Transport’s journey to net zero: Roads need to be dedicated to public transport, not cars, says Go-Ahead
In the latest instalment of Intelligent Transport’s exclusive sustainable transport Q&A series, Christian Schreyer, Group Chief Executive of The Go-Ahead Group, shares his insight into the various projects that the company is working on to achieve a zero-emission fleet by 2035, as well as why it is so important for people to change their mindset, so that more road spaces are devoted to public transport instead of the private car.
The ever-pressing challenges of poor air quality and traffic congestion have been a key focus for the transport industry, as operators and authorities strive to achieve their net zero targets. How big a part does the decarbonisation of public transport play in reducing the UK’s carbon emissions?
Decarbonisation of buses, trains and other forms of public transport is certainly important. At Go-Ahead, we’re committed to running a zero-emission bus and rail fleet by 2035. And we’re already well on the way – we’re the largest operator of electric buses in the UK, and 98 per cent of our trains are electric. We’ve been consistently reducing our emissions, and they’re down 27 per cent on 2016 levels.
Although it’s necessary for us to decarbonise our fleet, a far more significant challenge that we need to achieve is modal shift… we need to change people’s attitude towards cars”
However, we must put this into context. Regardless of what they’re powered on, buses and trains are still a highly sustainable mode of transport. If you look at greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transport sector, only about two per cent come from buses and just one per cent are from trains. The majority – 52 per cent – come from private cars, and it’s that vast source of emissions that really needs to be tackled if, as a society, we’re going to get to net zero.
Although it’s necessary for us to decarbonise our fleet, a far more significant challenge that we need to achieve is modal shift – persuading people to switch in large numbers from cars to public transport. A single double-decker bus can take as many as 75 cars off the road. A single train can remove 500 cars. So, we need to change people’s attitude towards cars. That’s the fastest route to net zero.
What are the immediate challenges that Go-Ahead Group is facing in decarbonising its public transport fleet?
The capital cost of a zero-emission bus is typically 80 per cent more than for a diesel vehicle”
A major challenge that we face is acquiring the necessary funding. We need to build a business case for the investment required – particularly in our bus fleet. The capital cost of a zero-emission bus is typically 80 per cent more than for a diesel vehicle. Although that gap is narrowing, it’s still there, and the public are not willing to pay more to travel on a low-emission bus or train – particularly given the present squeeze on the cost of living.
In addition, there are infrastructure issues that need to be overcome. On rail in the UK, we don’t control the tracks and signalling – so we need to wait until lines are electrified before we can replace the last few of our diesel trains.
Furthermore, at bus depots, the cost of connecting to high voltage electricity sources is variable and can be high. Some of our depots are historic buildings, which aren’t very spacious. Therefore, converting them to incorporate chargers, and fitting in enough buses, can be logistically tricky – but we’re getting more experienced in doing so. The range of electric buses, presently about 150 to 180 miles per charge, is also restrictive, but we believe that technological development will soon lift it to 250 miles – enough for the daily mileage of almost all of our services.
In order to build a business case to invest in zero-emission vehicles, we need our buses to move faster and to attract more passengers”
We’re absolutely not going to rely on public handouts – so we need to build that business case by driving down the cost of decarbonisation, and by pushing revenues up by getting more customers on-board. On bus, we’ll be standardising maintenance, improving our monitoring of energy usage and harnessing data to better manage the lifespan of buses. We’re looking at ways to allow other fleet providers to use our charging infrastructure during the daytime when buses are out, helping to fund investment.
But perhaps the biggest challenge that we face is a very familiar one – traffic congestion. Bus speeds in urban areas were falling by one per cent annually prior to the pandemic, as there are too many cars on the road. In order to build a business case to invest in zero-emission vehicles, we need our buses to move faster and to attract more passengers. This means far more bus lanes and bus priority schemes, and a change in mindset towards devoting more road space to public transport.
What projects does Go-Ahead Group currently have in the pipeline that will help to achieve a more sustainable transport system in the UK and more globally?
We’re assembling a team of experts who really know their batteries inside out, and who can help us set a benchmark for the entire industry”
Lots of things! One that I’m particularly excited about is the opening of a Zero Emission Centre of Excellence in London, which will establish best practice in how we operate and manage zero-emission buses. We’re assembling a team of experts who really know their batteries inside out, and who can help us set a benchmark for the entire industry.
Elsewhere, we’re upgrading recycling on our rail network. At one of our stations, Brighton, we’ve eliminated vast quantities of waste through the installation of a mobile segregation unit where waste is separated, washed, baled and tagged – we’ve attained a 90 per cent recycling rate there.
Furthermore, at one of our bus depots in London, Northumberland Park, we’re working with SSL and BYD/ADL on a pioneering ‘Bus2Grid’ project that will allow electric buses to discharge remaining power in their batteries into the electricity grid – which could provide local support for a hospital, for example, if there’s a power outage.
In the Gatwick Airport area, we’ll have our first hydrogen buses on the road by the end of 2022, and we’re well on our way there to acquiring the UK’s largest hydrogen fleet – to service high intensity, long-distance routes that run around the clock.
