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Bridging tomorrow’s net zero mobility gap

November 13, 2023

By Keith Mitchell

Why a switch to electric vehicles isn’t enough to decarbonise UK transport and close the gap to net zero

What do you see when you picture the community of tomorrow? It’s surprisingly hard to imagine somewhere different to the places we know. And yet our climate is shifting, our technology is transforming, and our lifestyles are changing. So why, in the face of the complex and varied challenges facing society, should we expect our places to stay the same?

How we design and build places will determine whether future communities can thrive. And, at the same time, live within our planet’s environmental limits.

Climate change is humanity’s greatest existential threat. Governments around the world are wrestling with plans to address this challenge. The UK has arguably made good progress. We have achieved large reductions in a number of areas such as the energy and the residential sectors.

How can we create better mobility solutions that are accepted by future societies?

However, the transport sector is the largest remaining contributor to greenhouse gases in the UK. The Government’s approach to reduce its emissions is set out in its Decarbonising Transport plan. This focusses mainly on a transition to electric vehicles (EVs), which is well underway.

But do we need to do more than this to meet our net zero targets?

In 2021, Stantec embarked on a substantial research project to consider this question. The study, ‘Bridging the Gap’, assesses the size of the gap between the scale and pace of carbon reduction that will be delivered by the transport decarbonisation plans compared with what is needed to meet net zero targets. It also asks how people and place can play a bigger role in helping us achieve them.

Different futures – different gaps

Working with professor Greg Marsden from the University of Leeds, we assessed the carbon gap for each of Transport for the North’s (TfN’s) four Future Travel Scenarios. These are: ‘Just about Managing’, ‘Prioritised Places’, ‘Digitally Distributed’ (DD), and ‘Urban Zero Carbon’ (UZC).

Just About Managing offers a scenario representing the continuation of land use and transport policies which are in line with the ones we have today. Prioritised Places looks at greater emphasis on the localising of activity and public transport use. Using a Carbon Scenario Estimator (CaSE) tool, it was predicted that for Just About Managing and Prioritised Places there was little evidence to suggest that transport decarbonisation targets could be met.

The other two scenarios, Digitally Distributed and Urban Zero Carbon, while falling short of net zero mobility targets, did set us on a pathway that could get us there.

Digitally Distributed puts forward a technology-led society. Here there is a market-led approach to the development of transport infrastructure and services, with digital and ‘pay as you go’ mobility services replacing car use and ownership.

On the other hand, Urban Zero Carbon outlines a public sector-led strategy of demand management and high density living around mass-transit systems. This encourages the use of public transport and provides living environments that are more amenable to walking, cycling, and micro-mobility.

The CaSE model predicted that for Urban Zero Carbon, net zero targets could be met. However, there would also need to be a significant drop (around 20%) in car journeys by 2030.

For Digitally Distributed this figure would need to be more than 30%. We have concluded there are no viable pathways to net zero objectives unless we ambitiously reduce the amount of traffic on the roads.

Public transport and shared mobility must play a much larger transport role.

Supercharging our way to net zero

Building on these two TfN’s Future Travel Scenarios, a team including stakeholders from the University of Leeds, Lancaster University, Newcastle University, Transport for the North (TfN), Transport for Greater Manchester, Bury Council, and Stantec developed two hypothetical alternative futures for a planned development ‘at Elton Reservoir in Greater Manchester.  

The aim was to create two new ‘supercharged futures’, ‘Digitally Distributed+ and Urban Zero Carbon+’, (DD+ and UZC+). These could help us test what sort of radical change would be needed to deliver the level of traffic reduction required to meet net zero.

Bridging the Gap seeks to develop an evidence base to support the development of these supercharged futures. It does this by establishing the profile of future demand (e.g., the distribution, mode, purpose and length of trips), for development at Elton Reservoir and across the surrounding conurbation. This data helped us identify which movements would be the highest contributors to emissions. Also which technology, mobility, public transport, infrastructure, land use change and demand management measures could most effectively speed up carbon reduction.

A key conclusion was the need to find real alternatives to car journeys between 5 and 30 kilometers. These are the journeys which contribute most to carbon emissions across all scenarios, with trips between 5 and 10 kilometres being the largest contributor. Using the Sustainable Access Framework, two supercharged futures were created to reflect a technology-led (DD+) or urban development-led (UZC+) future.

Do our futures meet the needs of society?

Cars will have a place in our journey planning for at least the foreseeable future, particularly in suburban areas like Elton Reservoir. They’ll remain the most convenient option for many journeys outside the city centres. So, a focussed approach on influencing the journeys most susceptible for change through design is a key step in identifying deliverable change.

If everything revolves around roads and drivers, how can we expect society to choose a different way of travelling. We need to offer other options that are easier than driving to help get children to school, to get people to work, to shops, leisure activities, and to hospital appointments, but experience tells us that these alternatives can be controversial.

It is convenient to assume that this is because society is not prepared to change, or to blame resistance to change on some undefined culture war, but Bridging the Gap sought to ask a more helpful question – would our futures truly meet the needs of society?

To test this, Stantec collaborated with the Lancaster University to pilot a Societal Readiness Assessment (SoRA) for each of the alternative futures. An important distinction between this and other methods is avoidance of a ‘public deficit’ approach, instead listening to the real concerns of communities about change and addressing these through the development of a shared vision.

Our work concluded that neither DD+ nor UZC+ would meet the perceived needs of the local community, and that considerable co-design work would be needed to resolve the issues raised.

However, the SoRA pilot was shown to be an effective way of managing constructive dissent about controversial transport and land use proposals. It did this by putting the onus on to those developing the future to create a place which does meet the needs of society. Placing SoRA at the heart of a new approach to vision-led planning has the potential to address the challenges of delivering more rapid and radical change.

People and place are at the heart of our decarbonisation journey.

While Bridging the Gap shows that neither DD+ or UZC+ are fully ready to be implemented, a hybrid vision could begin to emerge from the research. This moves away from increasing capacity for more car use, and instead focuses on promoting the quickest and most effective enhancements to local transport systems and creating places that makes these more attractive to use than the car for regular intermediate length journeys.

Until we understand how to develop a future that can work for communities, we will struggle to deliver the change needed to decarbonise transport. Before politicians and developers can tackle barriers presented by the planning system and current commercial models, we need to have a clear model. It must be one we can embrace. And it must be effective. We need place-based conversations and engagement between government, regional and local authorities, developers, investors, communities, and consultants.

Marginal gains: accelerating change

As the Climate Change Committee has recently reminded the government, we are close to missing our aim to limit climate change to an increase of 1.5oC. Bridging the Gap suggests, however, that decarbonisation targets for the largest remaining sector can be met if we develop a new vision for the future. It must be one that provides people with real choices other than the car.

But change happens slowly and over time. Pace of change is critical if we are to meet net zero in the transport sector. It's critical to avoid investment that works against carbon reduction goals and instead replace this with measures that encourage carbon reduction through design.

We need to involve society in the incremental steps that take us towards this new vision. We need to make the journey together—and ideally not in a car. 

  • Keith Mitchell

    Keith provides strategic advice relating to major infrastructure planning and transport decarbonisation. He has worked on a wide range of national infrastructure and planning projects in the UK, as well as in the European Union and Australia.

    Contact Keith
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