Spotting political opportunities for sustainable travel

Transport is the one sector in Britain where emissions are rising instead of falling. That trend needs to be reversed, but it will mean tackling a difficult topic: car culture. People love their cars, and the government is afraid to act. The tabloids are always ready with their headlines about the ‘war on motorists’, and efforts to curb car use have stalled before. It is basically politically unassailable.

This can’t go on, and while promoting electric vehicles is welcome, we need matching action to dis-incentivise fossil fuel use.

To find some points of leverage, it’s worth digging around in the latest bulletin on social attitudes to transport, released last week by the Department for Transport. It tracks the way we think about transport as a nation, and how our views are changing over time.

For example, ten years ago there was a lot of resentment about traffic speed cameras. The media celebrated vigilantes that sabotaged them, and around half the population thought there were too many. We have now got over our indignation, and more people disagree with the idea that there are too many speed cameras than agree. Opposition to speed bumps on residential streets has declined. The first observation from these statistics is that our attitudes can and do change.

In some cases, the trends are changing in the wrong ways. People’s perception of cycling safety is unchanged over seven years, with 62% thinking the roads are not safe to cycle on. Fewer people agree that they could cycle rather than drive short distances. That’s clearly something to work on. Reflecting the sterling work of aviation lobbyists, more people back the right to fly, even if airports have to be expanded. It will be interesting to see if the Heathrow decision changes that in the 2018 figures.

On other topics, there is progress. The number of people agreeing that climate change is happening and that it is largely caused by human activity has risen from 76% in 2011 to 84% in 2017. That should be a broad mandate for climate action, but it turns out that we’re very inconsistent and conflicted about how it should be done.

Take car use. As the graph shows, there’s a general consensus that ‘everyone’ should reduce their car use – 61% agree. But when the question is put more personally and people are asked if they are willing to drive less themselves, only 41% say yes. 38% say no, they’re not willing to drive less. So we agree on the need for action, but preferably from other people first. Perceptions of who is doing what are important here: “almost half say there is no point in reducing their own car use unless others do the same.”

So what political openings can we identify as leverage points for encouraging sustainable transport? Here are three:

First, there is concern around air pollution at the moment. As the graph shows, it may not last – views have flip-flopped on the issue. Right now though, arguments for sustainable transport framed around air pollution and exhaust fumes are likely to get a hearing.

Second, most people believe that we should be free to fly as much as we like, but they do agree that the environmental impact of flying should be priced in. The survey asked people to agree or disagree with the statement “the price of a plane ticket should reflect the environmental damage that flying causes, even if this makes air travel more expensive”. 45% agree, which is double the number of people who disagree. We should take that and run with it – and the frequent flyer levy may be the fairest way to do it.

Third, the number of people who agree that they could probably walk instead of driving short trips is rising. Not dramatically – only 10% strongly agree, and the number of people disagreeing has only fallen from 23 to 17%.  But it is still progress, and we can capitalise on it by doing something to make it an easier decision. Walkable neighbourhood initiatives and placemaking, wider pavements, walk to school week, pedestrianisation – all these sorts of things can build on and accelerate that trend. Of course there are health benefits to walking too, and it would fit with an air pollution agenda.

Those are three areas where the government could move, where the great British public might be ready for a nudge in the right direction. Let’s take the political moment and deliver on clean air, carbon pricing for aviation, and the multiple-win of walking.


  1. People love the convenience and security of a car. I also enjoy driving and take pride in it. However, I’d gladly pay more for fuel and would buy electric if I could afford it (my next car will cost about £3000 so must be a secondhand one). Give me a lightweight, reliable, fully refurbishable hybrid and I’ll be happy. I always walk to the village, take walking and cycling holidays and offset carbon emissions from flights. But most people do not do or want these things as far as I can tell. So I agree that the things you recommend are viable but must be made inescapable for those who do not care.

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