Creating a zero carbon transport system

Creating a zero carbon transport system

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Would you like to be able to walk and cycle more easily and safely? To breathe clean air and enjoy a reliable, affordable public transport system?

Transforming our transport system from one that is highly polluting and heavily reliant on fossil fuels into one that is clean, green, reliable and affordable is a challenge, but it can be done. Here is a selection of ideas on how we can create a better transport system that’s not only healthier for us all, but is compatible with a zero carbon future.

This is the second in a series of articles drawn from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s new report, Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen. The first in the series looked at the food system, and over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing with you 100 good ideas from across different sectors and disciplines, including buildings, energy, psychology, economics and politics.


The state of the system: where we are now

Transport is responsible for about a quarter of the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions, most of which come from cars and other road transport [source 1]. These figures don’t include international aviation and shipping, which are a significant and growing source of emissions – emissions from aviation have doubled since 1990, a growth rate of around 5% per year [2].



Decades of car-centric urban and transport planning have transformed the UK’s towns, cities and transport systems so that most people outside of London have become dependent on driving as their primary transport through choice or necessity. Out of town business and retail developments and the decline of the high street have contributed to this trend [3].  This growing car culture is a vicious cycle: public transport services are cut back as a result of reduced demand, making car use more attractive and locking people into car dependency [4].

Electric vehicles (EVs) are well recognised as a key measure to reduce carbon from the transport sector, but despite rapid growth (with over 80,000 registered EVs on the roads in 2016) and investments in charging networks, they still represent only a very small proportion of sales in the UK. New legislation is needed to accelerate growth in electric vehicle ownership, however the Government announced in March 2017 that it will increase the vehicle excise duty on electric vehicles.

Encouragingly, rail travel is now at the highest level since the 1920s despite massive cuts to services, overcrowding and the fact that rail fares have risen beyond the rate of inflation [5].


10 ideas to make change happen

Previous Zero Carbon Britain research shows that we have the technology to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions using technology available today. A low carbon transport system is a vital part of the mix, but how do we transform the current high emissions system into one that is fit for the future? In a new report Making it Happen, CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain team considers the social and political barriers to change, and explores the many ways we can overcome them. Here are some of the best ideas the research team came across.

See ‘A food system fit for a zero carbon future’ for ideas 1-10


11. Make new developments car-free
Vauban, Freiburg, Europe’s largest car-free development. Photo: Creative Commons / Matthew Wyneken

The neighbourhood of Vauban in Freiburg, Germany (population around 5,000) is Europe’s largest car-free development, with an extensive network of cycle routes and a public transport system of light rail and bus. In residential areas children playing and cycling in the streets is common and car access is only permitted for deliveries.

Tower Hamlets, London has a ‘car-free homes’ planning policy, introduced in the late 1990s, to help reduce traffic congestion and better manage the limited supply of on-street parking spaces. It also helps to reduce the level of air pollution and encourages more people to walk, cycle and use public transport.


12. Build houses closer together to make public transport more cost effective

One of the ways we can make sustainable transport more cost effective is to increase urban density. If people live more closely together journeys can be shorter and fewer bus routes and tram lines are required.

Urban housing densities could be increased from the current 30 dwellings per hectare (dph) to 50 or 100 dph [6]. Most new London housing developments and Georgian terraces are already around this higher level, while in Vauban housing density is 95 dph.


13. Reduce parking provision to discourage driving in cities

Copenhagen’s policy to remove 3% of parking every year and not build any new roads helped contribute to zero traffic growth in the old city for 15 years [7].  Removal of parking provision has the added benefit that it can double the number of dwellings that can be provided on a given site, increasing the potential supply of affordable homes.


14. Lower speed limits

The real and perceived safety of cyclists and walkers can be addressed at minimum cost through speed reduction. Most Northern European countries have default speed limits of just 30km/h (19mph) in residential and urban areas. There is convincing evidence that 20mph speed limits are effective in reducing accidents and injuries, traffic speed and volume, as well as improving perceptions of safety. Sherwood in Nottingham reported a 17.5% increase in walking and cycling as a result of a 20mph pilot [8].


15. Introduce charges for using cars in cities

Congestion charging is an effective way to reduce car dependency and to raise revenue for investment in public transport. London’s congestion charge has reduced car driver trips and volume of road traffic by around 14% between 2001 and 2014, despite a similar increase in population over the same period. More low-income households benefit from the improved public transport than are burdened by an increased charge. [9].

Workplace parking charges have also been shown to be effective in reducing car use. Car commuters are much more likely to walk, cycle or use public transport if their workplace restricts or charges for parking [10-12]. Nottingham’s Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), introduced in 2011, has funded an extension of the tram system, completed in late 2015, which is helping take cars off the road [13]. The scheme has reduced the number of workplace parking spaces, without acting as a deterrent to business.


16. Support electric vehicles

electric-car-1458836_1920Electric car clubs have been established in Oxford and Milton Keynes – local residents and businesses are able to hire electric cars or vans by the hour, helping to address the higher capital costs of electric vehicles while residents can capitalise on the very low running costs.

Increasing the number of public EV charging points helps to improve uptake by addressing concerns about range. The UK had over 3,700 locations in early 2016. Oslo, Norway has the highest number of EVs per capita in the world, helped by installation of over 1,000 electric vehicle charging points [14].

But it’s not just cars. London, Milton Keynes and Bristol have all electric buses in operation while in the Netherlands from 2025 all new buses will be zero emissions and electricity used by the new vehicles must be generated by renewable sources.


17. Create clean air zones

Clean air zones are required by law in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020 to reduce air pollution. High polluting vehicles, such as older buses, will be charged if they enter the zones, whilst newer and cleaner buses, coaches, lorries and taxis will be exempt from charges [15]. These could be introduced elsewhere and extended to cover private vehicles.


