Smart Transport

Car Free Day – a wake-up call for our planet and our health

Paul Tuohy

By Paul Tuohy, chief executive officer, Campaign for Better Transport

Today is Car Free Day, a chance to celebrate the benefits of having less traffic on our roads. With events including play streets in Norwich and two hours' worth of free e-bike rides for everyone in Plymouth, councils and communities are seizing the day to imagine how streets might be different – healthier, quieter, friendlier.

But tackling climate change – a task all the more urgent after this summer's extreme weather events – means reducing our dependence on cars all year round.

In theory, the UK Government supports reducing car-dependence. Its Transport Decarbonisation Plan states the intention, "We will use our cars differently and less often". But while Wales has a set a target to reduce car miles travelled per person by 10% by 2030, and Scotland has committed to a 20% reduction by the same date, the UK Government has set no such target.

Instead, it committed to making cars greener: it would tackle transport’s carbon problem by phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. But even before its imprudent decision to delay that phase-out, its own Climate Change Committee said cleaner cars would not be enough. In its latest progress report, the CCC said, "alongside the uptake of EVs, measures to limit growth in road traffic are also crucial for decarbonising transport," and pointed out that "the Government has made no progress on our recommendations on clarifying the role for car demand reduction."

There are three ways to reduce car travel, and the Government should be pursuing them all. It should be enabling us to travel less overall, for instance by ensuring new housing developments are built around shops and services, rather than miles away. It should be doing more to encourage car-sharing. And it should be going all-out to shift more journeys to bus, foot, bike and rail.

The encouraging - if somewhat frustrating - fact is that people are up for modal shift. Recent research by Stagecoach found that 54% of motorists would be open to switching some or all of their car journeys to public transport or active travel. This is frustrating because they will not do so unless the conditions are right, and that's largely down to Government and local councils.

The Government has done some good things to encourage modal shift. It has capped bus fares at £2, run a national sale on rail tickets, and supported rail line reopenings and new stations. And we've seen that these initiatives work. The Yorkshire Post reported a 75 per cent increase in passengers on some bus services after the fare cap. And more than 250,000 journeys were made on the reopened Dartmoor Line in a year - more than double the demand originally forecast.

But the Government has undermined these positive moves by allowing bus services to dwindle, supporting massive road building, and increasing rail fares while freezing and cutting fuel duty for drivers.

Along with local councils, it must do more to protect and improve public transport, reallocate road space, and send the right price signals to encourage modal shift. We think it should start by freezing rail fares, rather than allowing an eight per cent rise in January. Substantially increasing bus funding is also crucial.

Reducing car-dependence won't just help the environment, it will do wonders for our health. Our recent report, Better Transport for Better Health, showed the myriad ways that the two are intertwined. 

Air pollution - much of it from cars - is one of the biggest environmental health risks we face, and in the UK, it’s associated with up to 43,000 deaths every year. Even electric vehicles produce particulate matter – the tiny particles that can travel into the respiratory tract and then our lungs and blood to cause serious health problems – from the friction between their tyres and the road. Reducing car-dependence would help clean up air pollution.

It would also make us more active. Car-dependence contributes to sedentary lifestyles. Switching to other modes can make a powerful difference. One in three public transport users achieve the recommended 30 minutes a day of physical activity in the course of their journeys. And regular cyclists reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or cancer by 45 per cent.

And it's not just our physical health that is impacted by our transport habits. People who are inactive have three times the rate of moderate to severe depression as active people. Older people have been shown to benefit from free public transport, which reduces depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness and promotes better brain function, particularly memory.

Car-dependence is so ingrained in our society that much of the time we don't notice it, like we don't notice the air that we breathe. When it's brought to our attention - when we read, for instance, that two-thirds of public transport users cannot reach a hospital in 30 minutes - many of us accept it with a regretful sigh. Car Free Day should pull us up, it should make us notice; and then we should act, to call for good, affordable alternatives to driving for all communities, all year round.


Smart Transport National Conference 2023

The UK’s largest two-day conference for senior private and public sector transport leaders and policymakers to work together to transform the UK’s transport network and achieve net zero will take place on 21 & 22 November 2023, The Eastside Rooms, Birmingham.

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