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Sustainable transport initiatives – ‘must go faster’

July 24, 2013

Is that four horsemen heading this way?

A few months into the Department for Transport funded project I have been working on over the last year or so I met with a senior business figure from the Solent region who has worked for some big companies on the UK south coast.

When I explained what the Hampshire councils were doing to encourage transport related behaviour change and achieve a targeted shift away from car usage within the next three years he was surprisingly skeptical and believed the campaigns would go the way of previous such efforts and focus far too much on cycling as the main answer to the issues.

Now that I have an insight into what’s happening in Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) projects around the UK, one thing has become very clear. A lot of taxpayer’s money is being pumped into these initiatives with an emphasis on them being measurable and ultimately self-sustaining but, as far as I have seen so far, there are no real big or radical ideas being implemented now or in the foreseeable future and I’m really not convinced the activities will make much difference in the larger scheme of things.

Am I surprised? Not really. Does it matter? I think it does. Any answers? I can think of a few …

This report at the beginning of 2013 illustrates that EU emissions legislation is faltering …

Passenger cars account for around 12% of total EU carbon emissions and unlike other sectors covered by emissions legislation, the figure is rising.

It also shows that the UK has been responsible for a massive ‘accounting trick’ – that makes a complete mockery of the Energy Efficiency Directive – and raises the likelihood that decisions on any meaningful emissions targets will be delayed from 2014 to 2017. Another classic example of kicking the can well and truly down the road.

Any one of us glancing around the rush-hour traffic jams can see that single occupancy vehicles sit at the heart of our transport issues.

Local councils could do a lot more to encourage car sharing, particularly as they control one of the potentially strongest incentives to share – parking spaces and charges.

But this is a double-edged sword to many cash-strapped local councils who are struggling with some of the biggest deficits in their history.

The majority of LSTF behavioural change campaigns are targeting between 10 to 15 percent modal shifts by 2015. Another way of looking at this is if a car commuter is persuaded to use an alternative mode of transport to work just one day a week then the targets will be largely achieved.

I have no doubt that in the context of such targets, the LSTF programmes and campaigns will be deemed successful. The tide is turning in their favour in the UK. An upswing in cycling enthusiasm, in part due to sporting success, and a groundswell of ‘active lifestyle’ campaigning from both public and private organisations are already encouraging more cycling and walking.

This is great news for cities like Southampton and Portsmouth and I am sure they are already seeing benefits in reduced congestion and improved air quality. When you look at the Hampshire and Solent regions generally I don’t see the cities as the real problem.

Ironically, my commutes by car into Southampton during the course of this project have been some of easiest during my career but whenever I travel over the M27 motorway junction in rush hour there are three lanes of traffic virtually at standstill in both directions – and I don’t need an expensive travel survey to determine that some 80-90% of the vehicles have a single occupant.

A figure I have seen daily since first adding it to the ‘Did you know’ section of the campaign websites 12 months ago is …

There are 10 million empty seats on our roads every day

That’s in the UK alone. When you add up the figures across the EU, and recognise – as stated earlier – that CO2 emissions from cars are rising, this is staggeringly bad news for our world at this point in its history. The EU, with its relative wealth, advanced car and networked technology and more progressive governments is the one area of the planet you would hope would be getting to grips with car emissions. But it’s not!

And if we can’t get to grips with car emissions in the western world, how can we expect the developing world to address the issue? This report illustrates the global scale of the problem with the following observation …

The number of vehicles in China has been growing at an annual rate of almost 13 percent for 30 years, nearly doubling every 5 years. India’s fleet has been expanding at more than 7 percent per year

Some scary numbers that are already over 10 years old. Since then the scale of road congestion in places like China has become legendary with tales of 60 mile tailbacks that take 10 days to clear. As car ownership accelerates, are the Chinese more likely to share their journeys? Not likely according to this recent article!

“Forget about it. No way. It’s not going to happen. Unthinkable. It’s an image factor, big image factor. So at the office you’d say, What kind of car are you driving? I’m driving a Honda. This guy over here has a Nissan. I have a Chevy. What about you? ‘Well, I’m sharing a car with somebody else. Gee. Oh, you’re sharing a car? That means you can’t afford one.’”

Given enough financial and convenience incentives and using social network effects I’m sure car sharing can be made to work to a degree in the UK. I successfully car shared for a couple of years on a long daily commute from Southampton to Swindon. It helped that my colleague was a former submarine commander with many interesting tales to tell but it became very awkward at times when, during this period, his wife became ill and died of cancer.

Much to my shame however, I signed up on Hampshire Liftshare last year and identified a number of potential car sharing opportunities heading to and from the same locations but have not acted on them (and neither did the other parties). I also realised a few months into starting my Southampton commute that one of my immediate neighbours was working in the same office building, when one morning I drove into the city behind her, virtually from door to door with eight spare seats between us. My excuse in avoiding car sharing these days is my crap hearing although it has become a much poorer one since getting new hearing aids recently. I eagerly await Peter Kay’s new sitcom ‘Car Share’ to see whether the comic take on such initiatives promotes them positively or undermines them.

So, if it is a seemingly uphill struggle to fill those millions of empty car seats on our roads everyday how about making it easier to remove them?

When I have needed to travel to Winchester and Portsmouth over the last year, the train has been a sensible option to avoid the motorway gridlock. But it hasn’t been reliable! And when the trains have turned up it is standing room only. There have been several occasions when major faults on the lines have had me abandoning my journey usually disrupting my plans and those of others significantly. Bus routes are not direct enough and even with some now offering free WiFi, still not a comfortable or particularly convenient option for many typical motorway commuters. The biggest problem with public transport is the ‘public’ bit which is why we love the personalised comfort and relative anonymity of our cars so much.

As other posts on this blog have explored before, a more radical approach to this global challenge of single vehicle occupancy would be to encourage wide-scale use of single occupant vehicles.

litmotorsc1Four years on from when I first started researching such ideas, small companies around the world are demonstrating that safe, secure, comfortable and highly economic single occupant vehicles are reality rather than fantasy. One of my favourites to date is Lit Motors but – and it is a very big but – this page on their website is extremely off-putting at this point in time. If I had a spare $10,000 sloshing around I’d sign up to getting one of the first 20 vehicles but that is a very big commitment for your average motorway commuter.

This is where governments and employers could really start to make a difference by supporting the small innovators to achieve critical mass and make their solutions financially attractive and affordable.

Fleets of this type of revolutionary vehicle running on renewable energies would be a tremendous leap forward in addressing emissions, congestion and lack of parking space.

As Professor Stephen Emmott said recently in his book 10 Billion, if there was an extinction level sized asteroid hurtling towards us right now humankind would join together to do whatever was needed to avert disaster. He certainly believes we are at this point with anthropogenic global warming and that radical change is needed.

However, with auto-industry lobbies pushing back heavily on EU carbon dioxide emissions targets for cars, that change is not going to come from established manufacturers and some real vision and courage will be needed to do things differently.

I believe vehicles like the Lit Motors C1 will become a common sight within the next 10 years but we could make it happen a lot quicker with greater will and determination. As for the future beyond the first generation of ‘Cartorcycles’ there are many interesting concepts out there. Here are some that have caught my eye recently …

1. Re-thinking the lifecycle of a vehicle – some interesting insight into vehicle recycling and logical approaches to making the platform, skeleton, skin and interior of cars far more sustainable.

2. The modular, foldable car – the first  stage of a new urban transport system in Spain – some very clever thinking indeed

3. A Modular Self Driving Vehicle – a futuristic transport concept that combines several modules to get more spacious and comfortable space when traveling – radical and thought provoking

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