Reducing our car use: the road less travelled

Adrian Davis writes for The Scotsman

Date posted

9 February 2021


Scotland is a world leader across many fields of endeavour. Not least is its commitment to address climate change. Under the Climate Change Act (2019), the Scottish Government has a Plan with commitments for actions across all policy sectors and which now includes reducing car kilometres travelled by 20% by 2030. As the Plan says: ‘a truly world-leading aspiration.’

The tricky bit is implementation. Despite the fact that many car trips from small towns to the larger cities in which we live and work are less than 5 kilometres and many do not require the carriage of large/heavy items, infants or the infirm etc… many people have the habit of car use. It is so normal that each day we do not stop to consider whether using the car is the best choice for the journey which might be nothing more than a 10 minute walk, (weather being supportive). We are in a Gordian knot where the answer to too much motor traffic seems intractable yet lies in small changes to our own behaviour stimulated by traffic interventions which make walking and cycling attractive.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) might be described as the latest incarnation of approaches to give back to streets some of their non-traffic functions e.g. for childrens’ play and brief street level encounters between neighbours which strengthen cohesion and trust. At heart LTNs seek to reduce motorised traffic through neighbourhoods and increase the attractiveness of walking, cycling, as well as cohesion. News articles on LTNs tend to portray a struggle in which middle-class green-leaning activists corral support for schemes for safer and peaceful streets set against businesses, delivery drivers, and residents of poorer communities where, the claim goes, some motor traffic gets displaced to. The cases for and against LTNs each have their merits. What LTNs do achieve is giving those nervous of walking much or cycling the confidence to do so especially as most LTNs have 20mph speed limits and some road space reallocation. Funded through Transport Scotland’s Spaces for People programme in response to Covid-19, LTNs have been implemented in Dennistoun, Glasgow, and East Craigs, Edinburgh.

The road less travelled, however, is the one to reduce car traffic nationally. It requires government funding for town and city-wide interventions across Scotland which tip the balance to encourage us to consciously think which form of transport we might use for local trips. The good news is that there is evidence of effectiveness for such interventions. The Sustainable Travel Towns programme (2004-09) funded by the London Government, at £10M for the whole programme, put in place a range of initiatives aiming to encourage habitual use of non-car options in three English towns and it worked at cutting car use. The strategies adopted included travel awareness campaigns; public transport promotion; cycling and walking infrastructure; school and workplace travel planning; one-to-one travel planning support for households, and strong brand identity. The key was multiple interventions not just one or two. In these towns car mileage per person reduced by up to 10% and the number of car driver trips per resident fell by 7-10%. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. LTNs and School Street Closure (streets closed hour before and after school) can now be added to the interventions menu.

The Scotland Government is serious about demonstrating world leadership on climate change. A major contribution could simply arise from cutting out many local car trips. This itself will involve major investment programmes across many towns and cities to communities both well-heeled and deprived, and which make people feel safe from motorised traffic. LTNs are one tool, not the whole toolbox, to a just transformation needed in tackling climate change, which also enriches our lives.

Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health, Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University. His one page evidence summaries can be read here . An earlier version of this article appeared in the Friends of the Scotsman section of The Scotsman newspaper.