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Fighting Climate Change Requires a Transit Revolution

There is no path to meeting climate targets and avoiding devastation that doesn't run through a dramatic reduction in the use of cars. Now is the time to seize on this reality and invest in the alternatives.

The climate crisis has receded from much of the public’s focus since the pandemic began. Instead, many have watched in horror as the number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 rose around the world, with the bungled responses in the United Kingdom and the United States standing out among those of the Western countries.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this decade will be decisive. If we fail to act soon, the climate that we have to live in and pass on to future generations will be much hotter, harsher, and even more cruel than that which we have today. The pandemic cannot be an excuse to delay climate action. We should seize on one of the most visible changes of the past few months to ensure we’re still making progress.

It’s been startling to see how quickly ideas about streets, how they should be used, and who has a right to them have changed since lockdowns eased. In London, areas of the city were closed to car traffic to give people space to walk and cycle, and the pedestrianisation of Soho was notably hailed as a success.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson even announced £2 billion in funding for cycling infrastructure and programmes, hailing a “golden age of cycling,” yet he’ll have quite a ways to go if that’s to be the case. In 1949, people cycled 14.7 billion miles in Britain; after decades of automobile use, the figure was just 3.33 billion miles in 2018. The ambition is welcome, if it’s genuine, but as activists noted, that would mean redirecting the £27 billion for road building to better uses.

But cycling alone will never be enough for a truly sustainable transportation system. In recent years, there’s been a big focus on encouraging drivers to buy electric vehicles instead of those powered by gas or diesel. The government still offers a £3,000 rebate on such purchases — it used to be much higher — but electric vehicles won’t solve the problems of a transport system based around automobiles.

1,770 died on British roads in the twelve months leading up to June 2018, and another 26,610 people were injured. Globally, 1.35 million people die in vehicle crashes every year. Swapping out internal combustion engines for electric motors won’t change that.

The focus on electric vehicles also ignores how resource-intensive they are. We’re rightfully concerned about the destructive impacts of fossil fuel extraction, but building the large batteries required for electric vehicles would significantly increase demand for a range of minerals and there’s no credible evidence that mining wouldn’t come with damage to the environment and harm to communities in the Global South. In essence, we would continue our exploitative relationship with less developed countries to soothe our consciences, not to actually solve the problem.

But the pandemic has shown us another reason to be concerned about the continued dominance of automobiles, electric or otherwise. Exposure to air pollution has been linked to more severe cases of Covid-19 and higher rates of deaths because of how air pollution affects the body. But air pollution doesn’t just come from the tailpipe of automobiles, as many people believe.

Tyres, brakes, and dust on roads account for a lot of the air pollution we breathe, and since electric vehicles tend to be heavier than those powered by gas or diesel because of their large batteries, they can actually produce more of those forms of particulate matter.

This isn’t to say that everyone should keep driving their gas- and diesel-powered cars or that everyone needs to start riding a bike (though the more the merrier in that case). Replacing much of the car use in cities and towns around the United Kingdom (and the rest of the world) will require high-quality transit systems that give people the freedom to easily get around without needing their own vehicle.

Transit has obviously been impacted by the pandemic and social distancing requirements, but that doesn’t mean its key role has changed. The government has given additional funding to Transport for London and other transit operators around the country to ensure they can keep their services running, but this must also be a time to think about what the future of transit should be.

In London, the open streets programme should be built on to reduce the road space dedicated to cars to expand bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes to ensure buses can move more quickly through the city. But there also needs to be a recognition that people need to be able to afford to use the service.

Before the pandemic, London earned the title of most expensive transit fares in the world. That clearly isn’t sustainable. Buses were made free during the worst part of the pandemic, but will have to raise fares again and cut free fares for under-18s as a condition of the bailout from the Conservative government.

Higher fares will not encourage anyone to use transit, especially not to ditch their car to take the bus or the Tube. Instead, as Chris Saltmarsh has argued for Tribune, transit needs to made free and treated as the public service it truly is — and that can’t just be in London.

The deregulation of bus services across England, with the exception of London, by Margaret Thatcher’s government took power out of the hands of local authorities and gave it to private operators. That has resulted in higher fares and many fewer routes that have naturally led to declining bus ridership at the very moment governments need to be encouraging people to use transit by making frequent, high-quality services available in communities around the country.

Obviously, ridership will be lower until there’s a vaccine for Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean that people need to be scared of transit. Many countries, including France and Japan, have shown that with the proper precautions transit can be made safe so the virus doesn’t spread to other passengers. Seoul, which has been very successful at containing the virus, still has plenty of people using transit with mask requirements, additional capacity, and increased cleaning.

The pandemic deserves our best effort to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and to ensure as few people as possible die during this period. But that can’t be a reason to ignore the climate crisis. To that end, the change in how we think about streets has been a rare positive development. It should be seized on to build a better transportation system with more support for cyclists and a much more robust role for transit in communities across the United Kingdom.