It's time to change the conversation around transport decarbonisation

by Susan Claris, Vice President at Living Streets and Associate Director at Arup
People walking

I had the pleasure of chairing two events for Living Streets, the UK charity for everyday walking, at the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021 (COP26) this month. The first looked at the wider benefits of transport decarbonisation "Cleaner, Quieter, Healthier" and the second focussed on women leaders transforming street design.

Susan Claris, Vice President at Living Streets
Susan Claris, Vice President of Living Streets, at COP26
Susan Claris, Vice President of Living Streets, at COP26

It is fantastic that Living Streets was at the event to shine a light on the part walking has to play in our response to the climate emergency. However, the majority of the conversation on transport at COP26 focused on the electrification of vehicles. The Presidency Programme explained that “This is the COP that will kick start the mass market for zero emission vehicles”.

Inside the COP26 Conference
Inside the COP26 Conference

To reduce the carbon impact of transport, our towns, cities and regions must go beyond ‘cleaning-up’ vehicles. Transport decisions significantly shape the fundamental experience of living in a place, the health and well-being of people, and the strength of the economy. Transport solutions to the climate change crisis must also address existing challenges that rural, suburban and urban areas face in relation to excessive car-dependence (even if it is a clean one). To facilitate prioritisation and ensure a holistic perspective, we need to follow the hierarchy of avoid/shift/improve. Namely:

Living Streets' Sustainable Transport Alliance event at COP26
Living Streets' partnership event with the Sustainable Transport Alliance at COP26
1. Avoid: reduce the need to travel

2. Shift: if travel cannot be avoided, then shift trips from car to walking, cycling and public transport

3. Improve: if trips cannot be by sustainable modes, then minimise the impact of road traffic by improving it, such as electrification
Living Streets' Women Leaders event at COP26
Janet Sanz Cid, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona (left) and Cllr Anna Richardson (right) speaking at Living Streets Women Leaders event at COP26

Our report on the next steps for transport decarbonisation looks at this approach in more detail with case studies of how this is applied in different places.

The discussions at COP26, which mostly centred around electrification (the improve), with only a little around the importance of active travel, (the shift - such as the two events I was involved with) and hardly anything on what can be done to reduce the need to travel (the avoid), prompted me to think about the similarities to the waste hierarchy we have had for some time to reduce, re-use, recycle. Again, we tend to focus on the recycle, rather than the more important matter of reducing consumption in the first place, and then re-using where possible.

The COP26 Declaration on Accelerating the Transition to 100% Zero Emission Cars and Vans does contain this concluding paragraph “We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal” – but for me this needs to be the starting point.

Sir Patrick Vallance speaking at COP26
Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor, speaking at 'Cleaner, Quieter, Healthier' COP26 event

So how do we change things to get the priorities we need for transport decarbonisation? How do we move beyond people thinking that driving an electric vehicle and recycling their rubbish is enough?

In response, Stephen Edwards, Interim CEO at Living Streets, said:

“Living streets, the UK charity for everyday walking, wants to create a nation where walking is the natural choice for everyday, local journeys. If more people walk, or wheel, instead of driving, it will not only lower carbon emissions, it will also cut congestion and the risks of preventable illnesses and social isolation. Rather than focusing on electric car uptake, Living Streets is pushing for what are, possibly, greater changes and ones which are higher up the hierarchy: these are ‘Shift’ and even ‘Avoid’. Our aim is to change behaviour to reduce road traffic overall, by encouraging more people to walk and wheel. This is Living Streets’ priority and we campaign to make walking more inclusive and to create a better walking environment for all.”