Reducing transport emissions

How can we engineer a ‘climate smart’ recovery from the COVID-19 crisis?

So much has changed since the LGA commissioned the University of Leeds to produce some guidance for local government on how to tackle the climate emergency (see first 644).

The effects of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown put huge parts of the economy and society on pause. As the restrictions are, bit by bit, relaxed, thinking turns from emergency planning to recovery planning.

How, then, to make the recovery a ‘climate smart’ one?

While in many respects everything has changed, some guiding principles remain the same. From a climate emergency perspective, the requirement for rapid annual emissions reductions from transport every year are still there. The broad categories of intervention remain the same: we can reduce the amount we have to move around to live daily life, shift to less carbon-intensive forms of transport, and improve the emissions performance of the motorised travel that remains. COVID-19 calls for a re-emphasis of these priorities, which are discussed below.

“Lockdown has made many businesses accelerate the shift to online working practices, although this is not open to all sectors of the economy

First, how much will people travel, and how much of this is an opportunity or a threat? Road traffic levels in England reduced to 40 per cent of their usual weekday levels during lockdown, with bus and rail travel collapsing to less than 10 per cent of usual demand.

There is no doubt that lockdown has made many businesses accelerate the shift to online working practices, although this is not open to all sectors of the economy. Capturing and supporting these changes to reduce the number of days some people commute to work will accelerate a trend that was already there, and potentially offer benefits to firms and employees, as well as the climate.

We can anticipate a wider reduction in demand to travel more generally, as a result of reduced physical capacity in shops, sports centres, restaurants and bars, and schools. The anticipated recession will also dampen demand, with the four years after the 2008 financial crisis seeing reductions in car travel.

So, for a mix of reasons – both good and bad – we can expect traffic levels to be suppressed. This has been the experience so far in the early release from lockdowns in Paris and Milan, for example.

Second, the picture on shifting people onto different modes of transport – ‘mode shift’ – is also very different now than in February 2020. There has been a major response in towns and cities across the world to accelerate the provision of improved cycling facilities through, initially, temporary road space reallocations. Across the UK, major pots of funding have been brought forward to encourage this.

Other road space changes have been necessary for maintaining safe physical social distancing at two metres, with an ongoing likelihood of people needing to queue outside shops and venues. This will need to continue for the foreseeable future.

Mode shift to cycling is attractive right now, as more people are trying cycling and travel horizons are more locally focused.

By contrast, the short-run picture for public transport is poor, with capacity on services limited to 10 to 20 per cent of pre-lockdown levels. There is no escaping the very negative impacts of the messaging on the safety of public transport on its position as a mode of choice in the future.

The finances of the industry are now almost entirely dependent on government and this will impact on the capacity for joint investment in cleaner and newer fleets. It is, however, critical to see the long game here: cities simply cannot move the numbers of people they need to without a healthy public transport system.

Finally, measures to improve the efficiency of vehicles remain as important as before. One of the opportunities to be seized by any green stimulus funding is to put in place the infrastructure to enable the acceleration of the adoption of electric vehicles. However, the shift to electric was not going to get us to our carbon reduction targets quickly enough before, so it is critical to avoid a growth in car use to back-fill reductions in public transport use.

The choices confronting local government before COVID-19, to get to zero carbon, were all difficult. Some are more challenging now. However, the mass exposure to streets with less traffic and more localised living, and the realisation that our globalised lifestyles bring risks as well as benefits, also provide a new space for developing policy packages that build towards a climate smart recovery.

Professor Marsden is an expert in climate and energy policy in the transport sector. For more information, please visit For LGA climate change resources, please visit, and for transport see our dedicated pages at


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