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Transport, accessibility and consumption – Some thoughts from current work in the UK

| Chris Upchurch

Infrastructure – changes to the way in which we travel. This is perhaps
the area where most action has happened in the UK. It is now widely
accepted that building new roads, especially in urban areas is
pointless: they immediately fill up with traffic as more motorists make
more journeys.

Car use is still growing fast all over
Europe, especially in areas where ownership was low. In the UK the proportion
of journeys made by car grew from 49% to 86% between 1960 and 1998. Despite
this the time spent travelling has remained constant at around an hour a day,
so it’s not surprising that traffic jams are becoming more and more
common. But a quarter of all car
journeys are less than 3km so it would be easy for people to get where they’re
going in other ways.

Any attempt to develop more sustainable
consumption patterns needs to tackle this issue. If we are to achieve the CO2
reductions that we need to head off the threat of climate change then car use
will have to change radically. The question is what can we do, as NGOs and as
nations?

The answer is perhaps to look at three
areas of work: Policy, Infrastructure and Engagement of consumers. Change is
possible in all of these areas, but policy is perhaps the areas where least is
happening. Few if any governments want to stand up to the combined pressure of
millions of car-drivers. Tax increases on fuel are being pushed through in some
instances but this is doing little more than possibly cutting the rate of
increase. Consumer engagement is also of limited impact at present: even many
of the people who are concerned about pollution and climate change see little
real alternative to the car for many journeys.

That leaves the issue of Infrastructure – changes
to the way in which we travel. This is perhaps the area where most action has
happened in the UK. It is now widely
accepted that building new roads, especially in urban areas is pointless: they
immediately fill up with traffic as more motorists make more journeys.

The biggest step has been in London where
the ‘Congestion Charge’ has now become an accepted part of life. Anyone (with
some exceptions) driving in to the centre of London pays a fee of £5 a day (now
rising to £8) to do so. They can pay in a variety of ways (including by mobile
phone charge).

The Charge was widely predicted by its’
opponents to be an unworkable disaster: in fact it has worked very well,
cutting traffic (and air pollution) in the city centre, speeding up travel
times for buses (and for the cars that do go into the centre), and raising huge
sums of money. This has been spent on other travel improvement schemes, notably
bring in more buses to London. The Charge is still controversial, due largely
to proposals to extend it to cover western parts of central London, where a lot
more local residents will be affected (residents get a 90% discount).

There are further implications. Vehicles using alternative fuels (such as
electricity, fuel cells, and bio-diesel) are exempt from the charge: this is
another means of stimulating demand for such alternative fuels and these are
becoming much more widely used.

The Mayor of London is now developing two
new schemes: Emissions Influenced Charging and the Low Emission Zone. Emissions
Influenced Charging seeks to address CO2 emissions in the central Congestion
Charging Zone while the Low Emission Zone would seek to reduce air pollution
across all of London. Emissions Influenced Charging is proposed to apply to
cars, while the Low Emission Zone would tackle trucks, buses, coaches etc.

The proposals, to be consulted upon, could see vehicles emitting the highest
levels of CO2 pay £25 to enter the Congestion Charging Zone, with vehicles
which meet Euro IV standards and emit the lowest levels of CO2 qualifying for a
100% discount. Other vehicles would continue to be liable to pay the current
charge of £8. If things move well, then this could be introduced in early 2008.

Other cities are now looking at similar
schemes. Some have reduced city centre traffic already. A scheme in Oxford was
studied by Imperial College and results showed a distinct and significant
improvement in aspects of children’s respiratory health. All local authorities
now have to produce ‘Local Transport Plans’ to show how they will improve local
services. This can include support for walking and cycling as wellas local
traffic management.

But it’s not just work by councils. NGOs
have an important role to play. ‘Sustrans’ is perhaps the best example. Over
the last decade they have worked to develop the UK national cycling network
which has made cycling easier and safer. They’ve also encourage people to lobby
employers to offer secure cycle parking
and changing facilities for cyclists who may arrive hot and sweaty.

Sustrans also work with local communities
suffering heavy traffic. Making residential streets safe is an important part
of creating a more sustainable community. The major cause of neighbourhood
accidents is very simple: people driving too fast. There are several ways to
slow traffic – road humps and ‘sleeping policemen’ are just one. Another is to
make sure there are speed restrictions.

But another idea is catching on fast. ‘Home
zones’ is a Dutch idea now being introduced in the UK. The idea is to transform
a residential street and give walking and cycling precedence. Pavements can be
widened and redesigned, and new street furniture and tree planting can change
how people use their streets.

Northmoor in Manchester is Britain’s first
Home Zone. Local residents in four streets worked with the council and two
housing associations to develop ideas. Models were made of possible lay-outs
and a full-scale mock-up was set up for a day in a closed-off street. The
completed street is now safe for children to play in.

Such projects are expensive costing £1
– £2.5 million, which has limited their
take-up. Sustrans is now launching a new 3-year project called ‘DIY Streets’
which will work with 10 streets around the UK to achieve the basic principles
of home zone design, such as reduced speeds of motor traffic and making streets
more attractive, at a much lower cost. More on this can be found on their
website: www.sustrans.org.uk

But ultimately the best way to cut travel
is to have better local shops and services so that people don’t need to drive elsewhere. Any new housing
area should provide space for a medical centre, shops, a pub, a nursery, a
community centre and so on. Any regeneration should consider what facilities
are missing and help put things right. Other services such as schools, police
station, a library etc should be within walking distance (perhaps 10 minutes’
walk pushing a baby buggy).

Much of the UK, and not just rural areas,
doesn’t have these facilities, and in too many cases things are getting worse.
Post offices, banks, health centres and so on are increasingly being
centralised. These services are important in their own right, and also because
they provide jobs and places where local people meet and socialise. This is
leading to increased local campaigning to protect and improve local services.
This, coupled with the increased focus on local food and decentralised energy
production may just be the first signs of a real long-term transition towards
genuinely sustainable consumption.

The author, Chris Upchurch, works with UK
organisation London 21, a network of community groups, individuals and
representatives who work in all parts of London to help create a greener,
healthier and more sustainable city.

Photo [cc] Claus Wolf

 

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