Home Sustainability and Eco Friendly initiative news Public and active transport is in decline, but what can businesses do about it?

Public and active transport is in decline, but what can businesses do about it?

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Public and active transport is in decline, but what can businesses do about it?


Transport emissions dropped by 20 per cent during the pandemic lockdowns in 2021. As skies cleared and roads unclogged, there was a hope that one positive development out of the lockdowns might be a long-term shift in travel habits in favour of lower carbon forms of transport. 

Travel habits did indeed change, but as new data from Department for Transport (DfT) revealed, it was not in the way environmental campaigners had hoped for. 

According to a new study from the department conducted by Ipsos, fewer people are using walking, cycling, and public transport to get around in the UK post-pandemic. Meanwhile, reliance on cars has risen slightly, and despite being generally more aware of the impact travel has on the environment, people claim they are less inclined to switch to more sustainable modes of transport. 

The report, which surveyed over 2,300 people aged 16 to 75 across England, found the percentage of people who travelled by bus dropped from 63 per cent to 48 per cent between 2020 and 2022. 

Similarly, train use dropped by 20 percentage points compared to pre-pandemic levels, falling to 43 per cent.  Underground and metro travel also decreased from 44 per cent to 29 per cent. 

Walking and cycling have also become a less popular commuter choice, dropping from 79 to 69 per cent and 31 to 26 per cent, respectively. 

These sharp reductions can be explained in part by the explosion in home working triggered by the pandemic. But the report also found that car travel had essentially returned to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, after a spike in usage immediately following the pandemic, with 71 per cent of people driving and 77 per cent using a car as a passenger in 2022. 

And the report revealed a slight increase in the proportion of people travelling ‘frequently’ by car both as passenger and as driver, meaning a larger proportion of those who travel by car are using them more often than they did before the pandemic. 

The findings are in line with other major transport studies conducted in recent months, such as the Transport Focus report on bus usage, and reveal a worrying trend in British transport habits that could put climate and air quality goals at risk. 

Jason Torrance, interim chief executive at UK100, the network of local authorities committed to ambitious climate action, said the results were “quite stark”. “I think government should really sit up and take notice of this new evidence that car journeys are increasing, while public transport journeys are decreasing,” he said. “It needs to be a wake up call to the government, who were recently warned by their climate advisors, that lack of government action to tackle traffic growth was off track and threatening to derail climate targets.”

Transport is now the biggest single sector responsible for greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and road traffic contributes the majority of those emissions at a domestic level. The recent annual progress report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warned that while soaring demand for electric vehicles (EVs) was ahead of expectations, efforts to encourage a modal shift in transport in favour of public transport and active travel were off track for delivering on the UK’s medium and long term emissions goals.

The CCC has repeatedly argued that EV infrastructure development has to go hand-in-hand with a greater use of public transport, cycling, and walking if the UK wants to meet its net zero by 2050 target. 

Interviews conducted by Ipsos as part of the survey indicated that people are on average more aware of the climate impact of travel than they were before the pandemic, but the report found they were on average less inclined to change their travel habits. Around five per cent fewer people were inclined to switch to walking or cycling or to reduce their number of flights for the sake of sustainability than in 2020.

The report does not dig into the reasons behind this shift in attitude, although it suggests that lingering fears around Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis are having an impact. 

However, speaking to a number of transport campaigners, BusinessGreen found there was a common concern that was not directly addressed in the report: the quality of public and active transport infrastructure. 

“Traffic growth is something that blights communities all across the UK,” Torrance said. “We have the alternatives in walking, cycling, public transport, but there just simply isn’t enough investment going in from UK government to support the switch from car journeys to more sustainable forms of transport.

“Local authorities tell us time and time again, they do not have enough resources, enough powers in enough policy and partnership with central government to take the effective action that gives their communities the travel choices that they need. Often it’s just too expensive, too unreliable, or not frequent enough. In some cases, in terms of cycling, too dangerous.” 

Earlier this year, the government angered environmental and health campaigners by controversially slashing the budget for active transport by two thirds for the rest of the Parliament.

Silviya Barrett, director of policy and research for the Campaign for Better Transport, said efforts to encourage more sustainable transport modes were being undermined by the hugely varied levels of access to public transport and safe walking and cycling routes.

“For many people completely giving up on car ownership and using public transport more is still not such an attractive or realistic prospect,” Silviya said. “We’ve been calling for government to reprioritise investment away from things like road building into funding public transport and active travel properly. Instead we’ve seen cuts to active travel budgets, public transport cuts, rail cuts, staff cuts, and that’s in addition to the rail strikes, the recent news about ticket offices, and the mess that the rail fares and ticketing system still is.”

One of the reasons for reduced levels of public transport use is that train and bus operators have been forced to cut routes and budget to make up to tackle the debts racked up over the course of the pandemic, according to Richard Hebditch director at Transport & Environment UK. He warned that these cuts risked triggering a “spiral decline” where reduced and less reliable services lead to fewer customers. 

The government’s report highlighted how participants in focus groups had suggested “improvements to the frequency of public transport” would encourage its use. They also raised concerns about the reliability of public transport services, as well as safety and price. 

The message from transport campaigns like UK100, Campaign for Better Transport, Transport & Environment, and others is as clear as it is unanimous: the government needs to increase investment in public and active transport networks if it wants to keep on track for its net zero goals. 

For its part, the government insists action is being taken. The £2 cap on bus fares has just been extended for a second time, while billions of pounds continue to be invested in new green buses, active transport networks, and rail electrification projects. “Our Transport Decarbonisation Plan is one of the most ambitious in the world, and we’re making strong progress on our commitments in rail and buses,” said a government spokesperson. “We’ve invested over £3.5bn for buses since 2020, recently extending the £2 fare cap to encourage more people onto them.”

But budgets for both rail upgrades and active transport have been cut, and the government has recently made clear its opposition to measures to try and curb car use, such as low traffic neighbourhoods.

Barrett argued “public transport improvements need to go hand in hand with measures to rebalance signalling away from cars”.

“If you’re a driver, you won’t be aware even if your council makes improvements to your bus service – unless something happens, like it becomes more expensive for you to park in the town centre, which makes you think about alternatives,” she said. “The carrot and the stick need to go hand in hand.” 

She highlighted how there is evidence such policies can work, noting how in Nottingham the combination of a workplace parking levy and investment in tram services has caused a significant shift in transport habits. 

However, government funding cuts and political opposition to traffic reduction measures, such as congestion or ultra low emission zones, means that if a shift towards lower carbon transport modes is to be achieved businesses are likely to play a key role.

Campaigners stress that there are a number of ways businesses can support the transition to greener transport options, beyond offering workplace charging points and electric company cars. These include relatively simple changes, such as providing shower facilities and safe bike racks for employees who cycle to work, providing bike-buying incentives, or introducing staggered start times to allow employees to take advantage of off peak fares. More broadly, prioritising rail travel wherever possible for business trips can take a significant chunk out of a business’ carbon footprint. And, perhaps most importantly, strategies to decarbonise haulage fleets can make a critical contribution to both corporate and national climate goals.

“Businesses are already doing a lot in terms of changing their their fleets, encouraging people to use public transport, or walk to their places of work,” said Torrance, but they also have a role to play in pushing policymakers to provide the underlying infrastructure that green transport options ultimately rely on.

“In many ways, businesses are already in a leading role” he said. “One of the things that is missing is a very clear long term pathway and focus from central government. It’s about having a partnership between local government, central government and business to serve public customers and employees.”

Want to understand what is going on at the cutting edge of sustainability? Check out BusinessGreen Intelligence – the premier information for professionals focused on the UK’s green economy.  

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