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Can We Walk Away From Owning A Car?


It’s mind-boggling when you think about it. As much as fifty percent – yes, half – of inner-city land consists of roads and parking spaces, reports the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In one of the UK’s largest cities, Birmingham, which struggles with illegal and unsafe levels of air pollution, there are over 300,000 journeys every day of less than one mile by car which could be made on foot or by cycle. Traffic congestion in Birmingham costs the local economy £12 million a week. Surely we didn’t choose this – or did we?

Don’t think Birmingham is unusual. More than 80% of the UK suffers from illegal levels of air pollution, according to UK Government figures. Compare Birmingham with London, which has almost twenty million journeys a day, thirteen million of them in motorised transport – over half of which are short enough to be cycled instead.

Luckily for Birmingham, it has a visionary champion, the Council’s Transport & Environment lead, Cllr Waseem Zaffar. He talks about the Council’s ambitious vision to change all of this in Carbon Copy’s transport webinar, From A to B: Carbon Free. “One of the messages in Birmingham’s draft transport plan, launched in January, is that ‘the car will no longer be king’,” says Waseem. “Our plan is accused of being anti-car, and in one of the UK’s ‘motor cities’ that creates challenges. But I’m not anti-car, I’m pro-people.”

It’s going to take a sustained and massive effort to shift our perspective about owning a car. And it may be that the community self-awareness born of COVID-19 will give us just the impetus we need towards that new worldview. As Jools Townsend, CEO of Community Rail Network says: “Considering how incredibly embedded the car is in our ways of thinking, our lifestyles and identities, it really does take communities coming together, thinking what’s needed locally, to get past that.”

A major challenge is obviously the current sparseness of integrated public transport outside of cities. Jools Townsend again: “We need joined-up thinking and collaboration across all modes – rail, bus, walking, cycling – so that they all work better together, if we’re going to achieve that shift away from mass car use.”

Each of the alternatives to private car use has tremendous personal and social benefits. For a start there’s walking. Dan Raven-Ellison, founder of Slow Ways and another of this webinar’s panellists urges, “Walking more is one of those things which can not only help us all as individuals but, if we all do it, can have a big societal impact on health and wellbeing and resilience.”

Dan challenges us to think about purposive walking: “Our recreational footpaths go from quiet place to quiet place, but the history of why we have footpaths around the country is to connect busy settlements. You should be able to walk safely and comfortably to your neighbouring settlements, to do stuff when you arrive there, and you should also be able to daisy-chain all of those functional routes into longer – much longer – journeys.”
Working with Ordinance Survey, Slow Ways has mapped out nearly 1,000 routes, to join all the 2,500 principle locations in the UK. Then working online during lockdown with 700 volunteers, they’ve linked up 8,000 routes, covering 120,000km, using existing footpaths, which you can find online.

Most of us could also ride bicycles to a greener and healthier future, as they already do in many European countries. Although the modern ‘step-through’ bicycle was invented in Coventry 135 years ago, and 80 per cent of the world’s bikes used to be made in Britain, other European countries are now far ahead in embracing the bicycle as daily transport. Adam Tranter, independent Bicycle Mayor of Coventry, says: “Cycling and walking represent half of all journeys in Amsterdam. Today, classic Coventry-style ‘granny bikes’ are more numerous than humans in Amsterdam.”

Outside cities, bicycles can be the link to a wider transport network. A University of Leeds team led by Dr Ian Philips at the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions has found that e-bikes, if used to replace car travel, have the capability to cut car CO2 emissions in England by up to 50% – about 30 million tonnes per year. “The strategic potential of e-bikes as a mass-transport option has been overlooked by policymakers so far,” says Ian. “E-bikes give access in rural areas to feeder bus and train services, so they become part of the transport ecosystems in more remote areas.”

There are some fundamental social issues with persuading the public to walk away from cars. One is that car marketing is heavily focused on personal aspiration. The fundamental message is that the better and newer your car, the more successful and well-off you appear to society. Jools Townsend acknowledges this: “It’s incredibly important to position public transport as aspirational, and a key part of the solution. The dominant position of private car use in our society is a huge barrier, which is now being perpetuated by the idea that ‘electric cars will save the day’. We need to get over that.”

As with all of the Carbon Copy webinars in this series, the discussion comes back to health inequality and social inclusion. As Jools points out, “Social inclusion and sustainability are absolutely intertwined, and we can benefit both by empowering communities on transport.”

Adam Tranter agrees, “It’s vital to engage more deeply than just with those communities that already want this stuff, but also with communities which are more socially and economically deprived, for whom the benefits are much less obvious.”

Waseem Zaffar sees the same in Birmingham, “Some neighbourhoods are demanding these changes whereas others, particularly in the heavily BAME-dominated populations, are the most resistant – even though that’s often where the greatest health inequalities are. We need to win the hearts and minds of communities, that this is really important. It’s about life chances and reversing health inequality, not just whether you use a car or the bus.”

As Dan puts it, we need to find powerful new stories. “Story is really important: how you can create story and how by sharing story, you help to shape culture, shape identity and shape new norms.”

Photo by Gabriele Stravinskaite on Unsplash

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