DecarboN8 Covid-19 impact survey results in full

by Richard Walker

illustration of clipboard and pencil

Last month DecarboN8 surveyed our network members. We asked what you would like DecarboN8 to focus on and how you would like to interact with us during the coronavirus lockdown. We are now making those survey results available in full. 63 network members responded, and provided valuable feedback. The message we took from your responses was that you want us to be an important voice in shaping the future decarbonisation agenda. In the past couple of weeks we have launched a call to support evaluation of road space reallocation, started a series of virtual workshops on making the carbon case for shared mobility with CoMoUK and launched a series of webinars on Future Transport Fuels. Lots more to follow on this so watch this space…

We also dipped a toe into the questions of how the lockdown has affected transport demand in different places across the country where DecarboN8 network members are, and how it is impacting the on workload and prospects for the organisations you work for. 47 of you kindly responded to those questions. 70% of respondents were based in the North of England, and 30% from the rest of UK, which gives a feel for the focus and reach of our network.

We are publishing the survey results in full today (postcodes and free text answers have been removed for confidentiality). You can read or download the survey results here:

Transport demand impact

empty rail station

The survey provided some early anecdotal support to reports that more people are cycling and walking, as well as that car traffic and public transport use was drastically down in neighbourhoods across the country.

The free text comments also confirmed that DecarboN8 network members don’t brook being asked silly questions: “I don’t know what traffic levels are like in my nearest city centre as I have stayed at home as requested by the government.”

DecarboN8 network members will be pleased to hear that Greg Marsden and Jillian Anable are launching a new project to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on transport demand in a much more scientifically rigorous manner. We will publish the details of this work shortly – keep an eye out for it by signing up to our newsletter and following us on social media.

Economic impact

Boden storefront with the words "Be kind, be safe" and "We will prevail"

The post-coronavirus economic recession – which the Bank of England is now predicting will exceed any recession seen for over 300 years – will dominate the agenda going forward as we start to come out of lockdown. DecarboN8 will be making the case for a “climate smart recovery”.

Our survey provided some early corroboration of the insight that the impact of the post-coronavirus economic recession is going to vary across people and organisations: 9% expecting their organisation’s workload/income/sales to go up in the year to come, 55% expecting it to go down, and 19% of wise respondents saying it was too early to know.

I undertook some cross-tabulations of the survey data to see if any place-based geography emerged regarding coronavirus immediate impact or future prospects. In fact, no strong geographical pattern emerges according to region/nation or population size of place respondents live in.

If you have any queries about the survey, please don’t hesitate to contact the DecarboN8 team.

The Wuhan Effect? An interesting distraction

Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan China

by Greg Marsden

Traffic levels in Wuhan post lockdown have bounced back to greater than before – The Wuhan Effect is beginning to creep into our professional discourse. Really?

In 25 years of working in transport planning no-one has ever pointed Wuhan out to me and told me that I should be re-thinking UK transport planning on the basis of what is happening there. I’m not saying there are not interesting things to look at in everyday Wuhan. Though, it is one of the less likely places to go thinking about policy transfer.

Why not compare Wuhan to UK cities?

Of course, there is interest in learning from what happens as lockdowns are released. But why might Wuhan actually be the wrong place for us to think about in terms of post-Coronavirus response? Overall, car ownership is less than 200 per 1000 people in China. Even though Wuhan is the ‘motor city’, it is not going to be much higher than that there. The people owning cars in Wuhan will be the richer part of the population and those who have access to ‘Government cars’ for official business – and there is a lot of state business in Chinese cities.

Further differences include really quite different living patterns, with people migrating to big cities and needing to get back to their families. If car traffic has bounced back it may well be that it is the more protected group in society getting back to moving around. What has happened to total person movement levels? What has happened to employment?

I am also amazed that we get drawn into the Wuhan data point rather than thinking about what we already know. The data below shows what happened to traffic levels after the Global Financial Crisis. Four years of reductions in traffic on UK roads. The Office for Budget Responsibility have already said that the impacts of the shutdown will be bigger on the UK and the global economy than the Global Financial Crisis. Why would this recession be somehow bullet proof and see traffic growth?

Traffic levels before, during and after the Global Financial Crisis

What to do instead

Then we should look at the reality of the situation. One of the arguments for the Wuhan Effect is that people will be worried about using public transport. That is a discussion for another day. The long term impacts of this on the future of public transport is really important. However, traffic growth implies that people will not use public transport because they are social distancing (and perhaps because they will not be allowed to limit crowding). They will drive instead.

However, if social distancing is in play on public transport then it is in play everywhere. The activities that people would have been travelling to will also be restricted because of social distancing. In Sweden for example cinemas are open but with a maximum of 50 occupants per screening in a large theatre. Social distancing will mean substantially fewer people will be able to access activities. There is not the space for life to be like it was before. Journeys will have to reduce and so, even with fewer people on public transport, car traffic should also be lower.

We may have more to learn from our closest European neighbours where economic conditions and travel behaviours are more similar. We should also actively seek to understand the different pathways open to us. Lower traffic levels and a requirement for greater social distancing reinforce the need for greater space for walking and cycling. This is the argument for roadspace reallocation which some places have already seized on.

There are choices ahead of us. We should be wary of a growth in the numbers of people finding the car relatively more attractive. However, that is not the same as people driving more. We should make the most of the conditions of lower traffic levels to rebalance the limited space we have to people rather than vehicles and to promote a more equitable plan for recovery.

