Welsh civic engagement 4: The future looks congested

Lee Waters uncovers misconceptions motorists have about their cars

There is a consensus that carbon emissions need to come down in order to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. As some 13 per cent of the UK’s emissions are produced by car use it follows that cutting these emissions must be part of the mix of measures we need to achieve the transition to a low carbon society.

Shortly after taking office as Secretary of State for Transport in the UK Government Phillip Hammond underlined his commitment to ensuring that the transport sector plays its part in tackling global warming:

“I am determined to make this Government the greenest ever and transport will have a key role to play. But this will not be achieved by forcing people off the road –  it’s not the car that’s the problem, it’s the carbon.”

Rather than seek to change our travel behaviour and tackle the culture of car dependency the fashion is to seek a technological fix that will allow the trend of increasing car use to continue.

This is the fourth of a series of essays on ClickonWales this week exploring initiatives within the Welsh economy, environment, media, and politics. They are taken from Growing Wales’ Civil Society, published by the IWA earlier this year.

Tomorrow: Dylan Iorwerth on the importance of the papurau bro network.

Transport policy in Wales is centred on the concept of mobility. The Welsh Government regards mobility as “a significant driver of economic growth and social well-being” (One Wales Connecting the Nation: the Wales Transport Strategy, 2008). As a consequence our society is increasingly designed around the assumption that people have access to a car, and it is the role of transport professionals to make it easier for them to travel further and faster.

In the 15 year period from the mid-80s the distance motorists travelled grew by nearly a third and the number of cars on the road increased by nearly 50 per cent. Meanwhile, journey times remained constant. Average trip lengths rose by 29 per cent between 1985-1986 and 1999-2001 according to the Department for Transport’s Travel Survey. During this period average journey times increased only marginally (from 20 to 21 minutes) indicating that average journey speeds have increased. Over the same time car ownership increased from 16.4 million to 23.9 million, a 45 per cent increase (Department for Transport, Vehicle Statistics, 2008).

In other words improvements to the road network have enabled people to travel faster. So, rather than easing congestion they have encouraged more people to use their cars which in-turn has led to busier roads.

And it is set to get worse. A 2010 study by the Road Users’ Alliance has predicted an increase in traffic across Wales of 29 per cent by 2025, leading to a forecast jump in traffic jams of more than a third on today’s figures (Western Mail, 25 February 2010). However, despite the increase in traffic, according to the study CO2 is predicted to fall by 6 per cent thanks to improved vehicle technologies and cleaner fuels. The Alliance, comprising a range of motor industry bodes and business groups, believes that we can continue to base transport policy around mobility if we build new roads and develop cars that produce lower emissions.

But can the promise of cleaner cars deliver a low carbon transport system in time to tackle climate change?

The scientific evidence suggests that CO2 must peak at 2015-20 and decline rapidly if climate change is to be restricted to less than a 2 degrees C increase.  Electric cars are not going to help with this. There are a range of issues that have yet to be resolved with the current batch of electric vehicles. How far can they range without needing recharging (and are consumers anxious about this)? How can they be recharged when domestic power cannot be used to do so? Are breakdown services equipped to deal with them or do emergency services know the implications of dealing with electric cars involved in collisions?

Furthermore, even by 2050 Electric Vehicles are considered unlikely to represent 25 per cent of sales of new vehicles. Even when they are used on any mass scale will require a huge increase in power generation. To power the current car fleet entirely by renewable energy would require a wind farm the size of Wales, or 100 nuclear power stations.

There are significant question marks therefore around the strategy of decarbonising cars as the way of realising the vision of a low carbon transport system. Nonetheless, there is a proven way of cutting emissions of transport through encouraging travel behaviour change.

Between 2004 and 2008 three large English towns were awarded £10 million by the Department of Transport to trial a change of behavioural interventions to reduce car use. In-depth research undertaken by Sustrans in the three Sustainable Travel Towns – Peterborough, Worcester and Darlington  – showed that some two-thirds or more of people’s day-to-day trips were no longer than five kilometres (just over three miles), and around 20 per cent are no longer than one kilometre (Sustrans/Socialdata, Travel Behaviour Research Baseline Survey, 2004). Furthermore, more than three-quarters of all trips were entirely local. That is, they went no further than the outskirts of the respective town or city.

For the first time in the UK, this research shed light on the significant potential for changing travel behaviour, in particular by addressing the subjective barriers that currently prevent people from making more trips on foot, by bike or by public transport. One of the most important overall findings was that on average nearly half of all car trips within the towns could be replaced using existing facilities by walking, cycling and/or public transport.

The research showed that people are swayed in their travel choice by severe misperceptions about the alternatives to the car, especially relating to relative travel times, and a lack of information. For example, on average across the three towns:

  • People over-estimated travel time by public transport by around two thirds and for cars under-estimated travel time by one fifth.
  • In around half of all cases where a viable public transport alternative existed for a local journey made by car, people did not know about it.

Overall, the research showed that while 35 per cent of all people’s trips were already made by sustainable means, there was potential for a further 29 per cent to be shifted from car to walking, cycling or public transport without any infrastructure changes or restrictions on car use. This conclusion gave the three Sustainable Travel Towns confidence that through the coordinated use of ‘soft’ measures to provide information, motivate or otherwise influence people’s daily travel choices, car use could be significantly reduced.

Across the three towns car driver trips by residents fell by 9 per cent per person, and car driver distance by 5 to 7 per cent.  Bus trips per person grew substantially, by 10 to 22 per cent, compared with a UK fall of 0.5 per cent in medium-sized towns. The number of walking trips grew substantially, by 10 – 13 per cent, compared to a UK decline in similar towns of 17 per cent. The number of cycle trips grew substantially in all three towns, by 26 to 30 per cent.

The research concluded that with the right information and some encouragement people could nearly double their use of sustainable modes tomorrow. In the longer-term targeted investment in infrastructure, such as 20 mph zones and safe routes to school, together with more rational land use planning, could enable nine out of ten journeys to be made on foot, by bike or using public transport.

Lee Waters is Director of Sustrans Cymru.

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