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Spending Review Special: Incentivising Change

Silviya Barrett's picture

In the last of our series of blogs ahead of the Spending Review, we look at the fiscal and regulatory changes and the incentives needed to nudge people towards sustainable transport choices.

The Government has rightly championed electric vehicle manufacturing and charging infrastructure, but on its own, the transition towards cleaner vehicles won’t be enough to achieve the Government’s air quality and carbon reduction targets. Even zero emission vehicles still shed harmful particulate matter pollution and produce varying amounts of carbon during their lifecycle (in the process of production, charging and disposal). They also still take up exactly the same amount of road space as standard cars and contribute equally to congestion. 

The need for modal shift 

The Government therefore accepts that alongside a transition to cleaner vehicles, we should aim to replace shorter car journeys with walking, cycling and public transport, which is both more efficient and environmentally friendly. One bus can carry the same number of passengers as 75 cars and a single train carriage can carry 30 times as many passengers an hour than a car, while producing eight times less carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. 

But the pandemic has thrown a large spanner in the works. Despite evidence suggesting that public transport is safer than many other settings, people’s fear of transmission on trains and buses has persisted. People are now much more likely to see access to a car as essential and a diminishing proportion of drivers would use their cars less, even if public transport was improved – reversing years of progress. This is bad news for social equity, for people’s health and for the environment. 

Making public transport more attractive 

The good news is that there is plenty the Chancellor can offer in the forthcoming Spending Review to reverse this trend. First and foremost, public transport must be an attractive proposition, not only for people who have little choice, but for drivers as well. As my previous blog suggested, the Government needs to reform how local bus and rail services are funded and managed so they can weather the storm of the pandemic and provide a reliable service in the most cost-efficient way into the future.  

Public transport use also needs to be more affordable compared to the private car. Outside of London, it can cost more to use public transport than to own a car and the fuel duty freeze has made car journeys progressively cheaper. The Chancellor should reinstate the fuel duty escalator and cancel the planned January 2021 rail fare rise. Working with operators, the Department for Transport should urgently introduce simpler and more flexible ticketing, such as season tickets for part-time workers and single tickets for journeys involving bus changes, that better suit people’s changing travel habits.  

Resetting our relationship with the car 

Local authorities could be further urged to introduce pollution charges to deter the dirtiest vehicles from entering city centres. Such charges would need to be balanced with improved public transport coverage and frequency, and targeted incentives for specific demographics. This could take the form of reduced fares for young people, or mobility credits to use on public transport for people who give up a polluting vehicle. The Treasury should also look to replace existing vehicle taxation with distance-based, variable road charges for the Strategic Roads Network. This would reflect more closely the impacts of individual journeys and support the transition to cleaner vehicles.  

The Spending Review is a key opportunity to reset people’s travel habits and reverse the damage of car dominated journeys post-pandemic. More people travelling by public transport, walking and cycling will free up valuable road space for businesses and people who need to get around by car. The Chancellor must seize the chance to support public transport as part of the economic recovery and to help achieve decarbonisation and prevent communities from becoming isolated. 

“It will be impossible to meet climate change obligations, unless government action makes public transport reliable and affordable. Electric cars are better than petrol and diesel cars, but there need to be fewer cars overall.”
– Christopher, Banbury

Read the other blogs in our special Spending Review series: Transforming the transport fleet to zero emission vehicles, Stemming the tide towards a car-led recovery and A chance to renew public transport.