Finally, in Oxford, we’re working in partnership with the local authority to create one of Britain’s first all-electric bus cities. That project will see investment in 159 electric buses, provided bus gates are installed to deliver a 10 per cent increase in journey times – which will make bus journeys more attractive, generating passengers to fund the investment.
Although public transport has seen a global increase in ridership post-pandemic, car use continues to be more resilient. What is being done to encourage modal shift from the private car, and how significant is improving active travel and public transport infrastructure in achieving this?
It’s a shame that car usage has rebounded so much since the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been an unfortunate lasting impact and there’s a lot that can, and should, be done to address that.
Innovative pricing schemes are helping. For example, the €9 ticket allowing you to travel anywhere by rail in Germany has proven hugely popular and has pushed Go-Ahead’s trains there to passenger numbers exceeding pre-pandemic levels. In Ireland, public transport fares have also been cut by around 20 per cent, which has been a big help in building back passenger numbers on our Dublin buses.
Bus lanes and bus priority schemes are essential – a 10 per cent drop in the journey time of a bus has been shown to generate 10 per cent more passengers”
But, to truly make a lasting impact on modal shift, it’s all about capital spending. Bus lanes and bus priority schemes are essential – a 10 per cent drop in the journey time of a bus has been shown to generate 10 per cent more passengers. That creates a virtuous circle – more passengers means that we can lay on additional frequencies, creating a more attractive service. This will reduce the number of cars on the road, pushing our journey times down further.
We also need, as an industry, to think about interchanges. Go-Ahead recently teamed up with Arup to look at mobility hubs – interchanges where people can change from buses and trains to bikes, electric cars or to walk for that last mile of their journey. We need to make that change smoother and more pleasant. This could mean changing facilities for those who want to run or cycle, community gardens, catering or even workspaces allowing people to use a half hour productively.
What are the biggest barriers to encouraging active travel in the UK?
People are still too fond of their cars and tend to underestimate the cost of driving and the waste involved – a typical car stays parked for 23 hours a day and, in the UK, drivers spend 44 hours a year just going round and round looking for parking spaces.
Too much town planning has the private car in mind… That mindset needs to change. We shouldn’t have to risk life and limb to get on a bicycle, access a bus stop or walk to a railway station”
In addition, too much town planning has the private car in mind. Housing estates are often built in narrow, winding cul-de-sacs and are poorly served either for pedestrian access or for public transport. That mindset needs to change. We shouldn’t have to risk life and limb to get on a bicycle, access a bus stop or walk to a railway station.
Thus, as an industry, we need to work in partnership. We’re not in competition with cyclists – cycling is complementary to buses and trains. Our competition is the private car. We need to work closely with cycling bodies, sports organisations, environmental groups and policymakers to create the conditions that will change habits.
The overall message needs to be – walk or cycle where you can, use public transport for longer journeys and only use your car if it’s absolutely necessary.
How big a contribution must Go-Ahead Group make in order for the UK to meet its climate goals?
We need to tidy up our own shop by becoming a net zero business by 2045 – and we’re putting in the building blocks to get there. Our decarbonisation strategy has been validated by the Science Based Targets initiative as consistent with limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. But, more than that, I want Go-Ahead to be a catalyst for change.
Go-Ahead accounts for hundreds of millions of journeys every year – and under our strategy, The Next Billion Journeys, we want as many journeys as possible to be carbon-free”
A seismic shift is needed in the way we travel, and the way we get around. We’ve passed ‘peak car’ in western nations and a new generation of young people are growing up, many of whom will never own a vehicle.
Go-Ahead accounts for hundreds of millions of journeys every year – and under our strategy, The Next Billion Journeys, we want as many journeys as possible to be carbon-free. Go-Ahead needs to be front and centre of making the argument for change.
In an ideal world, what would a net zero transport system look like to you?
Road space needs to change in towns and cities. Less space should be devoted to cars and more should be devoted to walking, cycling and public transport”
I’ve been called ‘Mister Bus Lane’ a few times because I talk so much about bus priority. But, the truth is, road space needs to change in towns and cities. Less space should be devoted to cars and more should be devoted to walking, cycling and public transport. Above all, cities need to be bold in making central zones car-free – in Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has taken steps in that direction and has proven that you can still be overwhelmingly re-elected as mayor.
At the heart of a net zero transport system should be private operators and public authorities working in partnership to provide clean, green, safe and efficient ways to get around.
Christian Schreyer is the Group Chief Executive of The Go-Ahead Group and joined the company in November 2021. He was previously CEO – North and Central Europe at Transdev, the international public transport operator. Prior to that, he spent 15 years in a variety of senior operational and strategic roles at Deutsche Bahn, the German national rail operator. Originally from Munich, Christian trained as a lawyer at Ludwig Maximilian University and studied management at Harvard Business School.
If you would like to take part in our ‘Transport’s journey to net zero’ series, or would like to nominate a colleague to take part, please email: Halimah Haque, Editorial Assistant, Intelligent Transport.
Accessibility, Air Quality, Alternative Power, Mobility Services, Multimodality, Public Transport, Sustainable Urban Transport, Ticketing & Payments, Transport’s Journey to Net Zero Series