What’s a green form of transport? The public aren’t sure
New polling suggests that stronger measures are needed to incentivise the public to adopt greener transport habits if we are serious about reaching net zero.
What constitutes a ‘green’ form of transport? It’s a thorny question we’re going to hear more often as the UK strives to become a net zero nation. How can we get about in a sustainable, responsible, guilt-free way?
The public aren’t quite sure of the answer, if a ComRes poll on behalf of Go-Ahead Group’s Zero Emission Centre of Excellence is anything to go by. We asked people what modes of transport they considered to be ‘green’ and the outcome was far from unanimous.
Nearly everybody – 83% - agrees that walking is ‘green’. No particular shock there, except that one does wonder what would satisfy the remaining 17% - except, presumably, never leaving home. And 73% are comfortable with cycling’s environmental credentials.
At the other end of the scale, only 3% reckon catching a flight is green, and the figure is 4% for catching a taxi and 9% for driving a car.
The unexpected finding was that only 26% felt that rail, or bus, is a green form of transport – a tepid proportion, given the importance of public transport in any decarbonised future for our towns and cities.
It’s time for a reality check. The real carbon villain when it comes to transport is the car. Transport accounts for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than any other sector of activity in the UK economy. But if you drill down in that, you find that 52% of those transport emissions are from people driving cars. Only 2% are from buses, and barely 1% from trains.
Travelling with other people – even if it’s powered by petrol or diesel – is a responsible, environmentally considerate mode of travel. A busy double decker bus can replace 75 gas-guzzling cars on the road, and if a train doesn’t run, as many as 500 cars might take to the road in its place.
Calculations by Lord Deben’s Climate Change Committee suggest that if we’re going to get to net zero, 17% of car journeys need to be switched to walking, cycling or public transport by 2050. Not only do we need to bring growth in motoring to a screeching halt – we need to put it firmly into reverse.
While it’s encouraging to see an uptick in bicycle use in cities across the UK, walking and cycling are not suitable for every journey. If you’re carrying luggage, if you’re disabled, if it’s pouring with rain, if you’re going more than a few miles – it’s unlikely you’re going to want to do it on two legs or two wheels.
Shared mobility is the key. So what about electric buses? When ComRes was more specific, and asked whether a bus powered by an electric or hydrogen fuel cell battery is a ‘green’ mode of transport, the proportion saying ‘yes’ leapt from 26% to 83%. But it’s going to take a while to get there: nine out of ten of buses in Britain still use diesel fuel, and large chunks of the national rail network are yet to be electrified.
Go-Ahead has opened a Zero Emission Centre of Excellence to speed up the transition. The centre will examine how to get the cost of electric buses down. And it will look into creative ways of making them economical – by, for example, allowing third parties to charge up vans or cars at bus depots during quieter times of day.
We intend to have a 100% zero emission fleet by 2035. But there’s a lot of work to do on the way – including re-engineering bus depots to instal charging points, and connecting locations to high voltage supply.
To build the business case for the investment required, we need to get more people to travel on bus and rail – and we can’t wait until 2035 to do so. Stronger measures are essential to persuade people to shift their habits – including, as the Confederation of Passenger Transport recently suggested, charges for motorists driving in congestion urban areas.
Alongside a change in technology, a large-scale change in travel habits is vital to tackle climate change effectively. Travelling with other people, rather than alone, is the key. So we need to get the message across that the power source of propulsion isn’t the only factor to consider in deciding whether a journey is ‘green’.
Andrew Clark is Corporate Affairs Director for The Go-Ahead Group, one of the UK’s largest bus and rail operators
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