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Urgent action required to address transport emissions to meet net zero targets, says RTPI

A place-based approach which prioritises measures to reduce the need to travel and encourages people to shift to more active, public and shared modes of transport must be adopted in order to reach net zero emissions targets, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has said.

In a new report, Net Zero Transport: the role of spatial planning and place-based solutions, the Institute warns that unless urgent action is taken to integrate transport and land use planning, the UK is highly unlikely to reach its 2050 net zero targets.

The research, carried out by LDA Design with City Science and Vectos, sets out a pathway to achieving an 80% reduction in surface transport emissions by 2030, adapted for different types of place. This reflects the ambitious net zero targets set by many local authorities.

James Harris, RTPI policy manager, said: “Transport is the largest contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and responsible for 35.5% of all emissions in an average local authority. Compared to other sectors, very little progress has been made over the past 30 years with transport emissions having fallen by less than 3%.

“Transport decarbonisation will require a transformation of how we plan, design and use space, and how we live and move around. Switching to alternative fuels like electric vehicles is important, but this alone does little to tackle problems of car dependency or help places recover from Covid-19.

“Decarbonising transport should be a catalyst for a radical change in planning. We must ensure that growth generates no new transport emissions, enabling local authorities to deliver comprehensive measures which cut carbon while creating better places. This will be challenging, but will ultimately create healthier, safer and more equitable communities.”

To show what a place-based approach might look like, the report contains four ‘spatial visions’ for fictional areas in England, from a major city-region to a rural village. These demonstrate key steps for reducing transport emissions, including planning for ‘carbon negative growth zones’ and networks of 15-minute neighbourhoods where most people can meet their daily needs by walking and cycling.

This local living reduces the number and length of journeys made on a daily basis, resulting in vital carbon savings while improving public health.

To make active travel the natural choice for most short trips, the report recommends that streets be repurposed as places for play and social interaction. Access and parking for most private vehicles should be restricted, with sustainable transport becoming the most convenient and affordable option. And the report says that public transport use needs to increase significantly above pre-Covid levels to reduce transport emissions, particularly for medium and long-distance journeys. 

Frazer Osment, Chair of LDA Design, said: “This research highlights the scale of the challenge facing us in reducing emissions from transport. It also shows that we cannot declare a climate emergency and yet continue to plan for growth that puts more carbon into the atmosphere. We need to be bold and put decarbonisation at the heart of planning, starting with a net zero vision in every area and working backwards to plan, design and deliver great places that achieve that vital objective.”

A separate discussion paper, accompanying the report, finds that a lack of effective leadership within central and local government is one of the biggest barriers to transport decarbonisation, and calls for a cross-party commission to provide long-term certainty over policy. Other recommendations include:

  • Updating the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to make zero carbon outcomes a key component of the definition of sustainable development and to include a definition of 15-minute neighbourhoods
  • Engaging with local communities to generate a better understanding of the link between transport, carbon emissions, air quality and health
  • Conducting a national review of public transport pricing
  • Creating a dedicated Minister for Decarbonisation to work with local leaders
  • Integrating Local Plans and Local Transport Plans, with resourcing for Local Planning Authorities
  • Updating the Future Homes Standard to include emissions from transport

RTPI Cymru has responded to the Welsh Government consultation on the draft strategy for the future of transport in Wales – ‘Llwybr Newydd: a new Wales Transport Strategy’. In responding, RTPI Cymru called for a ‘more integrated approach to transport and land use planning’ in line with the findings of the RTPI Net Zero Carbon Transport research.

Roisin Willmott, director of RTPI Cymru, said: “It is vital that we work to better integrate transport and development planning policies, plans, strategies and funding as well as effectively integrating our working practices across these and other sectors, if we are to enable a modal shift, achieve decarbonisation, net zero targets and climate action goals.”

The Department for Transport is publishing its Transport Decarbonisation Plan in Spring 2021.

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