Monday, 16 December 2013

Congestion, carbon, cars and cities

The transport debate in Bristol has been particularly hot during 2013, including: planning permission given for the South Bristol Ring Road (rebranded as the South BristolLink); bus rapid transit; bus fares; residents parking zones; and speed/road safety cameras (see here for more).  It’s long been a big issue because, whilst the recently crowned European Green Capital 2015 has its sustainable aspects and ambitions, it’s a long way from solving its very big transport problems. Horrendous traffic continues to lower our health, wellbeing and quality of life. This will continue to damage present and future generations if we don’t do something soon that is effective in breaking the business as usual cycle of problems (pictured: begin at the arrow and go clockwise).  

Bristol’s transport problems are serious: every day too many vehicles are trying to use local roads; there are very limited possibilities for building more roads and in any case more roads bring more traffic and more damage (a lesson Bristol’s planners seem not to have learned yet); drivers spend half their time crawling in jammed traffic; congestion is costing business very large amounts of money; traffic congestion generates more air pollution and produces more climate change causing carbon emissions; congestion causes frustration and raises stress levels. The UK is unfortunately still a long way from breaking the link between prosperity and traffic growth, vital to building a sustainable society (see table below).
What does the UK need to do to achieve transport sustainability? Some of what follows is supposed to be in place but in practice is not. Much of what follows is either paid lip service to or is just not happening on any sufficient scale or pace.

The first task is to ensure that priority in transport theory and practice in built up areas is given and enacted on a reasoned basis, aimed at sustainability. Prioritisation in built up areas should be on the basis of safety, efficiency, environmental impacts, health and fairness, which produces this order: first pedestrians and disabled people; then cyclists; followed by buses, trams, light rail, trains and perhaps small, high efficiency and/or alternatively fuelled vehicles; then shared petrol and diesel transport such as taxis and car pools; private petrol and diesel fuelled motorised transport ; and finally heavy goods vehicles except public transport.
There is plenty of scope for debate in some of the priority order eg which forms of public transport contribute best to sustainability in particular places; the priority given to private vehicles that have multiple occupants; the position of motorbikes, mopeds and any new types of vehicle that become commonly used. However it’s pretty clear that the top three priorities are: walking/disabled people; cycling; and well occupied public transport, very likely a coherent combination of modes operating under an integrated transport authority.   

What should transport objectives be if the aim is sustainability ie achieving prosperity without waste, resource squandering, pollution, inequality, unfairness and weakening community? Here’s what I’d adopt as my sustainable transport objectives: human-scale, self-reliant communities; a participative, democratic planning processes; moving from cars, lorries and vans to walking, cycling and public transport; accounting properly for the social and environmental welfare of all areas/people; respect environmental limits, maximise efficiency; equity, health, safety.
When assessing transport proposals, policies and actions, evaluation should be based on broad-based social, economic and environmental considerations, not just profit/financial costs or a crude cost-benefit analysis or greenwash. Safety, health, wellbeing, eco-footprint, carbon footprint, biodiversity measures and not just speed and convenience are important. Targeted provision for groups/individuals disadvantaged by car-oriented society should be a key indicator too. We need to develop and use performance measures that trigger action to counter rebound effects such as people driving more if/when the efficiency of their vehicle improves.

The UK needs the following overarching sustainable transport policies: reduce transport energy use, with liaison at all levels and in strategic areas; penalise fuel guzzlers, encourage sustainable technologies; financial disincentives to private and incentives to public transport; incentives to non-motorised transport; and perhaps most critical of all, land use planning that reduces the need for motorised transport and favours walking, cycling and public transport.

Transport modes and systems should be such that we avoid service duplication and enable service-oriented, complementary, integrated transport. Communal provision and collective vehicle use needs to be expanded. We should be divert resources from large scale development to sustainable transport (renewable resources, high efficiency). Goods movement by rail and water (eg by ship around the coast) should be prioritised over roads. We need both to avoid unsustainable developments and enable sustainable developments because so often cities that take one step forward, such efforts to promote cycling in Bristol also take two steps back like the building of the very large car park to service the Cabot Circus shopping centre near the city centre which attracts traffic from over a whole region.

Financing sustainable transport policies means making choices some do/would not welcome, including: no tax relief for business transport costs; urban parking and private car facilities disincentivised and progressively reduced and spend the revenues on facilities for walking, cycling, the disabled; use disincentives on lorry and van use to resource rail, coastal shipping and canals. We should shift more research funding into assessing the true costs and benefits of transport modes and into truly sustainable technologies and systems.

The cost of car ownership and use should be directly related to the net total impacts and fuel taxation should absorb vehicle excise duty and include a third party insurance levy so that irresponsible drivers cannot avoid these things. We need greater incentives for low emission fuel use. General investment in: public transport; demand management; traffic-free area creation in cities and homes zones is far too small.
Sustainable transport can’t come about if we don’t oppose road building that encourages traffic and dont stop building new urban trunk roads and motorways (or expanding the capacity of existing roads and motorways).

Standards all-round need tightening, for instance: on the safety, speed, size, weight, noise and exhaust fumes of vehicles; speed limits in residential areas (eg Bristol has expanded the number of 20mph areas it has); the max speed limit; speed limits in selected areas; making all speed limits statutory; the legal blood alcohol limit; eco-driving proficiency.

We need regular driver checks for driving and vehicle competence and health eg whenever a driver commits designated offences, with fees to make the process self-funded. There should be tougher license penalties for alcohol and drug related driving offences, especially for persistent offenders and in certain circumstances it should be in the power of courts to order that a driver has to take another driving test before regaining their license to drive. The breaking of driving or vehicle standards should incur license penalties in addition to fines, with no choice of paying the fine to avoid the penalty points.

More on Bristol's transport here and here.

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