Skip to main content
Start of main content

Challenges and opportunities in the UK’s race to net zero mobility

March 18, 2024

By Leigh Stolworthy

What is the future of net zero mobility in the UK? A recent roundtable discussion presented answers to big questions.

The year 2050 is the landmark year in the UK’s race to net zero. It may seem like this is far on the horizon, but 26 years isn’t a lot of time, especially when you consider the scale and pace of change we need to see. To meet our net zero targets, we need to make urgent and radical shifts to our behaviours, our infrastructure, and our general way of life. The next two and half decades are going to pass uncomfortably quickly for the built environment.

While there is an appetite in this important sector to decarbonise, it’s clear that certainty, leadership, and long-term incentivisation are required if any industry is going to be able to make this shift.

The way we move from A to B is one of the most fundamental cornerstones in this journey. Why? Because transport contributes around 26 percent of our total emissions, 91 percent of that from road-based transport. But as outlined in our report, Bridging the Gap, switching to electric vehicles alone simply won’t be enough to meet the UK’s net zero mobility ambitions. EVs are, of course, an important piece of our decarbonisation puzzle, but we still have a huge shortfall to meet our 2050 carbon-reduction targets.

The roundtable was chaired by Stantec’s Graham Hughes.

This report laid out several place-based interventions and hypothetical ‘futures’ that would accelerate this transition. It showed that as a society we need to tackle car journeys where active travel is a more challenging replacement, from 5 kilometres up to 25km, by providing the right infrastructure to support an alternative. End-to-end journeys by private vehicles are difficult to replicate sustainably in all areas, especially for those who live in more rural locations. But in our work that produced the Bridging the Gap report, it was also found that society simply isn’t ready to accept all hypothetical futures. For instance, the research found that this isn’t a popular future: our suburban places have a more urban design, where people drive less and use active and shared mobility systems, or where technology adoption and improved spatial proximity of land uses replace the need for movement.

So, amid a demand for millions of new homes and looming net zero targets, how can we drive this transition forward to bridge the transport sector’s carbon gap? What barriers and concerns stand in the way of progress? What questions should we be asking stakeholders, and what opportunities should we be grabbing with both hands?

Bringing sectors together

At this year’s Interchange event in Manchester, a conference for everyone involved in mobility, we invited delegates to engage in this important discussion as part of a collaborative roundtable. The Bridging the Gap report was used as the backdrop for the conversation, which was hosted by Graham Hughes, Stantec’s strategic transport director. I sat in, too.

Representatives from public and private organisations, from local authorities to investment firms, as well as industry bodies such as the Road Haulage Association and the Institution of Civil Engineers attended. Every member had a vested interest in the direction of travel for UK transport.

Societal readiness

One of the first points raised in the group was around the difficulty of planning for and creating a lower-carbon future world for people who don’t yet exist. And getting buy-in from today’s society. That group may view the world through a lens influenced by the transport systems and role of the private transport as they exist today.

Are we getting a skewed view from communities today because of people’s preferences for their current lifestyles and habits. Is this preventing the necessary solutions from moving forward? We agreed that we need to change perceptions and language to change behavioural patterns. There is a lack of appreciation of how this is everyone’s problem. On panellist said: perhaps ‘people don’t understand the level of change that needs to happen,’ Layer into this recent rail strikes and concerns about the reliability of the alternatives to private vehicle travel. These are core challenges for many people.

We spoke around making this argument and the language for change more human oriented. This encourages behaviour shifts by focusing not on carbon but on health and wellbeing, as well as the social and economic benefits, that this shift will bring communities. Millions of people across the UK feel excluded because of a lack of connectivity. What will this transition do to support them? One panellist noted that working with public, social, and environmental health groups to refine and drive these messages home for communities has already seen success in certain parts of the country.

Leadership and certainty

Another key challenge that came up was about reducing the risk for businesses, developers, and investors in this low-carbon journey. We can’t expect entire industries to gamble on backing innovative transport solutions if they don’t make business sense. Or if new infrastructure or progressive policies won’t support them.

Can the argument shift to focus on health and wellbeing?

Representatives from the Road Haulage Association stressed this point, suggesting the sector is already under enormous financial strain but hydrogen trucks cost up to 40 percent more than traditional vehicles. While there is an appetite in this important sector to decarbonise, it’s clear that certainty, leadership, and long-term incentivisation are required if any industry is going to be able to make this shift. There is uncertainty as to who would foot the bill for this transition and how. Here are some questions: ‘Do we know how big the bill is, and do we know if there even is a bill? How can we pay for this?’

The conversation drew parallels with the findings laid out in Bridging the Gap. Just as general society found it difficult to see how the futures laid out for them would fit their lifestyles, the private sector too needs reassurance on practicality, risks, and returns throughout the transition.

We spoke around the need for a common delivery mechanism for driving low-carbon transport decisions. Who is providing that overarching drive that guides progress? Whether it’s through local transport plans or via a national strategy. Where is the visible political appetite and guidance? Strong national policy is ineffective unless it is implemented on the ground at the regional and local levels.

A tangible vision

What was evident from the discussion is that conceiving and achieving ideas were crucial for everyone. It was agreed that the idea of drones delivering personal packages door-to-door had perhaps been given too much airtime in recent years. But the idea of autonomous trucking and using drones for cargo are viable options for carbon reduction.

The group also examined what has happened in Europe in recent years, with the development of ridesharing platforms that encourage shared mobility to reduce the number of cars on roads. France has seen significant momentum in this area. It has developed new community-based, supportive infrastructure across its road networks and in urban areas to support ridesharing. Could this be replicated in the UK? The group discussed the need for incentives and more data to examine realistic usage targets for this industry as well as a requirement for buy-in from businesses, government, and employers.

Density and deliverability

Our roundtable uncovered how progress is being hampered by hidden barriers between influential decision-makers. These might include local authorities, transport planners, utility companies, policymakers, or developers. For example, there is ongoing disagreement over how to navigate urban density when developing new homes and low-carbon infrastructure like mass transit options, interchange hubs, or EV charging points. There is also a lack of clarity from local authorities around energy distribution considerations and the grid connections needed for a more electric future.

The UK’s transport sector contributes to more than a quarter of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately, collaboration and having more formal conversations like these between different sectors and disciplines is key to identifying issues and breaking barriers. We need government to provide certainty and leadership in the direction of travel. And we must have a clearer understanding of costs and the long-term financing available to support this transition.

We know what we need to achieve over the next 26 years. But we need to start putting the right questions to the right people, those who can lead the charge and deliver the changes required.

At Stantec, we’re continually bringing our public and private sector networks together to help drive collaboration and progress. We’ll be continuing the conversation around Bridging the Gap to drive policy and its implementation that will accelerate the sector’s net zero transition. 

Read the full report to learn more about the need for additional place-based planning interventions alongside the shift to EVs. If you’re interested in discussing the findings or would like to contribute to future discussions, email me directly, and I’ll be in touch.

  • Leigh Stolworthy

    Based in our Birmingham office, Leigh is a senior associate transport planner. With over 23 years of experience, he focuses on land development projects to create houses, jobs, social, and community facilities.

    Contact Leigh
End of main content
To top