How we’re working to shape the agenda

As for what actually happens, I’m delighted to announce that I will be working with Professor Jillian Anable and various colleagues from across the UK to deliver a research programme which both tracks and shapes the behavioural responses to the social distancing restrictions and lockdown measures. More on that to follow. To keep up to date on our research and opportunities subscribe to our newsletter

If not now, when? Road space reallocation and climate smart recovery

five people waiting to cross a street attempting to stand 6 feet apart

by Dr Kadambari Lokesh

The Covid-19 “lockdown” restrictions have had a profound effect on travel. Car-based commutes have dropped by about 60-70%. Air quality in our major cities has never been better. However, there are some critical decisions to be taken quickly about how the gradual easing of social distancing is managed. Nowhere is this more visible or pressing than in the conflict between the space afforded to walking and cycling and cars.

The lockdown to date has been a story of people realising, as they take their limited daily exercise, that there is very little space afforded to pedestrians and cyclists, relative to cars. In addition, the recent increase in dangerous driving has shone a light on the ever present tensions between motorists and non-motorists and inequalities of road safety. This has led some cities to temporarily reallocate road space to walking and cycling.

In this post, we ask whether this reallocation of road space is also going to be seen in the UK, at scale, across our towns and cities. If we cannot make conditions favourable to active travel at a time when there are so few cars on the road, then when will we? If ever? And without road space reallocation, how will we mitigate the risk of increases in car use post-lockdown, as residents seek to avoid crowded public transport? The window for policy (and behaviour) change is narrow.

How are cities bringing mobility back?

photo of a temporary bike lane in Bogotá, Colombia
Temporary bike lane in Bogotá (Photo taken by: Gabriel L. Guerrero)

On one hand, we have Wuhan (China), the first city to go into lockdown, facing the biggest surge in car sales and first-time buyers, stemming from the residual COVID-19 anxiety.

On the other hand, Berlin’s Senate Department for Environment, Transport and Climate protection have undertaken two pilot projects by temporarily installing and expanding their cycling facilities in March 2020. The aim of this expansion was to help key worker’s demand for mandatory travel while maintaining the COVID-19 containment regulation. 

Bogotá, the Colombian capital, converted entire motorist lanes into 13 miles of temporary cycle lanes overnight. Standing at a total of 76 miles of cycle lanes, the authority’s aim is to mitigate potential overcrowding on public transport during and after the crisis.

In Milan (Italy), the current network of cycle lanes was further expanded, adding around 22 miles to the cycling network. They have revealed plans to keep these lanes even after the lockdown has eased, in order to address the local air pollution.

Here in the UK, two key roads facing the sea front in Brighton and Hove have been blocked to motorists and allocated for use by pedestrians and cyclists to get their daily dose of exercise.

The spokespeople for all these cities have highlighted that the current emergency powers, coupled with the drop in road traffic volumes, encourages them to capitalise on the situation and push for climate-sensible approaches. Similar strategies have been adopted in Cleveland, Vancouver, Denver and Philadelphia (USA); Calgary (Canada), Budapest (Hungary), Swindon and Glasgow (UK), to date.

Following these climate-smart actions, the Department for Transport have eased rules for putting in place Traffic Regulation Orders, making it easier for authorities to prioritise cyclists and pedestrians. This expands authorities’ emergency powers to encourage public mobility along a safe and sustainable path.

7 reasons why local authorities should act now reallocate road space to pedestrians and cyclists:

It’s good for public health

We need streets which help people maintain safe 2 metre social distancing between pedestrians, runners, cyclists, and people queueing to get into shops. More walking, jogging and cycling can provide the exercise people need for both their mental and physical health, whilst locking in the reductions in noise and air pollution we have seen in recent weeks. 

It’s good for safety

We can also improve road safety and reduce tension between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. We cannot allow the reduction in traffic congestion to simply be translated into more dangerous speeding on our streets and roads.

traffic cones marking car park off limits during Covid19 lockdown

It’s good for residents’ pockets

By offering a safe alternative to those people who struggle to afford the cost of running one or more household cars, we can help with households’ budgets during a difficult time.   

It’s simple and quick to do

Temporary schemes don’t need to be designed and appraised to the nth degree, and can be removed or adjusted later if they don’t work. 

It’s low cost and high impact for councils

Road space reallocation is needed anyway, and it is easier to do right now with less traffic on the road network. Expensive kit is not required for temporary measures, yet can make a big difference for the economic recovery. This would give residents better towns and cities to come back to, whilst delivering safe social distancing. Help avoid a costly return to lockdown, help the NHS, and help save lives.

It’s popular and in demand 

Creative residents in some areas have acted first – putting in place make-shift foot paths and cycle lanes using spray-paint to get things started. Cycling UK is also currently running a campaign which makes it easy to contact your local council to show local support for road space reallocation. Sign up to support the Cycling UK campaign.

DecarboN8 can help

We are currently looking at options for how the DecarboN8 Research Network can best support local authorities in rolling out road space allocation measures. We hope to launch a rapid response funding call to support this. Subscribe to our newsletter now to be the first to find out how to apply.

What you can do to help

Making our streets safe for social distancing and ready for a climate smart recovery matters to us all. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • If your local authority is interested in implementing road space reallocation please email to let us know
  • If you have already seen temporary road space reallocation in your area – whether by the local authority or by residents – please let us know! Email the location, photos, and any details of how it has been received by local residents to
  • If you are a researcher interested in evaluating temporary road space reallocation schemes please sign up to our newsletter and look out for details of funding we hope to make available soon.

