Government plans to change UK transport for ever

Highways as quiet as 1955 – permanently?

Freedom and the open road! The Government says its net-zero emissions transport roadmap will be delivered on time in 2020 – but with new post-COVID-19 priorities to nudge private vehicles off the tarmac, boost public transport, encourage ‘active travel’ and invest more in online-working.

April has been an unusual lockdown month. In addition to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ surprise policy announcement, it also witnessed the 50th anniversary of Earth Day – online!

Much has changed since 22 April 1970 when a first Earth Day poster stated starkly, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Earth Day 2020 took this now self-evident truth much farther, adding that concerted climate action is vital if we want to defeat what could become the world’s largest crisis.

The Chamber Low Carbon team was formed to endorse this essential long-term message and we will continue to provide all our services remotely through the present health emergency.

Low carbon online

This includes inviting you to our regular series of Low Carbon Live Lunch and Learn seminars online. Updated programme details can be seen at and you can join us by Zoom or phone.

If you miss a session, don’t worry. We are also providing links to presentations already given by our expert speakers – on YouTube, plus PowerPoint, PDF and word documents.

Our most recent seminar on Sustainable Procurement is already available on Chamber Low Carbon Marketing Officer Debbie Treadwell can provide more information. And other members of the team are always here to help.

A time for new ideas

Transport was a dominant April theme. But there were other interesting developments. One mentioned later is a curious but innovative Dutch proposal to beat sea-level rises by building dams to turn the North Sea into a giant freshwater lake. The key message is it’s time to think big!

Thinking big, it is also important to mention the Government’s 15 April 2020 ‘Notice to proceed’ on High Speed 2 released to provide ‘construction sector certainty’. Lancashire, as the home of the world’s fourth largest aerospace cluster and an automotive sector larger than the West Midlands’, urgently needs improved transport links that are compatible with the new emerging world order (

Shapps at the climate sharp end

Grant Shapps’ new policy announcement caught many experts by surprise; it was described by Stephen Joseph, visiting professor at Hertfordshire University, as “… utterly gob-smacking”.

His radical proposals released “quietly” in the foreword to the Government’s De-Carbonising Transport consultation discourage private travel and car ownership in favour of public transport, ‘active travel’ by cycling and walking, plus a dramatic rise on online homeworking.

“Twenty-twenty will be the year we set out the policies and plans needed to tackle transport emissions. This document marks the start of this process”, Mr Shapps said, adding that “the shift in emphasis away from driving – where possible – could improve people’s health, create better places to live and travel in, and also promote clean economic growth.”

“Public transport and active travel,” he continued, “will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

Quiet roads – Back to the Past!

The Department for Transport (DfT) says it is still on track to deliver the policy roadmap this year in line with the UK’s 2050 net-zero target for decarbonising “every single mode of transport”.

In October 2019, the plan was launched to clarify how businesses will help to transform transport as currently the UK’s highest-emitting sector. The original goal was for publication this autumn ahead of the now postponed COP26 summit in Glasgow.

The DfT also confirms that it will host a “series of events, workshops and opportunities” this year – despite the health emergency – and wants not incremental but systematic changes to ensure that only zero-emission vehicles are on UK roads by mid-century.

Integrated networks

Modal shift’ is a major topic at the moment driven by online buying. It extends from the import of goods at high-volume ports, transfers to trains and road freight vehicles at major storage hubs like Doncaster and Daventry, and ‘last mile’ sustainable distribution centres in local communities.

In the new transport policy, financial support will be needed to create “coherent and cost-effective” modal shift networks, plus effective behaviour change communications and support, says the DfT. This will include a “universally recognised measure and tool” to calculate journey CO2 footprint.

New cash priorities

Chris Stark, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) also wants ministers to reconsider road-building plans and switch the investment into broadband. “I would spend the roads budget on fibre. You would get a huge return to the economy with people having better connections,” he says, adding, “You would save people’s time and increase their productivity.”

Other ‘shovel ready’ sustainable investment projects could help the UK out of the COVID-19 crisis, including an electric vehicle charging infrastructure and energy projects such as onshore wind.

The big challenge, he says, is insulating draughty UK homes – a pledge made in the Conservative manifesto but not repeated in the most recent infrastructure announcement. The labour-intensive renovation of homes would also provide essential jobs in a UK zero-carbon economy.

