Julian Huppert writes: A local approach to sustainable transport

This is the first of three extracts from the forthcoming collection of essays Green liberalism: a local approach to the low carbon economy. Similar collections will be published under Green Alliance’s ‘Green social democracy’ and ‘Green conservatism’ projects as part of the Green Roots programme, which aims to stimulate green thinking within the three dominant political traditions in the UK. 

A sustainable and low carbon transport system is something which UK governments have historically struggled to achieve, thanks to years of poor forward planning and systems which revolve heavily around cars, a highly inefficient mode of transport. But mobility patterns are changing, especially amongst young people, and sustainable transport systems are much more effective at meeting local social and economic needs.

Active transport vs the car

A 2010 Department for Transport report found that 66 per cent of trips made in the UK were less than five miles, yet more than half of these were made by car. Twenty two per cent of trips were less than one mile, around a 20 minute walk, but 20 per cent of these journeys were also made by car.

These figures are shocking but not surprising: we currently have one of the lowest rates of trips made by bicycle, at two per cent, and the second lowest walking levels of all EU countries. A fundamental change in our travel behaviour and habits is needed.

A successful switch to an ‘active transport’ model, in which it is easier to walk or cycle, particularly in our heavily congested cities, will take time and planning, but the social, environmental and economic benefits to our country would be considerable.

Encouraging the public to trade in car journeys for those by foot or bicycle is possible, but to achieve it we have to make the switch attractive, viable and safe. With our city roads designed for vehicles it can often be daunting even for experienced cyclists and confident pedestrians. In fact, the perceived danger is often considerably higher than the actual danger, but this is enough to discourage people from walking and cycling.

By designing towns and cities for sustainable modes of transport first, we will make sustainable choices the default option for people. And the best way to achieve this is through a bottom up localist approach.

The good news is that for many young people, owning a car is no longer a priority, and we may be approaching the point of peak car ownership. It suggests that the demand for local sustainable transport systems will continue to grow, particularly in town and cities.

Although most of the discussion is about modal shift, one key change that could be made is for travel not to be needed. In particular, greater use of IT, such as video conferencing, which is now readily available and high quality, can act as a good alternative to face-to-face meetings, saving time for businesses as well as reducing congestion, pollution and carbon emissions.

The localist approach

A liberal and local approach to travel would allow citizens to travel where they want or need to go affordably and with ease, whilst having the least impact on the environment and others around them. An active transport model would achieve this, redesigning our cities and towns to revolve around public transport, walking and cycling, encouraging and facilitating people only to make car journeys when necessary.

Obesity, poor health, congestion, accessibility and the environment are all big issues for government to tackle. In times of austerity, it becomes even more of a priority, as we have to make progress with less resources and money. Introducing a liberal minded transport system would help to combat all of these issues, killing many birds with one stone.

Integrating walking and cycling programmes into Local Transport Plans is something which can be done in the shorter term, by local authorities, who know the needs of their residents and area better than those in Whitehall. Involving members of the community in these plans would mean many of those affected by these changes would be engaged early on, further encouraging them to take advantage of the benefits the changes would bring.

A 2012 study by medical journal The Lancet reported that if people worldwide cycled around three kilometres a day, and doubled the amount that they walk, this would have a substantial effect on diseases including dementia, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, as well as colorectal and breast cancer. Figures have shown that nearly three million people in the UK suffer from diabetes, whilst around a million people are suffering from undiagnosed type 2 diabetes: the potential benefits of active transport are huge. The same report found that, in the UK, this could amount to savings of around £17 billion over a 20 year period. This could be reinvested into the NHS, or be considered a saving at a time when the public purse strings are tight.

We’re making progress but more is needed

We are already making some progress, with trials of Dutch style roundabouts that separate cyclists and drivers and lessen the danger of collisions. Successful park-and-ride schemes in cities such as in my constituency, Cambridge, effectively interconnect the public transport and cycling/pedestrian aspects of an active transport model. The‘Cities Fit For Cycling’ campaign by The Times and the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s Get Britain Cycling report are also making headlines, and positively influencing public opinion.

The key now is to push these improvements forward, and not just in London. Whilst the bike hire scheme and the cycle ‘superhighway’ have been great for cyclists in the capital, similar schemes should be rolled out across all UK cities. Giving local authorities greater powers to make their own decisions, and continuing funding streams such as the Local Sustainable Transport Fund would enable this. The recent announcement of the Cycle City ambition grants will allow some cities to show what is possible – Cambridge is aiming for 40 per cent of trips to be by bike within 10 years.

It will take political will to change the deep-seated, road vehicle heavy, way that we approach transport in our cities and towns, but the environmental, social and economic benefits speak for themselves. A recent e-petition calling on the government and prime minister to focus on reallocating transport investment, to create safer road design, lower speed limits and provide strong political leadership, gained over 65,000 signatures. It suggests that a localised approach to active, low carbon transport would enjoy huge public support.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • I completely agree. Give me a space I can cycle on where I’m not in danger of a massive steel block crushing me and I’ll cycle to work. I’m just not willing to risk my life sharing a road with them.

  • jenny barnes 30th Aug '13 - 5:05pm

    It’s not going to be easy taking road space away from cars.

  • I personally would love to cycle, but my area of London is absolutely no-go as far as I am concerned. It will take major investment in dedicated cycle infrastructure and rebuilding our streetscapes to really make a difference, not just the odd blue strip painted on the road. The though of being able to cycle to safely around London, or to take your bike on a train (an AFFORDABLE train) and go to the coast for a day, is a wonderful one, but the reality is so very far away at present.

  • You also need education for drivers about respecting bicyclists and their rights on the road, and education of bicyclists about how to ride safely in shared traffic. And by no means should the existence of dedicated lanes or paths for bicyclists be held to *deny* them the use of other parts of the road, except in places where the lowest acceptable speed is above what a normal bicyclist can be expected to sustain.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 30th Aug '13 - 11:31pm

    Until such time as motorists are kept on the roads and away from pavements, it will always be unsafe to walk. At the moment our society is car centric, it is biased so heavily towards motorised transport that walking and/or cycling are thought of as odd. We need to change the attitude of society towards the motor vehicle. It is a tool that is useful but it should not be worshiped in the way that it currently is.

  • jenny barnes 31st Aug '13 - 8:42am

    You can take your bike on a train to Portsmouth from London, and Portsmouth is very cycle friendly. Most roads have 20mph limit, and the sea front has a separated cycle track along about half of it.

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