After a few quiet weeks, transport, along with measures to tackle climate change more generally, has been catapulted into the front line of politics.
Alongside this, in the last month two big transport decisions have been made that have had media and public focus. The first of these is the approval of the new road tunnel at Stonehenge, which has seen the Government, supported by statutory environmental and heritage groups, pitted against archaeologists and environmental and heritage campaigners (it is worth noting that the Government has only given permission for the scheme, it has not yet said if and when it will fund it).
The second big transport story has been the consultation on the closure of railway station ticket offices launched by train operators in England with support from the Department for Transport. This has generated significant anger in local communities and even the House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle told the rail minister that he was not being given correct information.
But the really big issue has been the fallout from the Uxbridge by-election, where we have seen an increased level of attack on policies designed to tackle air pollution and carbon emissions from road transport.
The Conservatives ran their entire campaign in the by-election as a referendum on the Mayor of London’s extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone extension to outer London, against a backdrop of the (unsuccessful) court challenge from some London boroughs, and succeeded in retaining the seat.
In the wake of this, there have been messages from the PM and ministers about rowing back on Net Zero commitments, while the Labour Party appears to have been scaling back their ambitions on environment and decarbonisation (there was a notable leak of Keir Starmer saying that he hates “tree-huggers”).
More generally, I’ve picked up a concern from even groups and people promoting decarbonisation of transport that the way in which authorities such as Oxford, Cambridge and London have gone about this is poorly designed and likely to be counterproductive.
I think there is a legitimate question here, which is whether the way in which local transport policy and measures are formulated and consulted on is fit for purpose.
Concerns that, say, care workers and university support staff on low incomes might be disproportionately affected by congestion /emission charges and need to be compensated or exempted need to be addressed and acknowledged by those advocating change.
This links to a wider argument about a “just transition”, on who gains and loses from measures to decarbonise transport and the wider economy.
Professor Greg Marsden from Leeds University, in a thoughtful deconstruction of the Government’s net zero pathways on transport, points out the drop in motoring costs from electric vehicles charged at home, compared to the older petrol and diesel cars, means that “those who can least afford access to newer vehicles will be paying more than twice as much per mile to drive as those who are better off”.
This issue requires careful deconstruction. Some of those arguing against decarbonisation/pollution measures on the grounds of unfairness are not supporting measures that would be fair, or coming up with alternatives to the proposed policies.
Traffic filters in Oxford and congestion charges in Cambridge are designed to support public transport, especially buses, which are generally used by people on lower incomes.
The ULEZ extension in London is designed to cut air pollution and the health problems this causes, which are suffered disproportionately by people from low-income households. It’s not clear what alternative routes to supporting buses and cutting air pollution would be that opponents to these proposals would support.
But there is something here about the ability of authorities to develop proposals on a more iterative basis, doing some pre-consultation to see what likely pushbacks are going to be from whom and where and designing proposals to address likely concerns.
There is also the ability for authorities to fund measures to help those who might be disadvantaged – the Mayor of London has publicly said he would have liked to fund a much bigger scrappage scheme to help those affected by ULEZ expansion change vehicles or have other alternatives, but the Government wouldn’t give him money to do this.
This points to the need to plan out decarbonisation pathways in much more detail, and identify likely winners and losers. It also means that better and smarter communications will be needed to bring people along these pathways, and create alliances to do this (note – the Smart Transport National Conference in Birmingham in November will have a session on winning hearts and minds and changing travel behaviour).
Greg Marsden’s report does however show that simply relying on a fast shift to EVs won’t decarbonise UK surface transport at the speed needed, and that cutting traffic levels such as the Scottish target of a 20% reduction by 2030, will be required to meet the Committee on Climate Change’s assessments of the emissions reductions necessary.
Maybe it is in that context that the proposals for taking staff out of railway ticket offices should be assessed.
The case for the changes is that ticket offices now account for only 12% of ticket sales and that 99% of products could be bought online or by machines.
However, there is more evidence that the 12% is a national (England or British) average, and that sales at stations elsewhere are a much higher proportion (25-40% in the South West, according to one commentator).
And a key point is that removing ticket offices and reducing station staffing (as some operators say they will do) will put people off using the railway.
Making railways less attractive, especially to people who currently don’t use them, will make it even more difficult to get those reductions in vehicle mileage that Greg and other researchers say are so important in tackling climate change.
Of course, small changes in the UK will mean little on their own against worldwide trends, but a major country going in the wrong direction on carbon emissions sends signals to others.
Right now, such messages matter. The world has seen its hottest temperatures ever in recent weeks. There are heatwaves and wildfires in different continents. Tackling climate change and having a Government commitment to this, matters more than ever.
Yet in recent weeks we’ve seen a worrying move to weaponise the issue in politics, attacks on Labour for supposed links to radical climate campaigners. The anti-ULEZ campaigning has also seemed to endorse the downplaying of the science on air pollution and its health impacts.
One way in which the UK has differed from the US in its approach to tackling climate change has been the cross-party consensus, supporting the scientific consensus, that climate change is real, serious, caused by human action and urgent action is needed to cut emissions.
It will be extremely dangerous if this consensus breaks down in the run up to the next election, and the UK moves in the US direction in which the environment and the necessity for urgent climate action becomes a party political issue.
- This is an updated version of a column that appears in the current Smart Transport digital issue, which includes an article on the controversy that surrounds the 15-minute city planning concept.
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