Climate crisis: Government unveils ‘unprecedented’ vision of future travel with focus on walking, cycling and public transport

Harry Cockburn
Cyclists at London Bridge before coronavirus. The government wants to make public transport and active travel 'the natural first choice' for journeys: Getty

The government has quietly published an ambitious plan for how it will revolutionise UK transport to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight the climate crisis.

The report comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and has appeared on the Department for Transport website without any fanfare.

But its aims have been described as “unprecedented” and campaigners have said it “pulls no punches” in its assessment of where the UK is and where it needs to be to improve health and make daily life more efficient.

At the core of the report is the recognition that the UK must act decisively to reduce its emissions, and instead of depending on cars to the extent we do now, the government must deliver policies making walking, cycling and public transport our main means of travel.

In his introduction to the report, transport minister Grant Shapps said: “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

The document is the first time a Conservative government has identified road traffic reduction as a desirable policy outcome.

Mr Shapps calls for the changes to be implemented rapidly.

“We can improve people’s health, create better places to live and travel in, and drive clean economic growth. The UK is a global centre for world-leading science, technology, business and innovation and we are perfectly placed to seize the economic opportunities that being in the vanguard of this change presents,” he said.

“The faster we act, the greater the benefits.”

The document says the government will support the decarbonisation of road vehicles, but ahead of that, it says will come efforts to “support fewer car trips through a coherent, convenient and cost-effective public network, and explore how we might use cars differently in future.”

It will also “encourage cycling and walking for short journeys,” and “explore how to best support the behaviour change required”, to put this into practice.

The report has been welcomed by campaigners.

Xavier Brice, chief executive of cycling and walking charity Sustrans, described the government’s plans as “achievable” and “what this country needs to be able to move better and live better”.

He said: “The report pulls no punches on its current assessment of where we are.

“Transport is the biggest source of carbon emissions, and private cars cause the lion’s share. Electric vehicles aren’t the solution.

“It is fantastic to see the transport secretary say that ‘public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities’.

“What’s new about this document is that it lays out in unprecedented terms a vision of modal shift, with fewer journeys being made by car and more being made by public transport, on foot and by bike.

“We welcome this vision, having long urged the government that action on all fronts is needed to make transport – the laggard of emissions reduction – fit for the future.”

The report has also been criticised for failing to put forward a coherent strategy to deal with aviation emissions.

The Aviation Environment Federation said the report demonstrates that UK aviation emissions in 2018 were at an all-time high, and meanwhile its projections show aviation emissions remaining broadly flat between 2018 and 2050, while passenger numbers will increase by 73 per cent.

“Likely technology and fuels will not be enough to reduce emissions from today’s levels,” the organisation said.

The report also confirms a consultation on net zero aviation will be published “later this year”, and says the government could consider including aviation and shipping emissions in future carbon budgets.

“As a responsible national government, we need a contingency measure in case international progress does not go far enough or fast enough. That is why in the government’s response to the latest CCC Progress Report, we made it clear that we would be minded to include international aviation and shipping emissions in our carbon budgets if there is insufficient progress at an international level.”

The Independent contacted the Department of Transport for comment, but was told the government was focusing efforts on the coronavirus response.

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