18. Change ownership models to invest in public transport

Twelve local authorities in Britain still have municipally-owned bus operators, which can reinvest profits to enhance the service rather than paying dividends [16]. The largest of these, Lothian Buses in Edinburgh, has high levels of customer satisfaction and recently returned £5.5 million profit to the public purse. Other municipal operators include Reading Buses, which was ‘Operator of the Year’ in 2015, and Nottingham City Transport which has the highest passenger satisfaction rating of any English operator [17].

Taking the railways back into public ownership could save an estimated £1 billion a year, which could be used to lower fares and improve services [18]. This could be done in a step by step approach with minimal cost to the public purse, involving acquisition of franchises as they expire or as companies fail to meet franchise conditions. Elsewhere in Europe, between 80% and 100% of passenger train services and the majority of rail freight (except in the Netherlands) are provided by the public sector [18]. Surveys suggest that this would have widespread public support.


19. Increase support for walking and cycling

bicycle-1834377_1920The Dutch spent £24 per person per year on cycling compared to less than £2 per person in England [19] and £6-7 per person in Scotland in 2015 [20]. Some of the government’s proposed spending on roads could be used to increase the walking/cycling investment to these levels, which could save the NHS £2-6 billion a year by 2025.

Projects to encourage cycling can be scaled up and replicted. For example, pioneering project York Bike Belles encourages women to start riding, or ride a bike more often, through an inspiring combination of motivational communications and confidence-building activities in fun, relaxed environments.


20. Increase passenger duty for frequent flyers

60% of emissions from flying are associated with only 20% of people [21, 22]. A Frequent Flyer Levy could replace Air Passenger Duty (APD), focusing efforts on the frequent flyers who are responsible for the majority of emissions, whilst still allowing for occasional holidays.

Under this proposal a levy is set at zero for the first outbound flight and then increased progressively for each subsequent flight. This is estimated to reduce passenger demand and raise more revenue than APD for the Exchequer – money raised could be used to support improvements to rail infrastructure and rolling stock [23].


Making it happen

To transform our transport system — as well as our food, buildings and energy systems — we will need to act together to scale up all these campaigns and projects, and many more.

The new Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen report explores how we can overcome the social and political barriers preventing society reaching zero carbon:

“We must join up research and action across disciplines, borders and scales and link research to real life projects. It will take many of us pulling in the same direction to enable change to happen, and each and every one of our actions can contribute to making a zero carbon future happen.” — p. 268


The report also considers some of the psychological and social levers that can help facilitate widespread change.

You can download the full Making it Happen report here, including a vision of a zero carbon future for our food system on p. 16. For more details on Zero Carbon Britain’s models for a zero carbon food system, take a look at our 2013 report, Rethinking the Future.

The Zero Carbon Britain team hope that Making it Happen will help catalyse valuable conversations about further research, and how individuals and organisations can work together to help make a zero carbon future a reality.


  1. Department for Transport (2015a) Transport Statistics: Great Britain 2015. Department for Transport: UK.
  2. Department for Transport (2015b) Total greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Department for Transport: UK.
  3. Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) (2014) Car dependency scorecard. Campaign for Better Transport: UK. Available at:
  4. Lucas, K. and Jones, P. (2009) The Car in British Society. RAC Foundation: UK.
  5. Department for Transport (2016a) Retail Prices Index: Transport components. TSBG 1308. Department for Transport: UK.
  6. Taylor, I. and Sloman, L. (2008) Masterplanning checklist for Sustainable Transport in New Developments
  7. Havlick, S. W. and Neuman, P. W. G. (1998) Can Demand Management Tame the Automobile in a Metropolitan Region? World Transport Policy and Practice, 4, 1, pp. 30-35.
  8. Nottingham City Council (2014) Sherwood 20mph speed limit 12 month monitoring report, 23.10.14. Nottingham City Council: UK.
  9. Blow, L. et al. (2003) London’s Congestion Charge. Briefing Note no. 31 for Institute for Fiscal Studies: London, UK
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  11. Petrunoff, N. et al. (2015) Carrots and sticks vs carrots: Comparing approaches to workplace travel plans using disincentives for driving and incentives for active travel. Journal of Transport & Health, 2, pp. 563-567.
  12. Cairns, S. et al. (2010) Understanding successful workplace travel initiatives in the UK. Transportation Research A, 44 (7), pp. 473-494.
  13. Dale, S. (2016) Principal Officer Highway Metrics, Nottingham City Council. Interview with L. Hopkinson, CAT, 23/03/16. Personal Communication.
  14. C40 (2016) C40 Good Practice Guides. C40:  UK.
  15. DEFRA (2015) Improving Air Quality in Cities.
  16. Taylor, I. and Sloman, L. (2016) Building a World Class Bus System for Britain.
  17. Transport Focus (2015a) Bus Passenger Survey. Autumn 2015 Report. Transport Focus: UK. Available at:
  18. Taylor, I. and Sloman, L. (2012) Rebuilding Rail.
  19. All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling (APPGC) (2013) Get Britain Cycling. Summary & Recommendations. All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling: London, UK
  20. SPOKES (2015) Scottish Government Cycling Investment. Spokes: UK.
  21. Brand, C. and Boardman, B. (2008) Taming of the few—The unequal distribution of greenhouse gas emissions from personal travel in the UK. Energy Policy, 36, pp. 224-238.
  22. Brand, C. and Preston, J. M., (2010) ‘60-20 emission’ – the unequal distribution of greenhouse gas emissions from personal, non-business travel in the UK. Transport Policy 17, pp. 9-19.
  23. Devlin, S. and Bernick, S. (2015) Managing aviation passenger demand with a Frequent Flyer Levy. New Economics Foundation: UK.