to give it up entirely – office occupancy levels and patterns won’t fully return. Online retailing is here to stay. Social distancing may have permanently reduced people’s tolerance of being crammed together. And perhaps we’re more willing now to work together – and with government and experts – for the common good.
Right now, public transport use remains depressed despite economic buoyancy. For transport operators, getting bus, tram and train ridership up is an important challenge – but big cities have an opportunity to build on the changes of the last year, and the critical mass to steer further change that will reduce emissions and benefit health. Indeed, cities can lead change for the country, with gains achieved extending to other cities, towns and rural communities.
Take London. The capital generates about a third of the UK’s carbon emissions. Mayor Sadiq Khan wants London to be carbon neutral by 2030 and has set out a ‘green new deal’. Transport has a key role in the deal. The mayor has overall responsibility for most of the travel network so can shape transport policy, encourage different travel behaviours, and use procurement to shape supply chains. The capital already has a co-ordinated city-wide transport system, but it can be shaped further to encourage active travel – walking and cycling – and to find new solutions for ‘last mile’ journeys.
With energy companies’ co-operation, the infrastructure for an electricity- and hydrogen-powered transport system can be laid down. (London already has one quarter of the UK’s entire electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the mayor has committed to support the rollout of the more than 44,000 charging points across the city by 2030. Other UK mayors are looking to increase access to EV charging in their cities too.) New zero-emission public transport vehicle fleets can be brought into service.
Behavioural insight and change
To guide the change, it is essential to better understand why and how people travel, their choices, behaviours and patterns. Digital technologies provide the means to gather, manage and analyse data as never before. Research carried out for us by Lane 4, a consultancy specialising in creating high-performing teams, found that by forcing people to work remotely, the pandemic may have accelerated digital adoption among people working in the infrastructure sector by eight years. Harnessing this progress brings the potential to create a dramatically clearer picture of transport demand and supply.
Insight then needs to be translated into modal change. Travel demand management (TDM) has been used with great success to alter use of transport networks for short periods – notably during the London 2012 Olympics and other sporting events. TDM involves providing viable travel alternatives, flexibility, information and incentivisation for people to switch from habitual travel choices to new ones. Sustained effort is required to achieve lasting change – but TDM works.
Powers, partnerships, people, platforms
In early 2021 we concluded a study with Leeds City Council and a group of the city’s key stakeholders into the challenges and opportunities of a city-led approach to decarbonisation. The inquiry was informed by the fact that 80% of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with cities – from infrastructure services used, resources and goods consumed and waste produced. It recognised that decarbonisation requires organisations in different sectors need to co-ordinate and collaborate, and that many of the critical interfaces and dependencies occur in cities.
Open discussion and analysis of the challenge highlighted four requirements: cities need powers – the mandate to accelerate change; partnerships – collaborations to drive change; platforms – the digital technologies and data to understand what’s going on, make better decisions and measure change; and people – the skills required to wield powers well, forge effective partnerships, and develop and manage useful digital platforms.
These four Ps are within reach of most city authorities – we are regularly engaged to provide the knowhow required for authorities to build capability themselves, or to supply the necessary skills and capacity on their behalf. Big cities start with the advantage of having many of the building blocks in place already – in the case of London it is a case of closing gaps, not starting from scratch.
What impact could the UK’s biggest cities have regionally or even nationally? A shift in travel behaviours across a population of millions will send ripples well beyond the city limits. Procurement of electric or hydrogen buses to replace a city’s diesel fleet (8600 in London) provides the scale to transform the bus-making industry.
With the right help, cities can be change makers with transport in the vanguard, working with customers, suppliers and other infrastructure service providers to steer the course to net-zero carbon and better health for citizens.
The study with Leeds City Council was carried out by us on behalf of the Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition. It is summarised in our report, ‘A place-based approach to net-zero’