Decarbonising transport through planning

Harry Steele, Royal Town Planning Institute Infrastructure Specialist, discusses measures to reduce travel demand and the role of place in achieving a reduction in surface transport emissions

Transport is the most significant contributor towards the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and has seen some of the smallest change in the last 30 years. Whilst other sectors such as energy generation have drastically reduced their emissions, the transport sector has only reduced its emissions by three per cent since 1990. The sector remains particularly reliant on fossil fuels and whilst the government has recognised the role that transport will have in reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, it is clear that more still needs to be done to decarbonise the transport sector and truly ambitious targets and policies must be implemented.

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a brief reduction of emissions from travel, journeys and emissions have now risen to above the pre-pandemic figures. Consequently, a significant behavioural shift is required in how we understand, plan, deliver and interact with transport throughout the UK.  With the Planning Bill being pushed forwards by the government, there is a real opportunity to change how we approach transport planning for the better, integrating net-zero into planning from the offset and equipping developers with the tools, policies and security to decarbonise transport.

Earlier this year, the RTPI released the report ‘Net Zero Transport: the role of spatial planning and place-based solutions’ which explored how planning and place-based solutions can help the transport sector drive the UK towards net-zero emission. Our research set out a pathway for decarbonising transport, whilst delivering better place outcomes. Whilst there were clear barriers to overcome, including a need for greater integration, funding and an overall behaviour shift, there are strong and realistic opportunities for spatial planning and place-based solutions to help decarbonise the transport sector.

Transport-based technology will undoubtedly continue to improve and deliver a reduction in emissions, however we need to look beyond that in order to truly decarbonise the transport sector. Whilst electric vehicles will continue to change how we travel on an individual scale, the infrastructure and planning systems in place are currently not sufficient to help deliver the wholesale revolution that is required to decarbonise the transport sector.

Radical and significant change to our planning systems is integral to helping deliver net-zero emissions for the transport sector. The current planning system in England has become inherently built towards the promotion, allocation and servicing of land to facilitate the delivery of homes and commercial development without a consideration of their impact on carbon emissions. Alongside this, the transport planning system has continued to focus solely on the approach of forecasting demand for road capacity whilst overlooking elements such as trip reduction and the promotion of active travel. Consequently, whilst both planning systems are inherently reliant on the other, they have been operating with no cooperation or consideration of the other.

In order to help decarbonise the transport sector, planning needs to work holistically, with developments and transport planning working in tandem. New developments, such as urban extensions, should be planned, designed and delivered with the aim of delivering ‘Carbon Negative Growth’. Consequently, new developments should feature net-zero transport from the start whilst also contributing to a wider reduction in emission through the encouragement of reduced travel demand and the incorporation of alternative and greener methods of travel.

Alongside the design of new developments, the renewal of current spaces must consider and ultimately incorporate methods of reducing transport emissions. Public spaces must be reimagined, reoriented and regenerated with sustainable methods of transport at their core. Whilst many places across the UK have begun to reimagine their existing developments, a ‘whole place’ approach will be most effective in creating a wholesale reduction in carbon emissions for the transport sector. Spatial planning must begin to create visions for the future which are inherently focused upon enabling new ways of living. New and existing developments must use design to reduce the demand and use of private and fossil fuel driven vehicles and instead encourage more carbon-friendly forms of transport, ranging from elective vehicles to public and active transport.

The 15 minute neighbourhood
Concepts such as the ‘15 minute neighbourhood’ can become one of the key policies for delivering a net-zero transport network. The ‘15 minute neighbourhood’ is built upon the principle that citizens are able to ‘live local’ and have their regular and daily amenities and services within a 15 minute walk or cycle. Although local living is the key to this idea, the promotion of affordable and accessible public transport is a lynchpin of the ’15 minute neighbourhood’. Streets are redesigned to promote movement and transport through more sustainable methods, whilst public transport and shared mobility, such as EV car clubs, help to meet longer transport needs.

Through the promotion of both active travel and public transport within the designs of the '15 minute neighbourhood’, the transport sector can begin to make significant reductions in its emissions through placemaking-based policies.

In order to be truly effective, this policy needs to be rolled out across urban areas, with a focus upon interconnectivity. A coordinated roll out of the concept will help to establish an interconnected network of neighbourhoods that promote low-carbon travel both within their neighbourhoods and further afield. However, each individual roll out must undertake the necessary stakeholder engagement in order to understand the needs of each ‘neighbourhood’ and deliver the appropriate low-carbon travel solutions for them.   

Through policies such as the ‘15 minute neighbourhood’, it is clear that there is a need for imagination and vision within placemaking. This inherently means moving away from the traditional methods of predicting the demands for transport and instead futureproofing developments with sustainability. A clear vision throughout local and national planning is required in order to help transform how we understand and incorporate spatial planning into transport planning.

With the upcoming Planning Bill and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s recent support for additional spending for planning in England, it is clear that there is a growing emphasis on the role of planning throughout the UK. If the government can begin to build upon this, offering funding and resourcing for planning to deliver ambitious project such as the ’15 minute neighbourhood’ then the planning sector can play a significant role in the decarbonisation of transport throughout the UK.

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