Is sustainable travel really within reach?

Posted: 17 December 2019 | | No comments yet

Intelligent Transport’s Luke Antoniou spoke to Claire Haigh, Chief Executive of Greener Journeys, to gain her perspective on just how close – or far – the industry, and the UK in particular, is to achieving truly sustainable transport.

Is sustainable travel really within reach?

Are you encouraged by the progress towards sustainable travel being made in the industry?

There’s been a real sea change and it is fantastic to see the awareness of just how important buses are now. When I started Greener Journeys 10 years ago, it was nigh on impossible to engage anyone on the topic of buses – they just didn’t want to know.

I remember going to the party conferences 10 years ago with a leaflet on our One Billion Challenge. The challenge detailed that if everyone switched just one car journey a month to bus or coach, it would mean one billion fewer car journeys on our roads and a saving of two million tonnes of CO2. When we launched the One Billion Challenge, it was really hard to get much traction at the time. What a contrast to today! At party conferences this year, it’s been great to see how engaged people are. One of the things that’s helped to get buses on the map has been the evidence, which we and others have helped to create, on the wider impact of switching to sustainable travel, particularly the economic, social and environmental impacts.

When we launched Greener Journeys it was 2009 and the economic crisis had hit, and so our work soon began to focus on the economy as well. Our campaign essentially progressed to how buses underpin the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental. Now we are at a stage where, after 10 years of relentless reports, research and evidence quantifying just how crucial buses are, they are rightfully in the spotlight.

What do you think the next step is, both for the industry and Greener Journeys?

I think the really important discussion we need to be having now, as well as investing in buses and bus infrastructure, stems from looking at the other side of the coin, issues such as car restraint and parking policy for instance.

The workplace parking levy has been a success in Nottingham and the money that’s been raised from that initiative has been invested in the trams. The people have seen a direct benefit between a charge which, though controversial when initially put in place, has really landed well, so much so that other areas are now looking at possibly adopting it themselves. The Scottish Parliament has just passed legislation to enable local authorities in Scotland to take it forward if they so wish.

These sorts of measures are really important; you can invest endless amounts into the bus network, but if it’s still too easy to drive, then people will drive. Making that switch is about breaking that connection, and this needs to be done from both sides. You have to improve public transport, you have to invest, you need good infrastructure and so on, but this is superfluous without balancing the demand management side as well. This is an issue that needs to receive the same level of awareness and understanding that we’ve reached with the importance of buses.

The Transport Select Committee has announced that it will have an inquiry into road pricing in 2020. This will be important as it will be looking at all the different types of road pricing – an issue we haven’t seen any real progress on in the last decade. The reason for this is partly political, the referenda in Manchester and Edinburgh for instance, and we know that politicians are nervous of fuel duty protests. The yellow vests in Paris this year are a clear reminder of what can happen.

Do you believe fuel duty should be increased?

In 2018, Greener Journeys produced a report on the unintended consequences of freezing fuel duty. It showed that as a direct result of the freeze in fuel duty since 2011 we have four per cent more traffic on our roads than we otherwise would have. The disadvantages of this went beyond the obvious environmental impacts and increased congestion. Over that period, this increase quantified up to 200 million fewer bus journeys and up to 60 million fewer rail journeys. It meant an additional 4.5 million tonnes of CO2, and an additional 12,000 tonnes of NOx.

I think the really important discussion we need to be having now, as well as investing in buses and bus infrastructure, stems from looking at the other side of the coin, issues such as car restraint and parking policy for instance

This research was published only last year, in June 2018, and yet received little national media coverage. Today offers another significant contrast when we look at the issue making headlines – the Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes, and the rapid acceleration of the debate around climate change and air quality.

I had a piece published in The Times in August 2018 precisely on this issue. Ahead of publication they phoned me and asked, “would you say that we should actually increase fuel duty?” I answered, “Yes, absolutely, we should increase fuel duty.” Not only did they print the article, but they took it a step further in titling it Fuel duty must rise if we are to cut carbon emissions. This is a great example of the shift in attitudes we have seen in such a short time.

The Times is currently running a “Clean Air for All” campaign, the main focus of which is air pollution, but these issues are all linked. It’s all about reducing emissions ultimately, but with a slightly different emphasis given depending on which problem you’re trying to solve.

I truly believe that if there ever was a time to have a big shift to sustainable transport it’s now. Looking at the transport industry itself, currently a big area of focus is decarbonisation. The big problem, dare I say it, is aviation. I must admit that personally, I know I block it out to some extent when I go on holiday – it’s an issue that sits uncomfortably. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that net zero aviation is very unlikely by 2050. Aviation is a major challenge.

I truly believe that if there ever was a time to have a big shift to sustainable transport it’s now

Ironically moving away from cars is the easy part because at least there are solutions – that’s not to say it’s simple for everyone to achieve overnight, or that it’s easy politically, but at least we have the solutions to make it happen. Public transport, walking, cycling, shared mobility – all of these are solutions to the private car. Even just increasing vehicle capacity when the car is used is doable and can help. Approximately two thirds of car trips are single occupancy – what a waste of resources and space on the roads!

Another report we did this year focused on housing and sustainable transport. It details just how critical it is to integrate planning for housing and planning for transport. The two need to be planned together so that we get more developments, more high-density developments, in locations that are, or could be, well served by public transport.  We must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past where new developments locked in car dependency.

What are Greener Journeys’ greatest areas of focus at present?

We’re very focused on decarbonisation of transport at the moment. Naturally, we are very pleased that there will be a transport decarbonisation plan, as outlined in the government’s response to the Committee on Climate Change progress report, which is something that fundamentally needs to happen.

Personally, I think the solution lies in looking at transport in the UK economy holistically. We need to look at it in terms of the solutions that apply to the wider economy as well. The big one is reducing energy demand. This is something I don’t feel receives enough attention. The current direction of travel and government policy, as articulated in documents like The Road to Zero, the aviation plan, clean growth strategy etc., assumes that demand is going to grow. Why should this automatically be the case? There are so many ways in which we can all work to reduce the amount of energy we use, and this needs to be addressed if we are to achieve our targets.

We need to look at the problem as a whole. It isn’t enough to consider individual behaviour, there must be consideration of the structure and the system that it’s embedded within. There is a wider system of taxation, fiscal incentives and so on. Climate policy needs to be very much at the heart of Treasury.

How do we ensure that the transition to sustainable travel is fair for everyone?

There is more and more discussion about the case for a green new deal. The IPPR and WWF recently published a report on this. Scotland has set aside three billion pounds for a green new deal. Many are now arguing for a green new deal for the rest of the UK, to ensure that people, particularly on low incomes, and those communities that are going to be particularly hard hit by the transition, are protected.

The changes that need to happen next affect the public in a way we haven’t yet experienced. Decarbonisation of the grid, implementing policies and work from a governmental and local authority level are relatively easy to implement, and these goals are already in progress. The next steps, however, are going to be really hard, and we must ensure that people aren’t disadvantaged by them.

Some years ago now, the Joseph Roundtree Foundation produced a really good report looking at green taxes and whether they were equitable and fair. It found that they can quite often be regressive, so we need to keep these issues in mind. If green taxes aren’t fair, and disadvantage members of the public, it won’t work. People won’t make the transition if they feel it too acutely. Not only is making them fair the right thing to do, doing otherwise just won’t be sustainable – it has to be fair for every reason.

The next steps, however, are going to be really hard, and we must ensure that people aren’t disadvantaged by them

The industry needs to work much more closely with consumers and also we must remember to consider ourselves as consumers. Too often we consider consumers as on a different side to us, when in fact they’re not, so we need to consider our own behaviour too. Essentially, government and industry need to connect with the public.

It’s really encouraging that this is starting to be recognised, particularly through the creation of the Citizen’s Assembly. Set up by cross-party MPs, this initiative is inviting 30,000 people across the UK to join the assembly and give their feedback on climate change and what members of the public can do to reduce carbon emissions. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.

With climate change, people need to be engaged to co-own the problem because the solutions are going to be quite radical. Looking at transport, we’re going to have to change how we travel and how often we travel, and this will be a significant change. If the public understands the problem and are part of the solution, we stand a chance of succeeding; without this support, I’m not sure it is possible.

There are the air quality benefits from reducing emissions, but there are also potential social benefits, from moving away from people travelling around in single cells, to modes where they interact with others

The public is faced with the question: what do we all need to do now? On one level it’s quite simple – drive less or not at all, fly less or not at all, use public transport, walk, cycle and so on. In reality, it’s not as simple as that because the changes that sit behind all of those initiatives are very complicated and ultimately mean changes in some of the very structures that underpin our lives – how we work, where we work, and so much more. The scale of the task ahead is immense and it would be naïve for any of us to underestimate the uphill struggle the sector is facing.

There is, however, much to be positive about. Justifiably, we’re focusing on the scale of the challenge, but equally there are so many potential benefits and advantages of moving to a more sustainable world. In terms of clean growth opportunities, there are huge opportunities for business to get on that green bandwagon.

Of course, there are the air quality benefits from reducing emissions, but there are also potential social benefits, from moving away from people travelling around in single cells, to modes where they interact with others. Research by Greener Journeys in June 2019 found that a third of people in the UK have deliberately caught the bus in order to have some human contact. These people weren’t all regular bus users, it didn’t necessarily mean that they were lonely, but they chose to have this human contact – that is an amazing statistic.

I genuinely do feel upbeat about the future, whilst also acknowledging the scale of the challenge. We really need to grasp this moment and not let it pass.

I suspect that the weather will help us. Today, we’re experiencing this ‘new normal’ of records regularly being broken – it’s alarming. This year alone we’ve seen extreme flooding in Venice, in South Yorkshire, and the Midlands, meanwhile terrifying fires are raging in Australia – how much more evidence do we need? The planet is changing before our eyes; the question is whether we can respond in time.


Claire Haigh is Chief Executive of Greener Journeys, a coalition of the UK’s major public transport groups committed to encouraging people to make more sustainable travel choices. She also chairs the Delivery & Impacts Independent Review Panel for the Government’s Joint Air Quality Unit (DfT/Defra); is the Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub; is a Director and the Vice Chair of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership; and has been a Board Member of Transport for Greater Manchester. Previously she was Project Director for Journey Solutions, where she was responsible for the creation, implementation and roll-out of PLUSBUS – the first national multi-operator bus-rail ticket.