Covid-19 and Decarbonising Transport Survey Results

empty streets outside Leeds rail station, with barricades and a road sign that reads "stay home, protect the NHS, save lives"

We put out a short survey earlier this month about Covid-19 and decarbonising transport. In the survey we asked our network members how their work has been affected by the Covid-19 lockdown and how they would like to engage with us over the next few months. We were very pleased with the response, 63 network members completed the survey. We appreciate the guidance that it provides in these uncertain times. Here are some key messages we heard:

Keep on pushing the decarbonisation agenda – even though things will look different

  • The emergency has resulted in 37% of you having more time and 15% having less time available right now to consider the issue of transport decarbonisation (48% no change).
  • Over the next 2-3 months, 92% of you expect to either have enough time or intend to make enough time to devote to considering the issue of transport decarbonisation.
  • You don’t want DecarboN8 to go quiet over the next few months! Instead your preference was to explore the following topics (in order of priority): climate smart recovery followed by longer term transport decarbonisation issues, followed by the impact of the emergency on the transport sector more generally, and how it can cope/react.

Although many of you are busy, there is still a demand for innovative engagement on key topics

  • In terms of formats for engagement, webinars were the most popular choice followed by podcasts and videos.
  • Respondents stated that they were most comfortable using Zoom, MS Teams, and Email. LinkedIn received mixed reviews. Facebook was the least popular among those surveyed.

The impacts of lockdown are huge and likely to have long term impacts too

47 of you completed the second part of the survey on your perception of the impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown on transport use and the economy. The response covered a good geographic spread across the country with representation of different size places. Key messages included:

  • The transport demand reductions you reported match other evidence coming through from official sources and Google: most of you estimated that road traffic was over 50-90% or over 90% down, and that public transport ridership was over 90% down. 
  • 62% of you felt pedestrian traffic had increased in your immediate neighbourhood and 60% said cycling had increased since the lock down began.
  • The crisis is affecting the organisations you work for unevenly: 26% of you say that the impact of the crisis has been to increase the workload/income of your organisation, whereas 26% say it has reduced it slightly, and 21% say it has reduced it a lot.
  • Looking forward over the rest of the financial year, 9% of you think your organisation’s workload/sales/income will increase, whilst 34% of you think it will be mildly negatively affected and 23% severely negatively affected. 

So what can you expect from DecarboN8 next?

Due to the interests expressed by survey respondents we are planning a series of webinars on climate smart recovery. The idea is currently still in the early stages, but we are hoping to deliver a series of two to three place-based events, each featuring speakers from a specific area in the North. We welcome ideas and suggestions about places or speakers that can provide a unique place-based viewpoint on climate smart recovery. As this develops we will share details on the Events page of our website and in our newsletter.

While the lock down seems to be causing some delays for research projects it has been suggested that it could be a good time to release a future research funding call. We are considering how to proceed with subsequent rounds of project funding as we also know that the impacts of time available are very unevenly distributed amongst academics. Details will be shared on our funding page and in our newsletter.

One last takeaway for us is the challenge presented by offering loo roll as a lighthearted prize draw incentive and then needing to find a way to send such an item to our winner who lives halfway across the country in the greenest way possible. It has, however, provided a good opportunity for research into low-carbon last mile options.

miniature bikes, one with tiny rolls of toilet paper in the basket

A great mobility transformation

Row of bright coloured knitted rainbows hanging on a steel gate

By Monika Büscher for de Gruyter

There are no passenger flights, the streets are filled with birdsong, in some countries walking and cycling has increased by 90%, and the air is clear: a silver lining at a time of great tragedy. In fact, the mass (im)mobilisation of Covid-19 is set to enable the largest ever worldwide reduction in carbon emissions. However, so far, the response to the pandemic has at best ignored this astounding achievement, at worst it seeks to reverse it. Why? How could it be otherwise?

Covid-19 is not the cause of the crisis, it is a symptom. Hypermobility, marketisation of healthcare, decades of disinvestment in resilience, inequality and the growth of precarious work worldwide have created perfect conditions for viral spread. Alongside dependence on fossil fuel and insatiable consumption, they are also implicated in the much deeper crises of climate change and environmental destruction. These energetic, political, and economic origins of our time, captured by Karl Polanyi as the mechanisms of The Great Transformation (1944), spell collapse.

Everything is connected

Writing in exile during the second World War, Polanyi foresaw that ‘to allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment … would result in the demolition of society’ (p. 76). Against the odds, societies now are rallying for survival. As governments articulate responses to the pandemic, even conservatives acknowledge that everything is connected. This has brought back the state, with intervention in how people live their lives, run their businesses, support their employees, showing leadership in wrestling the system-ness of epidemiology, economy, and everyday life.

Changing mobility systems of transport, consumption, finance, and information has been a matter of banning all but essential travel, protecting workers, blocking sales of non-essentials, borrowing billions to support struggling individuals and businesses as well as developing countries, and prompting Facebook to implement fact-checking. This has made unprecedented reduction in carbon emissions possible, and it could be for good.

Changes in everyday living are translating alternative concepts of commoning mobility, mobility justice, drift economies, virtual travel, mobile publics into the fabric of society. Virtual travel for work, socialising, e-commerce, and learning in particular, is driving a digital transformation. Before Covid-19, about 3% of US citizens regularly worked from home. Now business analysts estimate that 25-30% of the workforce will do it by the end of 2021.

These changes inspire optimism. But mobilities research shows how digital travel does not just substitute for physical journeys, but may, in fact, increase physical travel. The new mobility patterns are temporary and soon potentially subject to intense surveillant contact tracing, threatening civil liberties. At the same time, there is talk that ‘the real post-coronavirus challenge will be how to shrink the state’, coupled with determined efforts to ‘reopen economies’ with demand stimulus packages, billion dollar bail-outs and weakened environmental constraints for fossil fuel corporations. These measures could waste a precious opportunity to stop business as usual.

