Driven to extinction? How transport policy can save the world

This article was published in 2005, in Newsletter 62.

This was the title of the conference that Sustrans had arranged at Churchill College on 12 September, the day following the ’10 in 10′ celebrations.

The main emphasis was on the way that increasing transport use of CO2 is threatening our climate, and what we in the UK can do about it, although there were also sessions about the health aspects of changing transport use. It wasn’t designed for typical campaigners, but for those in government, both local and central, other national organisations and consultants. As a local organisation involved in the National Cycling Network Celebrations, the Campaign was offered two free places which we were very pleased to accept.

One of the ironies was that Jon Snow of Channel 4 News was supposed to be the presenter, but couldn’t because he was only just back from New Orleans, possibly the first major city to be lost to global warming.

A former government advisor made it clear that currently our democratic system handicaps both local and national government from taking positive action, as they would rapidly be voted out of office. Our target should be to convince a much larger percentage of the population that action is needed, and only then will governments be brave enough to take action.

Discussions took place on how to make a reduction of 60% in CO2 emissions from UK transport by 2030. Yes, it could be done, and reduced speed limits, hybrid cars, and walking and cycling for short journeys play a big part, as does reducing the need for travel. Having been interested in how the local ‘Travel for Work’ partnership has influenced travel, I was interested to see that ‘trips’ to and from work account for only one in five trips. As emphasis moves from reducing ‘congestion’ to reducing CO2, it will become more important to provide better information about these other 80% of trips. World-wide experience suggests that when good information about other modes is available, car trips can easily be reduced by 12% to 16% without any fiscal measures.

In the afternoon I went to a breakout group ‘Conserving Oil – are efficient cars enough’. I’ve held the view for many years that any gains in ‘efficiency’ are often offset by increasing use of power and speed, as well as the extra weight of safety features and the use of auxiliaries such as air conditioning. My father’s first car, a Morris Eight, had a fuel consumption not significantly dissimilar to many modern family cars, some 70 years younger. Contributors to this breakout group agreed. Increases in fuel use are of course dominated by the order of magnitude increase in mileage per car, and the several orders of magnitude increase in the number of cars. Even the person who had been in the oil industry for many years accepted that we need to make significant social change, and that there is no hope of a technology fix for the user of cars.

In the final session, questions were asked about why there had been no discussion of the effect of rapidly rising air travel. It was pointed out that those who are virtuous enough to cycle to work each day, but then do one long haul return air trip per year, may cause more carbon dioxide emissions than the one who drives to work each day but holidays locally!

To me, little of this seemed new, but I do hope that many of the audience learnt something new, took home the message, and that the ‘drip drip’ of the concerns raised at this conference will soon outweigh the ‘drip drip’ of melting ice in our world.

One positive approach was that of achieving fuel savings by picking the ‘low hanging fruit’ such as:

  • Enforce speed limits, and possibly reduce them. A by-product would be the saving of a thousand lives a year due to reduced crashes.
  • Better information on walking and cycling, and for existing public transport.
  • Training drivers in fuel efficient driving techniques, especially for those not responsible for their fuel bills.

I’m afraid that of late I have become so concerned at these issues that it saps the energy I would otherwise have for local cycle campaigning. Perhaps in 150 years’ time we’ll be having to convert all the bikes in Cambridge to pedalos to get around our flooded and mosquito infested streets?

Jim Chisholm

A personal opinion on the conference

The Driven to Extinction conference was run under ‘Chatham House rules’, which I gather means I cannot attribute any quotes. The introduction set the theme, roughly ‘How can we make sustainable transport policies politically acceptable?’ The first speaker developed on that, saying his experience as a top civil servant had taken the edge of his radicalism, and that excellent initial policies of the current government were abandoned under the fear of being labelled anti-car at the time of the ‘fuel crisis’.

In a complex and detailed presentation the next speakers set out to prove why we had to worry about the damage that predicted growth in transport emissions might cause. Their conclusion was that technology developments alone won’t save us and that we are actually going to have to walk or cycle more, or travel less, and certainly not fly anywhere.

The third speaker said that there seemed to be an obsession with building new public transport systems. He argued that the challenge lay in getting people to use what was there already. He had had success with individual travel marketing. This involves interviewing commuters and generating customised itineraries, rather than giving them a railway or bus timetable. The results were significant reductions in car dependence, even in North America.

After lunch we heard about a large pharmaceutical company in East Kent. They had worked out that the car parking spaces provided for their staff cost the company £2 per day. So they introduced a green travel plan that paid staff £2 per day if they came by ‘sustainable means.’

Next we heard about Cambridgeshire where 60km of cycleway has apparently been built or ‘improved’ over the last few years. A Travel for Work initiative has encouraged car sharing and also done individual transport marketing. They have also put in bus priority measures and built a bus station at Addenbrooke’s. Briefly a slide was put up showing good trends in modal shift by Addenbrooke’s staff, but curiously the massive new multi-storey car park at the hospital was not mentioned.

Conference then split up into ‘breakout sessions.’ This bit felt like group therapy as we hunted for policies to encourage sustainable travel that would not result in political suicide. It seemed all we could hope for was cross party agreement, and depoliticization of the transport agenda. I felt unable to make a valid contribution.

Closing the conference one questioner asked, ‘Will we still be here in ten years’ time asking the same questions?’ The depressing conclusion was Yes, and I cycled home in a terrible mood.

Simon Nuttall

Copies of the presentation are at: