Sustainable Transport – How do we move forward?

7 01 2010

The need to make changes to our travel behaviour has been near the top of the political agenda for the past couple of decades. Some nations will advocate improvements in technology alone (e.g. hydrogen fuel cell cars) as the complete solution to Climate Change.  However, most agree that a mixture of measures is required to solve the wider sustainability problems associated with transport.  I believe that, as well as new technological advances, behavioural change towards travel decisions is also a necessity.

Traffic Congestion

The future for the car?

Climate Change is often used as the main reason for persuading people to make changes to their personal travel ‘habits’.  However, when the technology being developed is finally implemented (which I’m sure will happen in the decades to come) and private vehicles release no greenhouse gas emissions, I wonder whether attitudes to private car use will remain the same?

It could be argued that those who currently drive around with a ‘feeling of guilt’ (due to environmental concerns) would in the future (with this technology in place), drive around free of any concern of the other impacts they are causing (i.e. social, economic and noise impacts etc).  This, assuming that the running and buying of a private vehicle continues to be relatively affordable, could result in a further increase in car usage (perhaps at a faster rate even than at present) and a consequent increase in congestion.

I believe that the aim should be to encourage behavioural change in travel decisions.  This should be in parallel with the technology that will inevitably (and crucially) be developed and implemented in the decades to come. Few doubt that private vehicles will still be used in 100 years time, albeit with non-polluting engines, but the questions that remain to be answered are:

  1. What is the maximum number of private vehicles that can be sustained for a given level of service (given safety, congestion, noise issues etc)?
  2. How will the private vehicle users be restricted – assuming population and wealth growth at the current rate?
  3. How will those that have to use alternative modes of travel be persuaded to do so without the feeling of inequality?

1.  How many vehicles can be sustained?

The answer to the first question will depend on the size of the road network in the future (i.e. will it be cut down to a manageable level, like Dr Beecham did to the railways?)  Cost constraints mean that new large scale road schemes are unlikely to be permitted in the future.  What will the capacity be of various sections and zones of the network (assuming Intelligent Transport Systems are implemented where feasible), given agreed safety, congestion levels etc.

Localised measures such as:  staggered working hours, tele-working and car-sharing should become more widespread, in order to reduce the likelihood of congestion and its resulting social and economic impacts.

2.  Who should have the right to drive?

This second question is the most contentious.  However, I believe that, assuming population and wealth continue to grow at about the current rate, it will need to be addressed.  The economists’ answer would be to impose a varying charge on the driver depending on the social, economic and environmental impact of their journey(s).

I agree with market principles being applied to most things, but not issues of environmental importance.  Such issues should, in my opinion, be dealt with through regulatory measures.  Regulation would ensure that ambitious targets are definitely met.   Economic measures, however, are based on assumptions about predicted human behaviour, which is notoriously unreliable and all but certain to change.  Road pricing strategies may be an effective ‘quick-fix’ solution to congestion and its by-products, but its long term effectiveness is questionable.  It also has the potential side effect of diverting traffic onto less suitable roads, to avoid payment.

The economic approach also appears to discriminate for the more prosperous sector of society, selecting those who are allowed to drive based on their wealth, as opposed to their driving skill.

An alternative solution would be to discriminate for the most skilled driver.  As contentious as this may appear, a more rigorous driving test (perhaps with compulsory refresher lessons / tests every 5 or 10 years), with a lower pass rate, would result in fewer cars on the road and those left would be the most skilled and safest.  Local pass rates could be pre-determined to coincide with the local area network capacities.  Of course people will migrate from place to place, but forecasts for determining adequate capacities are never perfect and so the criteria for determining an acceptable pass rate would have to be agreed between all the relevant authorities.

There is, of course, the danger of further exacerbating the non-licensed driver problem with this type of scheme.  It becomes clear that, in light of this issue, this type of scheme may require more advanced enforcement measures to be in place than we currently have.  There has been much debate in the recent past about the practicalities of implementing new technologies, capable of identifying a registered driver to the vehicle they are driving.  Obviously, for any such scheme to work well, better enforcement (whatever the operational details are e.g. passcode ignition systems, automatic vehicle/driver identification and matching etc) would have to be in place and this would require cost-benefit analysis of the various options.