Looking to the future

To meet the 1.5° carbon reduction targets set in Paris, the 2019 UN Emissions Gap Report shows that emissions must drop by 7.6 % every year this decade. Covid-19 has made the impossible possible and given us a 4% reduction head start for 2020, together with a sobering sense of the enormity of the challenge. Unprecedented state intervention and new economic, social, and cultural practices have been mobilised to make it happen, inspired by a deep sense of crisis. What does it take to stretch this powerful humanity to address the threat to survival that the climate and environmental crises pose?

Air pollution currently kills 7 million people annually. From 2030 climate change is estimated to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year (WHO). The Worldbank projects that climate impacts could push 100 million more people into poverty, and internally displace 143 million. These crises are accompanied by a ‘new barbarism’ of xenophobia, inequality, poverty, and discrimination, as well as the ecological tragedy of a 6th mass extinction.

We are in the midst of societal transformation, hurtling down two forks of braiding paths. The future we choose now matters vitally. On one side people are racing to deepen Polanyi’s first great transformation, clamouring for a return to normal, propping up fossil fuel extraction and air travel, inciting competition and tolerating the collapse of developing nations. On the other, people are realising that enough is enough, supporting vital societal services, instituting socially just state intervention, global collaboration, less physical and more virtual mobility. By acting on our new visceral understanding that everything can collapse, and how the future is now, as John Urry puts it, we have a unique opportunity to make the current mobility transformation the beginning of a new great transformation that is good for humanity and the planet.

About the Author

Monika Büscher is Professor of Sociology, Director for Research at the Department for Sociology, and Associate Director at the Centre for Mobilities Research, at Lancaster University, UK. Her interdisciplinary research on mobilities explores low-carbon transport innovation, the informationalization of emergency response and risk governance, IT ethics in information sharing, and infrastructuring equitable urban futures. She leads research in range of national and international projects (DecarboN8, GREAT, BRIDGE, SecInCoRe). She has published many articles and books, including Ethnograpies of Diagnostic Work, Mobile Methods and Design Research. Synergies from Interdisciplinary Perspectives. She edits the book series Changing Mobilities (Routledge) with Peter Adey.

Creating the Transport Decarbonisation Plan – Are you in?

by Greg Marsden

Thursday marked the long awaited launch of the first stage of the Department for Transport’s Decarbonisation Plan. It is perhaps not the most eye-catching news item in what is a pretty traumatic period for the UK but it does deserve the attention of everyone in the sector and, as events allow, the UK population.

The title, “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge”, is deliberate. This is not the plan, but an invitation to shape the plan over the next 6 months. The document provides a very transparent view of the nature of the challenge; as shown in the size of the gap between the trajectory implied in the 2017 Green Growth Strategy (not as ambitious as it needed to be) and the current committed policies (of which there is an impressive list).

DfT's latest domestic GHG emissions based on current policies, compared to Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) targets and CCC Net Zero 'Further Ambition' and 'Speculative' scenarios

The science has a significant influence on the framing including:

“This is not optional; There is no plausible path to net zero without major transport emissions reductions; reductions that need to start being delivered soon.” (p58)

There is an acknowledgment that there will need to be a strategy which covers all technologies and all modes and, critically, which involves significant and early action – given the time it takes for technologies to penetrate the fleet. Some of these technologies do not even exist yet and form part of the call to arms for science and innovation.

From the perspective of the DecarboN8 Network, we are delighted to see an emphasis on ‘Place-Based’ decarbonisation, which forms one of the six strategic priorities set out in the document. The plan highlights variations in commute mode shares and levels of on-street parking (and therefore charge point access) in different communities. As the plan develops, it should also address the huge variations in carbon emissions between local authorities, their very different options for decarbonisation, and, their different pathways to zero carbon which will need to be worked out.

As a line in the sand on what we know about transport and carbon and what the existing policy commitments will and will not achieve, this document will stand the test of time. The big question, however, is what happens next? What does an ambitious pathway look like? What is the mix of measures that take us there?

The number of stakeholders is huge, the range of uncertainties significant and the policy choices difficult. Now is the time to make the case for a progressive, effective and ambitious trajectory that maps to the UK’s carbon budget as implied by the Paris Agreement (if events allow).

Some of the issues which stand out in the document for me include:

  • The language of providing easier choices to travel by walking, cycling and public transport. The same applies to better information on CO2 to inform travellers. We’ve been here before. The context of choice matters. The document talks about what we will improve, but not what will be restricted. If issues like pricing of public transport are left out, then the price signals do the choosing more clearly than any carbon calculator ever could. There is not a word on restricting car use.

  • There remains a chronic imbalance in spending on making things better for car drivers versus those travelling by lower or zero emission modes. £532m for three years of extension to the Plug-In Car Grant versus £350m for cycle infrastructure funds for example. I am not arguing to cut the Plug-In Car Grant – but rather that we need to be more ambitious than just increasing cycling from 1% to 2% of distance travelled, and we must fund that commitment properly. The £27bn spend on major roads schemes announced around the budget was not mentioned. For this decarbonisation plan to work it must be at the heart of all decisions in Whitehall – it must move from being a stand-alone statement to one which matters everywhere.

  • There are some parts of the transport system which are going to decarbonise very slowly. With all current commitments on LGVs, emissions may only be 17% lower by 2050. Maritime also has real challenges, as does aviation. If we cannot cut these emissions quickly enough then it will fall to the rest of the sector to compensate. Given the already colossal challenge of decarbonisation of car technology, what this really means is yet more emphasis on demand reduction. Demand reduction is not specifically addressed within the document, at least not the reductions of 20% and upwards which will require major national and local intervention and a plan to grow the economy differently – reductions which cannot be achieved by nudge. One thing we might salvage from the current Covid-19 crisis may just be the opportunity to change this debate and decide to rebuild differently.

