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How will we decarbonise London’s transport network?

Our Research Manager Josh Cottell reflects on the discussion at a recent roundtable, supported by Uber, which explored the challenges and opportunities with decarbonising London’s transport network.

Transport contributes a quarter of London’s CO2 emissions so will play a vital role in achieving the Mayor of London’s target for the city to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. In 2019, around one in three trips in London were made by car, another third by public transport, and a quarter by active travel (walking or cycling). The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant shift in how people move around the city, with fewer trips being taken by public transport, and more by private transport and active travel. The shift away from public transport, if lasting, could represent a step backward for the decarbonisation agenda. Reducing carbon emissions in the city will also involve supporting Londoners to make shorter, less frequent trips, and accelerating the move towards greener vehicles.

Electric cars – a panacea?

The move from petrol and diesel engines to electric vehicles (EVs) is an important opportunity. In recent years, the proportion of newly registered cars in the UK that use electric power has increased substantially, but the proportion of all cars on the road using electric power remains at only about three per cent.

One reason that take up of electric cars remains relatively low is that the vehicles are typically more expensive to purchase than comparable conventional cars. This is especially true when we consider that a driver could purchase a second-hand conventional car at a significant discount much more easily than a second-hand EV.

Drivers may also be reluctant to purchase an EV because of  ‘range anxiety’ – the worry that they will struggle to find charging points in the right places at the right times. Companies seeking to install charging infrastructure cite access to land and the time it takes to get permits for installation as key barriers. But with newer, higher powered charging points possible in areas with sufficient electricity supply, a new network of charging hubs could help to increase the reliability of EVs. It will be important for policymakers and private companies to ensure that charging points are distributed efficiently and fairly, so that all Londoners can benefit from them.

More people travelling by electric cars will undoubtedly reduce carbon emissions from transport in London. However, there was wide agreement among our roundtable attendees that we shouldn’t view a transition to electric cars as a panacea, but rather as one part of a larger story of decarbonising transport.

Changing the way we travel

Putting walking, public transport and micromobility such as bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters at the heart of planning in the city could encourage more people to take greener trips. The current trial of e-scooters in several London boroughs poses a unique opportunity to capitalise on the recent shift in how people move around London; with the right regulation and infrastructure, micromobility could increase mobility while reducing the environmental impact of travel.

Some journeys lend themselves particularly well to walking, cycling or public transport – shorter trips, such as the school run, are a significant proportion of private car trips. The growing network of cycleways in London, will need to continue to expand if it is to offer a safe and meaningful alternative mode of transport to more Londoners.

Finally, while London is making progress in decarbonising its public transport, further investment will be needed to reach net zero by 2030. We will need to share best practice with other cities to speed up the process of, for instance, electrifying bus networks across London and the rest of the UK.

A transport system that works for all Londoners

To ensure that any changes to London’s transport system are fair, efficient and publicly supported, regional and local governments will need to engage effectively with communities and ensure that Londoners feel that their voice has been heard. It will also be important that all Londoners feel like they stand to benefit not only from cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions, but also from a range of other social and economic benefits that can complement these changes. These include increased mobility, especially for those who are currently under-served by London’s transport system, and secure and well-paid jobs in the emerging green economy.

Decarbonising transport in London will need action from many actors, from individuals to private companies to local and regional governments and public institutions. A fair and sufficient funding agreement for Transport for London in the first instance will be integral to its success.

Josh Cottell is Research Manager at Centre for London.