Claire Walters, chief executive of Bus Users UK, emphasises the importance of proper planning and infrastructure to prioritise public, shared and active transport to meet sustainability targets.
The electrification of vehicles has become the key focus of government policy as the solution to transport decarbonisation in the war on climate change. The appeal, of course, is that it can be achieved without upsetting car-driving voters. But by focusing on electric vehicles, are we missing an opportunity to transform our roads and transport infrastructure, not just for private car users but for everyone?
It’s broadly accepted that electric vehicles have a lower carbon footprint over the course of their lifetime than traditional cars, but the picture is more nuanced than headlines might suggest. The rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars make them more energy-intensive to manufacture and charging them is largely reliant on the national grid which is still over 40% dependent on fossil fuels. The pollution from tyre and brake wear can be many times greater than exhaust emissions and the current approach to end-of-life battery disposal is less than sustainable.
In the long-term, electric vehicles will offer a more climate-friendly alternative to the internal combustion engine but there remains an elephant in the room – or rather an elephant currently blocking all major roads in our town and city centres: congestion.
Congestion not only increases pollution of both air and noise, it hampers the economic growth so vital to our post-pandemic recovery. Getting people out of private cars and onto public, shared and active travel modes is the only effective and sustainable way to tackle pollution and congestion, improving our roads not just for the people who use them but for those who live and work alongside them. Public Health England attributes up to 36,000 deaths per year in the UK to respiratory disease, lung cancer and cardiovascular illness as a direct result of air pollution. And it’s not just our health that is being compromised. The Global Traffic Scorecard for pre-Covid 2019 showed that, on average, UK road users wasted 115 hours each year in congestion (149 hours in London). That’s over two average working weeks spent sitting in traffic, at a total cost to the economy of £6.9 billion.
According to the Government’s National Bus Strategy, buses are the ‘easiest, cheapest and quickest’ way to improve transport and with one double decker bus able to take up to 75 cars off the road, it’s easy to see why. With the climate crisis so high on the agenda and the personal and economic costs of congestion and pollution growing, we need to change our thinking. Rather than switching people from one form of private transport to another, we need to actively discourage private car use and focus instead on public, shared and active travel. Getting people out of private cars creates a virtuous circle, as reducing the number of cars on our roads improves road safety and speeds up journey times for alternative forms of transport making them more reliable and, given their cost, more attractive to everyone, including private car users.
Public and active travel improves the health and wellbeing of the people who use it. It also reduces the financial burdens on the rest of society associated with poor health and social exclusion. A new report from the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) puts the health cost of England’s most deprived communities at nearly £30 billion annually while the Mental Health Foundation, London School of Economics and Political Science estimates the cost of poor mental health in the UK to be nearly £120 billion a year. There is a direct correlation between access to transport, health and deprivation so as well as tackling climate change and congestion, sustainable public and active travel have a vital role to play in the levelling-up agenda. Good public transport reduces isolation and loneliness and improves access to life’s opportunities through education, employment, social and leisure activities and, of course, health services.
The current focus on electric vehicles will not only contribute to congestion, noise pollution and, certainly in the short-term, air pollution, but risks widening the wealth gap between those who can afford a private electric vehicle and those who can’t. Policies like tolls and congestion charges widen the gap still further.
But whether you can afford the expense or not, without proper planning and infrastructure to prioritise public, shared and active transport, you will still be wasting hours of your time sitting in the same gridlocked traffic as the rest of us.
About Bus Users
Bus Users campaigns for inclusive, accessible transport. We are the only approved Alternative Dispute Resolution Body for the bus and coach industry and the designated body for handling complaints under the Passenger Rights in Bus and Coach Legislation. We are also part of a Sustainable Transport Alliance, a group working to promote the benefits of public, shared and active travel.
Alongside our complaints work we investigate and monitor services and work with operators and transport providers to improve services for everyone. We run events, carry out research, respond to consultations, speak at government select committees and take part in industry events to make sure the voice of the passenger is heard.
Bus Users UK Charitable Trust Ltd is a registered charity (1178677 and SC049144) and a Company Limited by Guarantee (04635458).
Claire Walters, Chief Executive of Bus Users UK, will be speaking at Highways UK on 2-3 November at the NEC in Birmingham