A “transport revolution” – that’s how Boris Johnson framed his announcements that the government intends to spend £5 billion on buses and bicycles over the next five years. At the despatch box he boasted of 4,000 new zero-carbon buses and the proliferation of “mini-Hollands, blooming like so many tulips across the country”.
These transport announcements followed hot on the heels of the commitment to HS2, to placate Conservative MPs whose constituencies lie in its path and who have been urging the government to spend money on local transport instead.
These declarations of “revolution” matter because of transport’s substantial impact on climate change. The transport sector accounted for a staggering 33% of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, a figure which does not even include international aviation and shipping. Radical cuts to private vehicles are urgently needed and in its place we need accessible, zero-carbon public transport.
So Johnson was right in one respect – the country is being held back by devastatingly inadequate infrastructure. But he didn’t diagnose the root cause: chronic underfunding for local transport as a result of austerity. Far from “levelling up” public assets, these announcements don’t even patch over the hole created by ten years of Conservative government. They also fall short of essential climate action. Failure to deliver an integrated carbon-neutral transport system is inherent to the Tory project – torn as they are between public planning and private provision.
Research from the Campaign for Better Transport showed local authority and central government funding for bus services in England fell by 43% and 19% respectively in the last decade, leading to the cuts of over 3,000 bus routes. This was caused by a haemorrhaging of money away from councils. Buses are often lifelines for rural communities, providing access to jobs and preventing loneliness. Across the country, cuts have compounded existing isolation and poverty.
Improving local bus routes will undoubtedly be a fundamental part of decarbonisation, but it will need more than 4,000 new buses to take Britain’s 38 million cars off the road. Putting this figure into perspective – there are over 9,000 buses servicing London alone. Johnson is suggesting less than half that number to cover the entirety of England in the next five years. These numbers need to be drastically scaled up, and fast.
Fundamentally, the barrier to a low carbon transport system is not just money, it is coordination, which is almost impossible in a fractured network of private providers. No wonder the Tories have co-opted Labour’s terminology of the Green Industrial Revolution, first referenced in the Queen’s Speech and now spreading across government. But smart phrasing is not a substitute for smart infrastructural planning. Scrambling to cover their backs from the shambolic sacking of Claire O’Neill and the absent leadership for COP26, a barrage of contradictory climate policy is being shot from the hip.
Given the depths of the climate crisis, the UK’s transport system requires sweeping transformation and an understanding of solutions as comprehensive, not piecemeal. Instead of a coherent green transport plan, however, government policy has been chaotic at best. Johnson announced a new Cabinet Committee on Climate Change last October to coordinate overarching action, but they have not yet convened once.
So far, their strategy appears to be mainly about grabbing headlines – making “big” announcements with an impressive-sounding price-tag, but failing to back it up with clear planning. This is dangerous precisely because it gives the illusion of action to the public.
Contradictions between decarbonisation and transport spending are rife in government planning. Grant Shapps has recently hinted that diesel and petrol cars could be phased out as soon as 2032, but the viability of making all of Britain’s vehicles electric has been queried by leading scientists.
Without contingent plans to rapidly decarbonise the energy system, this is simply hustling carbon budgets elsewhere. Meanwhile, the 2019 manifesto promised £28.8bn investment in roads and fuel tax has been frozen for the 10th year running. Any “transport revolution” led by the Conservative Party is unlikely to cut historic ties with the motor lobby.
Labour hit back at the Conservative plans announced on Tuesday, claiming it barely papered over the cracks made in the last decade: “It’s councils that keep bus routes open. We need long-term funding for the local authorities that have suffered such severe cuts and now face a further £8bn black hole over this parliament.” Given there is no ring-fenced money from central government to help provide local bus routes, how this funding will be implemented remains to be seen.
All this is symptomatic of a deeper pattern emerging from the government, of inconsistent statements that don’t cohere with existing policy. Informational chaos clouds scrutiny of the actual plans.
This was laid bare in the Commons on Tuesday, when the Prime Minister declared £350 million earmarked for cycling, only later to be corrected to £1 billion. This fudge of figures still sets investment lower than is needed for the government to reach its own targets of doubling cycling by 2025.
All this obfuscates that the unveiled ambitions for cycling are embarrassingly low – Johnson boisterously declared “hundreds of miles of separated cycle lanes.” Downing Street later clarified that it amounts to 250 miles of bicycle routes over 5 years – the equivalent of spitting on a world on fire.
To encourage cycling, whole cities need to be recalibrated, such as the plans outlined in Manchester under Andy Burnham. The £1.5 billion proposals would bring in almost 2,000 miles of routes and reduce air pollution, improving lives for commuters and residents across the board. By comparison, the government’s commitments are deeply inadequate.
To overhaul carbon emissions in transport, the government must intervene at a national level and at speed, which is best done in public hands. Until they provide coordinated, consistent policy and investment on a scale that matches the challenge of climate breakdown, the government’s “transport revolution” will be a failed coup.