  • Finally, I was disappointed to see that the carbon impacts of infrastructure were left to other sectors to consider, as they don’t neatly fit within the carbon accounting protocols for transport. Whilst EVs are lower carbon than petrol cars they are not zero emission and the materials and recycling processes they require are significant. Emissions in construction also matter. The DecarboN8 Network will be working with stakeholders across the North to show just how important it is to take integrated rather than siloed decisions about the total carbon impacts of transport.

I am sure there are many more issues to be debated. I will be doing my best to play a part in those discussions and working hard with our DecarboN8 partners to fill some of the research and implementation gaps. If you like what the DfT have put out, then please take this opportunity to say so – it has been a long road to get here. If you want to see more ambition or a different emphasis then jump up and down and get involved in the discussion. We will see you there!

Covid-19: Other mobilities are (im)possible

Monika Büscher, Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University

Other mobilities are possible. But will a systemic shock engender systemic change?

Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus) has shut down air travel and the global economy, and incited a mass-move online to work, meet, and socialise. When the catastrophe is over, will some of the lessons, values, and new practices stick? Early signs are not promising.

As the news is dominated by Covid-19, the climate, pollution, and environmental crises seem forgotten. Indeed, mobility systems ‘naturally’ seem deserving of billion Dollar rescue packages, even though they are causally implicated in the death of 7 million people from air pollution per year worldwide (WHO), 40,000 a year in the UK, and climate change that will impoverish, displace, and kill more than 240 million people by 2050, whilst incurring $520 billion losses (Worldbank). Might the viral mobilities of Covid-19 eclipse these other crises?

In our current media discourse they already do. The virus is feared in ways that mobilises instant, worldwide societal and economic transformation. In contrast, the threat of looming systemic collapse of vital planetary systems has inspired very little action. It is the multi-causal system-ness of the climate, pollution, and environmental crises that has stopped a mobilities transformation so far. That hasn’t changed.

empty city street

To change mobilities systems, more than disruption is needed.

Learning new ways of living, working, and socialising locally and online is possible and not enough. We also need deeper understanding of, and more mobilities research on: public understanding, reasoning and sense-making practices around system-ness and precarity, causality and responsibility, courage and creativity, social movements and mobile publics, collective and individual capacities for translating understanding to transformation.

For more reflections from other mobilities scholars, see the Critical Automobility Studies Lab.

For more reflections from the DecarboN8 team and to find out how you can contribute to the conversation subscribe to our Newsletter

Coronavirus and the Climate Emergency

by Richard Walker

When I joined the DecarboN8 Network team at ITS on a secondment from the Department for Transport just four short weeks ago, I did not expect to be writing a blog to introduce myself in circumstances of a public health emergency that will change the world drastically. I was expecting to be writing about making 2020 a year of bringing the climate emergency to the top of the political agenda, building up towards meaningful global action on transport decarbonisation at the 26th UN climate summit (COP-26) in Glasgow in November. In this moment though it feels more important to write about coronavirus and what it might mean for the climate emergency.

But as my kids’ ‘LOTRmemes’ Reddit feed tells me, we do not get to decide what our time is, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

A threat growing exponentially gives us little time to adjust to the enormity of what we are facing. This might be a virus; or as the Australians can teach us, a bush fire; or, as the Bahamians could teach us (if only we asked them), a monstrous hurricane. We must try our best to avoid being overwhelmed. First, we need to survive. Then, if we survive, we can ask, how can we make some good come out of this disaster?

DecarboN8 launched in November, and has already built a useful network of researchers, practitioners and active citizens to discuss, assemble evidence and take action on transport decarbonisation. I believe we can already say that its three year timespan will now be years defined by coronavirus and the social, economic and political fallout from it. We must adjust and respond; and make ourselves as useful as possible. What we can do is not yet clear, but those of us locked down at home will have time to think about the question, and we can use this network as a forum to discuss it.

Here is my first contribution to such a conversation, which I hope will involve many and diverse voices from across the DecarboN8 Network. It is a blog on some of the emergencies I have seen, and how they have interacted with the question of transport decarbonisation. I stress that this is a personal account; and represents my own view and not that of my employers.

TL;DR: we have known for 30 years that there is nothing more important than addressing carbon emissions, but again and again emergencies have come along that have, understandably, been deemed more urgent, and which have pushed decarbonisation down the list of things to do. In our own field of transport, far too close to nothing has been done. Can we, somehow, use this new global disaster to galvanise global action on the climate emergency?

Save the earth from coronavirus and the climate emergency

An old timer’s tale

Born and bred in Bolton, I’m a geographer and town planner who has been in the transport planning game since 1991. I worked for the planning, transport and economics consultancy, Colin Buchanan, in places including Oxford, London, Sydney and Shanghai, then for the Greater London Authority, the Strategic Rail Authority and, since 2005, the Department for Transport (DfT). For the last 7 years or so, I have been mostly working on how transport strategy can support the sustainable economic development of the North of England. That time has included secondments out of DfT to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and Transport for the North.

Arriving at a university of 35,000 bright young students brings it home forcibly that I might be getting a bit older than I was. I’m still resisting the idea that I’m just an old timer with little fresh to offer, but I’m content to embrace the notion that I’ve now been around long enough to see a few turns of the wheel.

In 1991 we already knew a lot about climate change. Mainframe computers could churn out forecasts of future temperatures and sea levels that looked catastrophic. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, and ‘Local Agenda 21’ became a thing. Agenda 21 was essentially optimistic: through ‘sustainable development’ we could both fix poverty and save the planet.

I believed then (and still do) that transport planning could help balance our needs and desires for mobility with those for nicer, non-traffic-choked places to live in, whilst also saving the planet. I worked mostly on traffic reduction schemes for congested towns and cities.

