Rethinking Local Transport to Achieve Net Zero

Wrapping up the Young Fabians Environment Network’s blog series, Councils and the Climate Crisis: Taking Action Locally, Charlie Hicks, a councillor on Oxfordshire County Council, outlines the role that local authorities can play in shifting transport to being more environmentally friendly. 

To reach net zero in transport, we have to rethink how we design our cities, towns and neighbourhoods, so that we reduce our reliance on private cars. In Oxfordshire County Council, where I am a Labour councillor, we are embarking on this policy goal. Not only will it take carbon out of transport, it also has the potential to increase wellbeing, health and fairness of our local places. 

In Oxfordshire, we have set ambitious targets for car-use reduction that would put us in line with reaching 1.5 degrees: reducing car journeys in Oxfordshire by 1 in 4 by 2030, based on 2019 baseline levels. We are not the only part of the country where Labour is pursuing ambitious transport decarbonisation targets. The Welsh Labour Government is aiming to reduce the number of car miles travelled per person by 10% by 2030 and to increase the proportion of trips by sustainable modes to 35% by 2025 and 39% by 2030, including a new integrated Metro system across South Wales. 

My role in Oxfordshire County Council is to scrutinise our transport work, holding the council to account to follow through on our targets. In this blog I hope to give you a brief overview of our work and introduce you to what local governments can do. This policy area can be thought of in two parts: (1) how to remove or replace existing car journeys and (2) how to build new neighbourhoods in a way that puts walking, cycling and public transport first. 

In our transport system today, the private car is seen by many as the most convenient way to get around. For transport behaviours to change, other modes of transport need to overtake the private car in terms of ease, convenience and cost. To achieve this, councils can turn to “stick” and “carrot” policies, which together need to be both evidence-based and enjoy sufficient public support to be accepted.. “Sticks” reduce the convenience or ease of using a private car, including road-user pricing, reducing road capacity, increasing parking costs, or reducing parking capacity. They are well-evidenced but have lower public acceptability rates than their carrot counterparts. “Carrots” are all the positive benefits that become possible when car-use and congestion is reduced, such as faster public transport, high quality walking and cycling infrastructure, beautiful place-shaping of public realm, and 15-minute neighbourhoods. The carrots are politically popular and help make the sticks more effective. 

In Oxfordshire, we’re starting in the city of Oxford, where congestion is the worst. The sticks include traffic filters, a workplace parking levy and a zero emissions zone that will work together to cut congestion. In turn, this will enable us to deliver the carrots: calmer streets for walking and cycling, a new electric fleet of buses that will be faster and more reliable, and public realm improvements, such as the pedestrianisation of the historic Broad Street in central Oxford. You can read more about our plans here

Local government relies heavily on individual pots of money from national government, so it’s important that we earn the trust as a local authority who can deliver. We are earning that trust, with six Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in Oxford, which prevent short-cutting in cars (the stick) to make it calmer and safer to walk and cycle (the carrot). From this we have learnt much on how to bring the public with us and how to navigate the choppy political waters that comes with making transport changes. Over the summer, alongside the University of Oxford, we ran a Citizen’s Jury with local residents to get more in-depth insight into what local people think about our plans. The Jury broadly supported the plans set out, and provided brilliant insight and recommendations to update and improve the detail.

This backs up my strong belief that there is large public support for these changes, but it is difficult to hear through all the noise. Promisingly, recent local election results suggest that despite the controversy, in areas where Labour delivered these changes, their vote shares were unaffected

The second part of the policy question is how to build new places to live and work in a way that isn’t car-dependent. To tackle this, we need to dive into the details and unpick some deeply embedded ideas, ranging from how car-culture crops up in everyday language and how traffic models that all new developments use make the assumption that we will all travel by private car (see “computer says road” for a deep dive into this issue). 

Preventing future road building and decarbonising how we build new places is the big prize in decarbonising transport. The current government road-building budget sits at £27bn (roads are incredibly expensive to build!). If we design new neighbourhoods and workplaces to be walkable, rather than car-dependent, this money could become a sustainable transport and place-shaping budget. Instead of paying for more tarmac, this huge pot could go into creating new healthy and liveable neighbourhoods, integrated public transport systems of buses, trams and trains, schools, healthcare, sports facilities and shops. By investing in places and bringing amenities closer to where people live, the distances people need to travel are reduced, and walking, cycling and public transport become the obvious first choice. 

There are signs of hope in this area where Labour is in charge. The Welsh Labour Government has paused all major road building and will publish its Roads Review report later this year, which will show how it is possible to stop road building and still meet the mobility needs of citizens. We in Oxfordshire County Council have just delivered a policy on how we will use traffic modelling, called “Decide & Provide”. This moves us away from a default that “new homes = new roads”, which has been the default thinking in the transport sector since major road building began in the mid-20th century. Instead, we decide first of all what modes of transport to make the default, and then design masterplans and build infrastructure accordingly. Not only is this the way to decarbonise the transport system, it is also an important part of making new house-building more politically popular, as neighbouring areas will benefit from more amenities from the new developments, rather than suffer from more car traffic coming through their streets. 

Many of our European neighbours, like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, have been applying these ideas for years. In the UK, we are just at the start of the curve. The changes currently being delivered in Oxfordshire, Wales and under other Labour local governments can provide insights on what works for areas across the UK.

Charlie Hicks is a Labour councillor at Oxfordshire County Council, where he scrutinises the council’s climate and transport work as the Deputy Chair of Place Overview & Scrutiny Committee. He has a background in behavioural science and transport policy research, and is currently studying the Master of Public Policy programme at Oxford University. He tweets at @Charlie_Hicks_ and can be contacted at [email protected].

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