We Can’t Stop Climate Change Without a Transport Revolution

The only way to avoid climate disaster is to radically overhaul how we travel – but the market won't deliver a future of high-speed rail, affordable buses and infrastructure for cycling.

Transport contributes 27% of the UK’s CO2, compared with 16% globally. Credit: Getty Images

To combat climate change, we need to decarbonise all sectors of society as quickly as possible. At 27%, transport is the UK’s largest emitter of CO2, compared with 16% globally. It is also the sector that is decarbonising the slowest, at just -5% since 1990.

The bulk of the emissions come from our dominant mode of transport: cars. The dominance is so complete that many of us reflexively get into our cars, without considering alternatives, even when more than half the time we drive alone, and as 60% of our trips are shorter than four miles.

The dominance of cars is in part the result of an ideology that pushes aside social and environmental consequences. Motor manufacturing became the most important industry of the 1950s and 60s, largely because its significant exports helped to stabilise the post-war economy, and it grew domestic consumption.

New advertising techniques created attachments to cars, driving so-called consumer demand. Car ownership became, for a time, a marker of affluence. By 1970, the motor industry and road haulage association, together with the AA and RAC, had become the most influential lobbying block in parliament. They still have significant influence today.

UK governments have responded to this largely passively, by expanding the road network, to the detriment of other modes of transport. Pedestrians were pushed onto pavements and behind railings. From an early pioneer, the UK turned into one of the worst countries for cycling in Europe. The unpopular Beeching Cuts devasted the railway network. And privatisation is killing bus services.

The Cost of Cars

Our over-reliance on cars has had catastrophic consequences. Thousands of people die in crashes every year and hundreds of thousands get injured. The majority of casualties tend to be ‘vulnerable road users’ like cyclists and pedestrians.

Cars cause a wide range of other physical harms. They contribute to our inactivity epidemic, leading to serious diseases like obesity and diabetes, and are a major cause of urban air pollution. Exposure to dirty air disrupts the normal lung development of children, causing asthma. The nearly constant traffic noise we suffer is linked to sleep disruption, raised blood pressure, and mental health problems.

Unsurprisingly, these harms are unevenly distributed across society. Deprived areas suffer more from heavy congestion, air pollution, noise, and crashes. Worst of all, poor children are the social group most vulnerable to traffic injuries and deaths.

Being a car-dominated society comes with a heavy social burden, too. In neighbourhoods plagued by heavy traffic, people have fewer social interactions and lower levels of trust, and participate less in social activities.

Despite these problems, people on low incomes, particularly in rural or badly connected neighbourhoods, who would otherwise have to face unreliable and unaffordable public transport often rely on cars to go about their daily lives. They have to endure the downsides of congested commutes, while the high costs of car ownership eat away at their already low disposable income; those who can’t afford cars suffer from reduced access to employment and services—and we don’t have the infrastructure to get around safely and conveniently by bike. These are the people a transport revolution would serve best.

Our Transport Policy is a Car Crash

Conservative politicians have long been enthusiastic about road building and cars. Margaret Thatcher enthusiastically opened the M25, calling it a ‘magnificent achievement’. More recently, Rishi Sunak re-heated George Osborne’s massive road building programme: the Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2).

RIS2 incorporates a spend of £27 billion, £14 billion of which is going on new roads. These plans are presented as forward-looking, anticipating future needs and vital to continued economic growth. Particular schemes tend to have vague aims like ‘reduce congestion’, ‘facilitate growth’, and ‘improve safety’.

The only problem is that building more and bigger roads simply doesn’t do those things. Building roads actually causes congestion. New road space quickly fills up with cars travelling longer distances. After a short while congestion returns or moves to the nearest bottleneck. This counter-intuitive effect is called ‘induced traffic’.

In an attempt to ‘reduce traffic congestion and boost economic growth’, a section of the M25 was recently expanded from three to four lanes. This 33% expansion was achieved by allowing traffic onto the hard shoulder, with obvious safety implications.

The result was a resounding failure. Initially, travel times reduced slightly, but by year two they were back where they started. More local drivers started ‘junction hopping’, using the motorway for local journeys. They were driving longer distances at greater speeds. Congestion remained static, drivers paid more for fuel and emissions increased.