In 1997, in the UK, after 5 years of civil society campaigning, the Road Traffic Reduction Act was passed. It was the final law passed by a Conservative government that had been in power for 18 years. Local authorities had to either set a target for reducing road traffic in their area, or explain why they considered it inappropriate to do so. As a young transport planner, it felt like a great success for the transport planners’ balanced approach, especially as a means of reducing transport carbon emissions. Then Tony Blair’s New Labour were elected on a landslide, and things were only going to get better.

The third annual Conference of Parties (COP-3) was held in Kyoto in 1997. The world’s leaders signed a protocol: the time for debate was over – global warming was real, man-made, and the world would act through binding agreements to stop it. Lobbyists, who were being paid by the fossil fuel industry to sow the confusion known as climate change scepticism, had been beaten. Or so it seemed.

But in 2000, US Vice-President Al Gore, who knew that climate change was an inconvenient truth that must be faced, was beaten in the US presidential election. The tied election in Florida was called for Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s brother, Texas oilman George W. Bush. The oilmen were now in control of the US Government, and progress on Kyoto stalled.

The world in crisis

I vividly remember the 9/11 attack on New York City in 2001. It seemed to come out of the blue and was deeply shocking. I ran out of the office and bought a set-top aerial for the cathode ray tube TV in my company’s conference room, so we could watch the live coverage on the BBC. Everybody knew that this meant some major change would now happen, but of course nobody at that time could know that it would launch a ‘war on terror’ that has so far cost between one and three million lives and US$1.8 trillion.

On 15 February 2003 ten million people in 600 cities protested against the invasion of Iraq. I expect most of those ten million would have readily agreed that global warming was the bigger overall issue, but if at the time you had asked them, they would have said – quite understandably – that trying to stop the war was the more urgent issue.

I also remember the global financial crisis of 2007-08, which first came to wide attention in August 2007 with the sight of people queuing down Northumberland Street in Newcastle to get their money out of Northern Rock bank; the first run on a British bank since 1866. By September 2008, the world was within days of the complete collapse of the global financial system.

US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s $700bn TARP bailout saved the US banks. Paulson, whose previous job was chairman and CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs, signed off reclassification of Goldman as a clearing bank 24 hours before it would have gone bankrupt. This move qualified it for a $10bn bailout, no strings attached. Multi-million-dollar bonuses went straight back on the menu. Goldman’s CEO described the company as “doing God’s work”.

The financial system’s cardiac arrest was clearly a big thing, but few foresaw how much the choices made in its aftermath would dominate the decade to follow. Regarding climate change, it was not immediately apparent that the crash would stop progress towards concerted global action on carbon emissions. Arguably, Britain attempted to lead the way – by writing an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 into law, through Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act 2008.

Barack Obama, who understood what climate change was and meant long term, had entered the White House, and people were getting ready for the world to agree binding emissions reductions at COP-15 in Copenhagen in December 2009. But Obama decided that the post-crash recession in the world economy was the more urgent problem and killed a meaningful deal that bound the USA to make serious emissions cuts.

The world recession saw governments’ income from taxation fall, and public sector deficits became a hot issue. In 2010, two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff, made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet and there was a panic about how high public sector debt could safely go.

In Britain, the incoming Cameron/Clegg coalition government’s no.1 priority was to reduce the deficit, both by reducing public sector spending and by leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of growth. In the North of England, the growth agenda was branded as ‘building the Northern Powerhouse’. The UK looked to increase economic productivity using a definition of ‘productivity’ that measured Goldman Sachs bankers as the most productive workers in our economy.

But no sooner had that policy approach started to build up a head of steam than it was itself disrupted unexpectedly – by the Brexit referendum result in June 2016. Yet again, it was not immediately obvious that the ramifications of that shock would dominate the years to follow quite so completely. Despite best intentions, it does seem that the important lesson to learn is that our political system can only deal with one top priority at a time.

In 2016, at COP-21 in Paris, a deal to follow Kyoto was signed. But it placed greater emphasis on what needed to be done than about what would be done. By the end of 2018, the evidence on the ground of global heating as a real and present danger was everywhere – on the ice floes, in the rainforests, in an English country garden. Yet on the political agenda, worldwide, the issue was quiet.

It took a Swedish schoolgirl to remind the grown-ups of what they knew needed to be done, had promised would be done, and had then psychologically buried. In 2019, action on climate change was yanked back towards the top of the political agenda worldwide by youth-led peaceful protests. In the UK, 282 local authorities and the UK House of Commons declared a climate emergency. The British Government declared that it would strengthen its efforts to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and set a new legally binding target of ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.

And now, 2020

9/11 and the global financial crisis were giant emergencies, and they both had repercussions lasting longer than a decade. Yet in terms of both human deaths and economic impact, it’s very possible that coronavirus will become the bigger than both. We don’t know now how bad coronavirus will get in the world outside China, but things look bad.

Warren Buffett said about companies in a recession that when the tide goes out, you discover who’s been swimming without trunks. I think we are going to discover that this aphorism also holds for countries and economic systems.

The past 30 years of emergencies teaches us that we can already say two things: first, that coronavirus will squeeze the climate emergency out of the spotlight for a longer period of time than we presently expect, and second, that however bad it gets, in the long term it is still less important than the climate emergency.

The bush fires in Australia at Christmas 2019 were a clear message for everyone to grasp that we are running out of time to act. We can expect more devastating forest fires across Eurasia and North America in the 2020 northern hemisphere summer. We cannot afford for coronavirus to delay action on decarbonising our lifestyles and the world economy.

