TAPAS.network | 3 July 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Lifestyle choice, not modal choice, needed to really tackle transport’s climate problem

Peter Stonham

ADDRESSING TRANSPORT'S climate change implications and very substantial carbon deficit is generally acknowledged to be something that must involve more than changing the fuels in the vehicles we use, as the Committee on Climate Change again emphasises in its critical new report to Government. It is the latest entity to be alarmed at the rate of progress towards Net Zero, and the apparent lack of urgency on that mission within Government, and recognition of its full required extent.

Helpfully, as well as its overall report with a detailed assessment of where all the various transport activities stand on the journey towards decarbonisation, the Committee has published a number of supporting studies looking at the specific elements, including one, produced by consultant WSP, addressing the important subject of modal change in transport, and what are the conditions and levers that can expedite a switch to more sustainable choices.

The committee clearly states its belief that behaviour change should be a key element in achieving Net Zero.

It may be that the time is ripe for such a recalibration. The report, Understanding the Requirements and Barriers to Modal Shift, notes that the transport sector is going through significant changes. New transport modes, technologies and business models are emerging at a previously unseen pace. This also means that new types of interventions are being trialled and existing approaches are being refined. The options for the specification of the interventions are widening, the report believes.

For example, in the area of customer experience, until quite recently, the main option for public transport charging was paper based tickets, it says, whereas today, the options include smart cards, contactless payment cards, and various phone-based and app-based tickets which may provide more attractive options for users. However it should be noted that the rate of adoption is uneven, and it is dangerous to assume that everyone is ready and able to make the switch. Some of the options rule out the unbanked and those who are not technologically savvy, and raise awkward questions about the desirability and acceptability of a rush towards a cashless society. Transport would be ill-advised to get too excited about being the agent or standard bearer of that social change in a political climate where resistance is growing. We should remember the mounting association of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and the 15 minute city, rightly or wrongly, with threats to personal freedom. These factors should all be considered when developing new initiatives to promote more sustainable travel behaviour.

The modal change report to the Climate Change Committee notes that the fact the transport landscape is going through significant changes begs the question of whether the key message relating to sustainability and the move to Net Zero should also start to change. Over recent years, there has been extensive work to alert individuals about the harmful effects of internal combustion engine vehicles and push them to change modes, it notes. But there is a danger of that being taken to mean that by using EVs rather than ICEs, it is job done.

With electric vehicles becoming more prominent, and the UK edging closer to the banning of sales of petrol and diesel vehicles in 2030, might now be the time to switch the focus away from just reducing emissions, towards matters like the quality and best use of public space, particularly in urban areas, the behaviour change study muses. Electric vehicles are likely to succeed in reducing most emissions, but there will continue to be space and intrusion issues surrounding private vehicles, the report points out, as despite numerous interventions, many cities worldwide are still designed in a way which is dominated by the private car. This parallel issue of public interest in the nature of urbanisation and city life at a time of rising temperatures may need addressing in its own right as a matter of political significance. As the CCC notes, England has already had a 6.6% increase in urban population between 2011-2020, though the Pandemic seems to have prompted a greater interest in country or suburban living for those who can afford it.

In addition to transport provision changing, with new technologies and business models, we are also going through demographic changes that are impacting transport decisions. The younger generation are now considerably less likely to own a car, but are not always perhaps as fully sensitive to the implications of their new transport choices as they care to think, often preferring to simply call an Uber rather than catch a bus, although they may also be attracted to new and not yet fully regulated and approved modes such as e-scooters and other power-assisted personal mobility. The overall societal benefits and carbon costs of these ‘new modes’ are in any case not yet clearly codified.

Another underlying change is the way society’s attitude to work has been influenced by the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, where trends of ‘home working’ and new patterns of daily travel have emerged. Though perhaps a better description might be ‘non-office working’, given the choices some are making to go to hubs and hot-desking environments, rather than their employers’ premises.

And not everyone involved in transport policy and provision seems convinced that less commuting is a good thing, with rail and buses taking a revenue hit, and town centre economies given another push downhill. Once again, this illustrates our relative economic dependence on transport-hungry activity.

This all emphasises the complexity of finding the right solutions to cater sustainably for the changing mobility and accessibility requirements of the population.

Leisure travel is another rapidly-evolving area in travel behaviour with a set of often contradictory and counter-acting effects. Whilst the movement of younger people away from car ownership and use may be a positive in carbon terms, the same cannot be said for their infatuation with carbon toxic air travel. Indeed, the Climate Change Committee raises strong concerns at the significant programme of airport expansion planned and underway in the UK at a time when sustainable aviation is far from being a near prospect.

Much of the discussion must therefore inevitably come back to the connection of transport, travel and lifestyle.

Whilst the WSP modal choice study is an interesting piece of work, raising a set of key issues, it perhaps ducks the fundamental issue, one step back from the matter of transport modal choice. That is the fact that it is not just which way people choose to travel that is significant, but also the quantum of transport and travel activity in general that has driven a wide range of environmental problems.

This in turn has all resulted from a consumer society in which individual behavioural choices, not least those in the realm of movement and mobility, have been effectively elevated to the status of fundamental freedoms, even entitlements.

Logically, seeking to change modal choices cannot avoid raising the question of how far it is possible to modify these deeply held lifestyle paradigms and expectations, as existing travel behaviour is largely a mirror of them.

There are imaginable scenarios in which people still move around a great deal, enjoy the expression of personal choices and fulfilments they have become used to, but at a quantum and in a pattern of ways that are less damaging than now, driven by a more carefully chosen approach to personal travel decision-making. But some overall reduction in individual activity may still need to be accepted.

This would require a far greater awareness at the point of both planning and consumption of the resources required, the externalities created, the level of social equity that they recognise, and the kind of planet and human society that the majority believe is desirable.

The detailed connection between the demand for travel, its consequences and how some lifestyle choices can be far less damaging than others is a much neglected topic. Probably so because it raises awkward matters of challenging current levels of consumption and belief in what we are all entitled to that neither politicians or other key influencers in the modern consumer economy will be comfortable to address.

Transport’s part in the established framework linking economic growth, personal betterment and happiness deserve much closer scrutiny. A new more sustainable balance might simply need to mean less transport and travel. 

So far, however, there is precious little discussion of what type of lifestyle a less transport-dependent society and economy would imply — let alone anyone seemingly willing to promote it.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT872, 3 July 2023.

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