Spending on other means of local transport lags far behind by comparison. The Covid Emergency Active Travel Fund was a measly £467 million. £2 billion is allocated for a new long-term cycling and walking programme, with few published details. Spending on buses is decreasing across the country, and the main objective of rail policy is ‘driving down costs’.

A Motorway Through Derby

In Derby, where I live, Highways England (HE) is proposing to spend £250 million on rearranging three junctions. This will turn the A38 into a de-facto motorway through the city. The route cuts through three large residential areas, runs along several busy local parks, and passes half a dozen schools, the university, and Derby’s major hospital.

Local campaigners oppose this project mainly on environmental grounds: the release of 131,000 tonnes of CO2 from construction, the loss of thousands of trees and the destruction of wildlife habitats. Other downsides include the removal of public space, eviction of local residents, and the demolition of houses. The project will cause at least four years of severe congestion, and when finally finished, will increase traffic.

Earlier this year, the ‘Stop the A38 Expansion’ campaign won an important victory. A crowd-funded legal challenge got the development consent order quashed in the High Court. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had to admit that, by overriding advice from civil servants, he had acted unlawfully. No adequate environmental impact assessment had been carried out.

Derby’s annual transport budget is a £44 million. With £250 million, spent the right way, the city could be transformed. We could re-allocate road space away from cars, fix pavements, create accessible and child-friendly crossings, and connect and improve existing active travel infrastructure. We could expand and subsidise public transport, and fund training and advice for people who want to move away from cars.

This kind of transformation would be equitable and benefit everyone: children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people too poor to own cars. Ironically, drivers too would benefit. As fewer locals would use the A38, congestion would naturally decrease. The benefits for health and well-being, in a city plagued with severe (even illegal) air pollution would be immeasurable.

There are other ongoing local battles against damaging road expansion projects, like the Silvertown Tunnel in London. And on a national level, ‘Transport Action Network’ is challenging the entire £27 billion road investment strategy. These campaigns urgently need our support.

COP26 is a Dead End

Globally, COP26 offers little hope for a just transition to a low carbon transport system. The programme includes a vague declaration to start discussing ‘green shipping corridors’ and the beginning of a ‘collaboration to discuss an ambitious long-term goal for international aviation emissions’. In other words: no action. There is also nothing on non-motorised transport (still very common in large parts of the world) and nothing on rail.

For road transport the usual fake silver bullet is rolled out: electric vehicles. Supposedly, ‘this is the COP that will kick start the mass market for zero emission vehicles.’ Never mind that there are currently no true zero-emission vehicles—except bicycles.

Car companies were slow to get on board, but are now successfully co-opting the global struggle against climate change. They are happily selling a convenient myth: no revolution is needed, innovation will take care of us. If we just buy the right products, we can consume our way out of the crisis. One of the COP26 sponsors is Jaguar Land Rover, a company that produces mainly luxury SUVs. That’s exactly what we don’t need.

Transport Justice From Below

There is no shortage of transport infrastructure to fix and improve. Local roads are littered with potholes. Pavements are bumpy quilts of crumbling tarmac, full of badly placed ‘street furniture,’ bins, parked cars and ad hoc construction sites. There aren’t enough ramps and safe crossings. For people with limited mobility, or using aids to get around, our streets are a nightmare.

Rural bus services are at best infrequent, at worst facing extinction. Useful train services are crushingly over-crowded and eye-wateringly expensive. Safe, convenient, and coherent infrastructure for active travel (walking, running, cycling, scooting) and micro-mobility (electric scooters, mobility aids) is virtually non-existent.

But transport justice will not come from above. Car companies and their lobbyists only care about selling more cars. They will strongly resist any attempt to make driving less desirable. No national political party has a convincing plan to address the severe injustices caused by our transport system.

It is left to us to organise locally, nationally, and internationally. We must work to bring together all the people ill-served by the current system: the young, the old, the poor, people with disabilities, those who live in deprived neighbourhoods, and everyone who cares about a just climate transition.

For any transport policy, we need to ask the right questions, and we need to demand positive answers. Will this improve public health? Will this help the disadvantaged? Will this strengthen local communities? Will this contribute to our fight against climate change?

In the words of José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the Allende government: ‘Socialism can only come by bicycle.’