City lockdowns and the sudden halt of global aviation will slash world carbon emissions by a surprising amount in a period of a few weeks: the data will no doubt come in soon. Those who said deep cuts in carbon emissions were impossible are now empirically wrong. But the case that carbon emissions can be drastically reduced without provoking economic damage remains unproven.

It seems likely to me that the steps already taken to address this disaster will bring the current 40-50 year epoch in the world economic system to an end. What the economic system of the next epoch will be is currently up for grabs. The Wall Street and City of London boys who kept hold of the top perch after 2008 will be hatching a plan for it, although this disaster may prove too big even for them.

People working in health care, social care, supermarkets, logistics, food processing were defined as recently as a few weeks ago as ‘low skilled’, when what was meant was, they were low paid. By mainstream economics’ official definition, they were low productivity. This week they are the key workers without whom we can’t survive. That is a change already – but they remain the low paid. Will they accept that for long?

Outbreak map

Making use of the DecarboN8 Network

How can the DecarboN8 Network respond to this emergency, and make ourselves useful? First, we should recognise that the economic shock is massive, frightening and disorientating – like getting the disease itself. Second, again like getting the disease itself, if we survive it, we will emerge from it.

New ways of life and a new economy are now on the cards, whether we like it or not. The role of the DecarboN8 must be to keep the climate emergency and transport decarbonisation high on the political agenda as we emerge from the aftermath. We must assemble evidence, come up with ideas, and support our members to take action.

Through the DecarboN8 Network, you can play a role and have a voice in that. DecarboN8 will be reaching out to you soon, so watch this space. Together, let us find ways to deliver a climate smart recovery from this severe global crisis which is more equitable and future-proof.

Fuel Duty Freezes and Hard Working Families

DecarboN8 Director, Professor Greg Marsden, explains why the fuel duty freeze is counterproductive for both people and planet

Last week’s budget heralded a “record tenth year in a row” of a fuel duty freeze, which the Budget document suggests is part of “cutting the cost of living” and “helping hard-working people keep more of what they earn”. Tax doesn’t go up, people are better off, what’s your problem with that? Move on right?

As with any announcement, you need to peel back the spin to really think about who this is a benefit for and under what terms it might be heralded a benefit. There are five issues which sit underneath this which need unpicking if the debate on how we pay for travel is ever going to be socially progressive and contribute positively to climate change. These are:

  • It is a tax break which benefits those who drive the most and, therefore, the wealthiest in our society (who also pollute the most)
  • It widens the affordability gap between public transport and private car use at a time where we need more people to switch away from the car
  • It pushes more people into car ownership who, despite the fuel subsidy, cannot really afford to own a car (bear with me on this!)
  • It generates extra car traffic – taking us away from a discussion we absolutely have to have about how we pay for transport use in the future
  • It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you work hard

I take each of these in turn.

It benefits the well off the most

The chart below shows the average number of miles driven by car by each of the five income quintile groups in the UK (data from the 2018 National Travel Survey). It doesn’t require a degree in maths to spot the inequality here. The wealthiest income group drives just over three times as far as the least well-off group, meaning this tax break will benefit the wealthiest the most. The Treasury estimates the “average motorist” has saved £1200 cumulatively as a result of the ten years of fuel duty freeze – but this framing hides the fact that when you factor in how many miles are driven, then the highest income group has benefited around £1760 and the lowest £570.

chart showing miles driven by each income group

Just to put the figures in context, the cumulative £1200 benefit would fund three and half years of access to all public transport for the city of Vienna. It is a choice where we put our tax breaks and subsidy.

It widens the affordability gap to public transport

Household expenditure on fuel is around one-third of all motoring costs, the remainder being purchase, insurance, parking, servicing and repairs. In the decade 2008 to 2018, the Retail Price Index (a measure of how much things cost) has increased 31% in real terms. Overall motoring costs have increased by the same amount with fuel costs increasing by less (15%) but costs like insurance rising more quickly.

It is when you compare the price increases with public transport that the arguments for holding back fuel duty rises seem bizarre. Rail costs have increased by 49% and bus, coach and taxi by 66% over the decade to 2018, more than twice the rise in motoring costs. This is a result, in part, of deliberate government decisions to recover a greater percentage of the costs of running the railway from passengers by allowing large annual fare increases. The bottom line is that public transport is being made less affordable than driving.

It pushes more people into car ownership who cannot afford it

How can a policy which is holding down prices on fuel be bad for those who are hard up? The reason for this is that around five per cent of all households own a car despite not having enough money for items such as a washing machine, adequate heating or one week’s holiday away from home. This figure is 11% for households with four or more people (hard-working families perhaps?). This is referred to as forced car-ownership. More in-depth analysis of the reasons for this shows that people get access to a car to overcome the expense, limited service patterns and lack of early morning and evening provision of public transport. This is coupled with less secure employment and housing insecurity in the private rented sector to create conditions where a significant proportion of the population are forced to own a car to work around these wider failings in public service provision. It is certainly not a desirable choice to own a car at the expense of basics such as heating or phone access – such decisions are driven by necessity not luxury. This can be contrasted with Germany where only 5% of households with four or more people fall into the forced car ownership category. Again, the decision to provide tax breaks for fossil fuels rather than to fund public transport is a policy choice, and one which draws people into needing a car when they cannot afford one even with a fuel duty subsidy.