Another, perhaps (slightly) more socially acceptable solution, would be to ration road space based on scores gained in driving tests.  This would then allow those that need to drive (e.g. single parents in inaccessible areas), but are not the most skilled drivers.  Of course the major barrier against this type of measure is the technology needed for enforcement (and deciding what is a necessary journey or deserving case!).

The mention of rationing road space and the enforcement measures that would be required to operate such a scheme, of course, invoke thoughts of George Orwell’s 1984.  It should, however, be acknowledged that drastic measures will be necessary in order to ensure a safe and efficient transport system into the future.  That said, we should make more widespread use of existing, ‘softer’ measures (such as staggered working hours, car sharing etc), before implementing these ‘harder’, more permanent measures in the future.

3.  Enticing people to alternative modes!

The key to answering this third question is in trying to understand why we have become so attached to our cars.  Transport Psychologists suggest that it is a mixture of Geography (land-use in the last 60 years has been largely shaped around private car use) and Economics (individual wealth has increased, whilst mass production techniques have improved, making private cars more affordable).

Public Transport

Public Transport

I believe that it is also the feelings of autonomy, security, convenience, reliability and personal image that strongly influence a person’s car use.  A lack of one or more of these positive feelings is a major discouraging factor for alternative modes.  Of course, a person’s relative accessibility to amenities and alternative transport (geography) and whether they can afford to make the journey by these alternative modes (economics) are important factors too.  But, the current overall land-use arrangements are not something that can be changed overnight (although incremental changes are already being made) and it would be wrong to deny people the wealth and trappings of wealth which they have earned.

Many would argue that the most effective way of instigating modal shift is to discourage car use by removing some of the positive feelings associated with driving.  It is my personal preference for encouragement over discouragement (carrot and stick).  The primary focus should be on encouraging people to use alternative modes, as opposed to discouraging them from using the car.

Alternative means of transport

Alternative Transport

So with that view in mind, the owners, designers and operators of alternative modes (whether that be trains and buses, or walking and cycling facilities) need to look to match (or better) some or all of the positive feelings (or benefits) associated with driving.  Of course it would be impossible for one alternative mode to incorporate all the benefits associated with private car use, because some of those benefits are unique to driving a car, i.e. autonomy and personal space.  However, different people travel for different purposes, requiring different attributes in a journey.  For example, price is important to holiday makers, whereas convenience is important to commuters.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to consider is political will.  Without the political will, most of the above ideas are non-starters.  The main issue is that in our democracy the public know what they want, but not necessarily what is good for them (at least in the long run).  As a consequence they seek quick-fix solutions from politicians, who are quite happy to provide them provided that they get their vote.  The answer (without making radical changes to the current political structure) lies in making incremental, but purposeful changes to the transport system towards a long term, sustainable goal.

I don’t believe there are any all-encompassing, singular, earth shattering solutions to the sustainability problem.  I think that all the solutions we need we already have.  A mixture of measures will be required to ensure an adequate degree public acceptability, whilst ensuring the necessary targets are met for road safety, congestion, economic efficiency and social disturbance.  And if politicians act decisively and bravely, they will.

James Bailey  Senior Consultant

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4 responses

15 01 2010
nick j stilwell

it will require brave actions, but I would doubt that we are talking £5 or £10 per litre. It would need to be costed and explained. It would need ring fencing to expenditure on Transportation and Road Safety, but it would be a real deterrent to excessive and unnecessary use of the private car.

7 01 2010
nick j stilwell

Interesting article, but I believe its time we did something radical. We should get rid of Road Tax and put it all on petrol. Included in the levy should be automatic 3rd Party insurance (you would pay for comprehensive). This way, no need for road pricing, those who use the most pay the most. It would discourage use, encourage more efficient cars, cut CO2 AND remove non-insured driving. Invest the income on improved public transport. Job Done.

11 01 2010
James Bailey

Thanks Nick. I agree that something radical needs to be done and certainly consolidating road tax and 3rd party insurance may help to simplify things for the driver (practicality issues aside). However, I still think that something regulatory needs to be done to prevent certain people from driving, or driving as much, rather than relying on the market and economic solutions to sort the problem out.

14 01 2010
Wendy Davis

Interesting idea-but it will be a very brave politician who introduces the £5/£10 (?) litre of petrol. Will people steal cars for the petrol rather than the car? Will the cost of petrol exceed the price of gold?

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