The CCC also appreciates that a holistic approach is needed to resolve outstanding issues – high upfront vehicle prices, a lack of mature circular economy solutions for batteries, and the fact that vehicle sales significantly outpace charging and refuelling infrastructure rollouts.

AA viewpoint

The AA is generally seen as the motorist’s friend. However, it also anticipates a permanent post-COVID-19 cut in travel as people use home-working technology. It notes that the Chancellor’s current plans to spend £27 billion on curbing road congestion – plus £100 billion on HS2 – may need redirecting to more broadband infrastructure funding to support home-working.

The argument is that if commuters spend even one day a week working from home, road use will fall to school holiday levels.

Professor Greg Marsden of the Leeds University’s Transport Studies Unit adds that Government traffic growth projections behind the roads programme are 1% annually – or 35% by 2055. Funding should now be diverted to rebuilding public transport and more zero-emission vehicles.

However, former Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, Andrew Adonis, believes it is too early to forecast a permanent traffic fall. With a growing population, more people generally equal more travel, he cautions.

What the numbers say

The Treasury says, “Roads are crucial for connecting people, places and businesses, with freight logistics businesses depending on the road network working effectively to get goods in the right places.” It added that the Budget set a “record commitment of £5bn to support the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband” and that it remains committed to climate change targets.

According to Cabinet Office Data, road travel on 29 March fell by some 73% to levels last seen in 1955. Walking, cycling and car and van journeys dropped by circa 75%, bus numbers by 60% train use by 90% and lorry movements by 40%.

The key to accepting permanent change

When it comes to accepting long-term work and travel habit changes, the CCC has taken a psychologist’s advice about public readiness to accept major adjustments. Its key message is that the longer the change lasts, the more it becomes the new normal.

People first resist change. Then they get used to new situations with benefits that make them reluctant to change back. In terms of transport, the longer change last, the more “sticky” it becomes.

Meanwhile, a survey of more than 2,000 people found that nearly two-thirds think the most popular future employment mode will be flexible working; many added that flexible hours are now crucial when choosing a job. A third would rather have flexible working than a pay rise.

ZOOM fatigue

Many people are now reporting ‘Zoom fatigue’, which also applies to Skype, FaceTime and other video-calling interfaces. The conclusion is that virtual interactions are extremely hard on the brain.

Assistant professor of cyberpsychology, Andrew Franklin, at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, says people are surprised how difficult video calls can be when confined to a small screen (

Humans communicate even when they are quiet, he explains. During in-person conversations, the brain focuses on spoken words, but it also the meaning of dozens of non-verbal cues – is someone is slightly turned away, fidgeting while you talk, or inhaling quickly to interrupt. These clues are important in knowing how to response,

An eye for an eye

Video calls in comparison require sustained attention to words, especially if screen quality is poor and hand-gestures cannot be seen. “For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” Franklin adds. Extended eye contact is now the strongest online facial cue but can be threatening or intimate if maintained too long (

However, the Chamber’s low carbon seminars are clearly so engaging that no-one is likely to experience this problem!

A very Dutch solution to rising sea-levels

A Dutch government scientist says building two mammoth dams around the North Sea could protect some 25 million Europeans from rising sea levels driven by global warming.

Oceanographer Sjoerd Groeskamp says a first 475km dam between north Scotland and west Norway, and a second 160km-long between west France and south-west England, are “a possible solution”.

With colleague Joakim Kjellsson, he says the idea is affordable and technically feasible – though meant more as “a warning of the immensity of the problem hanging over our heads”.

The cost of building a so-called North Sea Enclosure Dyke they estimate to be between €250bn and €500bn over 20-years; 14 countries would be protected for just over 0.1% of their combined GDP.

The North Sea between France and England is rarely more than 100m in depth; the average depth between Scotland and Norway is 127m, peaking just over 320m off the coast of Norway. Fixed platforms are already built in more than 500m.

The authors acknowledge that their project would eventually turn much of the North Sea into a vast tide-free freshwater lake, radically changing its ecosystem.

They also agree that this may not be the best solution. But with a rise of 10m by 2500 under the bleakest scenario, their message is that it is important to ‘think big’!