Forced car ownership – if you own a car and cannot afford three of these
1. to face unexpected expenses (of an amount equivalent to the monthly poverty line in the respondent’s country);
2. one week annual holiday away from home;
3. to pay for arrears (for mortgage or rent, utility bills or hire purchase installments);
4. a meal with meat, chicken or fish (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day;
5. to keep home adequately warm;
6. to have a washing machine;
7. to have a colour TV;
8. to have a telephone (fixed landline or mobile);

It generates extra traffic

There has never been a clear narrative about what fuel duty is for, even during the time of the fuel duty escalator in the 1990s. What policy arguments might have existed for using it as a tool to manage travel demand seemed to evaporate at the time of the Fuel Duty Protests and have yet to re-appear. What is irrefutable is that when prices rise, demand drops, and when prices fall, demand rises. Estimates vary but in the short run, for every 10% increase in fuel price distance travelled falls between 1% and 5% and vice versa. So, the policy of the past decade has been to stimulate a growth in road traffic which, in turn, fuels demand for more road infrastructure to tackle the even busier pinch points which result. All of this is contributing to the climate change problem and is one of the reasons why emissions from transport have flat-lined and are now the largest sector of the economy.

We have known since the oil price spikes of the 1970s that one way in which people respond to fuel price increases has been to buy more fuel-efficient cars. What has become clear over the past decade is that cheaper motoring costs, coupled with cheaper financing deals for new cars has flipped this on its head. Research has recently shown that sales of Sports Utility Vehicles have outstripped sales of Battery Electric Vehicles by 37 to 1 in 2018, almost quadrupling to 21% of all new car sales over the past decade.

Of course, fuel duty is a fairly limited policy tool. It is a one-size fits all tool which has to work in rural and urban areas. It is also increasingly subject to challenge given the ambition for all new cars to be electric by 2035. There will not be any fuel duty by 2035 and we currently just pay 20% VAT on domestic electricity. If no changes are made to how we pay for travel, the Department for Transport suggests that by 2050 traffic levels will have risen by 42% more than if we did not make switch to electric. Think of the additional demands for road construction and the pressure on our urban areas where expansion is not possible that this would bring! Is that a future we want? Given that we cannot muster the political will to deliver even a marginal increase in fuel duty, I am sceptical that we can find the will to address this urgently needed system wide transition.

Do hard-working families benefit from the fuel duty freeze?

Where to start on this one? Well, of course some do. But what about the households that don’t own a car? The ones facing annual price hikes for public transport? Around one in four UK households do not own a car. This is as high as 45% in London and as low as 15% in the South West. Perhaps the people in the South West all work harder than those in London? As I showed earlier, the highest income families will get three times as much benefit from the fuel duty freeze compared to the lowest earning families. Perhaps the rich work harder than the poor then? These comparisons are as ridiculous as the ‘hard-working families’ trope itself. If this is about lowering the cost of living for families who are struggling, then it is extremely poorly targeted.

In conclusion

As the terrible events surrounding the outbreak of the Coronavirus continue to unfold, it could seem trivial to debate one or two pence on the cost of a litre of fuel. However, when life begins to return to ‘normal’ the points raised above will not have gone away, and the climate emergency will still be here. It seems likely that oil prices will be depressed as the global economy faces a long recovery period so, what funds are available will best be targeted towards helping the public transport system recover and supporting the most vulnerable and hard-up to use it. Hopefully, this is the end of the road for fuel duty freezes.

Budget 2020 – Transport: We can’t build our way out of the climate challenge

DecarboN8 Director, Professor Greg Marsden, analyses the implications of Budget 2020 for decarbonising transport

The budget is a missed opportunity to rebalance what we spend our transport funding on. Too much capital spending on road schemes will undermine the increases in spending on public transport, as will the 10th consecutive year of frozen fuel duty. Experience shows roadbuilding just generates more traffic and we can no longer afford to add to the size of the carbon challenge.  When the climate emergency demands a new approach that commits governments to create the conditions where we can travel less by car, we are spending more on roads.

The Budget proposes a £5.2bn budget for spending on major infrastructure investment in our major cities, all to be spoken for by 2025. This is on top of £5bn announced for investment in walking, cycling and bus improvements. This is all welcome and necessary but insufficient. Even with the most optimistic EV adoption pathways we will need to reduce the amount we travel by car by at least 10% and more than double bus, rail and cycling by 2030 and then do even more out to 2050. This funding will help deliver major public transport capacity improvements. However, we also require subsidy for service frequencies and fares to enable more routes to be available at more times of the day and night so people can use public transport for their everyday needs. We see no sign of this switch to revenue support in the budget, where capital spending remains king.

Contrast the £5.2bn for public transport to “the largest ever investment in English strategic roads, with over £27 billion between 2020 and 2025”. When we build more roads or add capacity we encourage more driving. Add to this the freeze in fuel duty for a “record tenth year in a row”. The OBR estimates that fuel duty freezes mean there has been a 40% real-terms fall in the tax share of GDP which fuel duty provides since 1990 as motoring gets cheaper. The result? New car sales of SUVs have sky rocketed as consumers have traded up the lower costs of motoring and better engine technology to bigger cars. 37 SUVs were sold for every Battery Electric Car in 2018. Whilst there is a welcome continuation of incentives for the Plug-in-Car Grant those are still well below those in countries such as Norway who lead the way.

If we cannot be compliant with our carbon pathway without reducing how much we drive then why on earth are we building more roads? They won’t be needed if the other things we have to do take priority. At the very least there should be a moratorium on new road construction until the penetration of EVs in the fleet is close to 100% – so not any time in the period of this budget. One of the key problems is that the Treasury appears to be writing the cheques on what the balance of spending will be before the Department for Transport publishes its long awaited Decarbonisation Strategy. Given the recent experience with the legal challenge to the third runway at Heathrow, it would not be surprising to see further court challenge to this “infrastructure first” approach in the coming months.

The focus on shovel-ready infrastructure expansion on the roads will, regrettably simply dig us a bigger climate hole to get out of.

induced demand