Walking and cycling charity Sustrans is urging all of us to consider positive and climate-considerate changes in the way we move around every day, says Andrew Collier

The world is on the edge of a determined attempt to drive down carbon emissions. Targets for reductions have been set and action is being taken. The problem is we are only seeing partial success.

In the UK progress is being made in areas such as heat, industry and agriculture, where CO2 is now down to just 50 per cent of 1990 levels. 

However, transport – the single largest emitter responsible for more than a quarter of the output – remains stubbornly resistant. Petrol and diesel sales dropped dramatically last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic but are expected to rebound as societies move out of lockdown.

One answer to this problem would be a much greater take up of active travel. Walking, cycling and wheeling – the use of wheelchairs and mobility vehicles – can make a difference not just to carbon emissions but also to our health and to communities.

John Lauder is the Edinburgh-based Deputy Chief Executive of Sustrans, the UK-wide charity campaigning for more sustainable travel

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“There’s been very little change in the dominance of the private motor car for the bulk of trips we make over the past 20 years,” he says. “But walking, cycling and wheeling can really make a difference. 

“The car can have a completely skewing effect on how neighbour-hoods work and the way cities, towns and villages feel to the residents. It dominates. 

“Our over-reliance on it also means that we experience poor air quality from tailpipe emissions, brake dust or tyre wear.

“It can also mean that people don’t feel they can get out and walk or cycle – they look at the roads and see them as being cluttered and dangerous. They don’t even want to try.”

Instead, Mr Lauder says, people use their motor vehicles: more than half the journeys made by car in Scotland are less than three miles. 

“That hasn’t changed in a very long time. There is also evidence that longer trips of 10 to 25 miles are dominated by the motor vehicle. We’ve lost the habit of using the bus and the train and increased our reliance on the internal combustion engine.”

John Lauder does, however, see the opportunity and the will for change. There is, he points out, a belief by the Scottish Government that transport delivery has to change and the notion of weaning people away from the car was discussed in last year’s National Transport Strategy.

“Doing that means having a better alternative both for short trips and for region-length journeys. What we are trying to do here is to emulate the sort of planning that went on in other northern European countries 25 to 30 years ago.”

People have to be given a realistic option in terms of active travel choices, he adds. “We’d like to see a greater appetite for these from local authorities, along with a rejuvenation of the use of the bus.

“The good news is that we receive an annual grant from the Scottish Government and we distribute this to fund infrastructure. We are seeing the level of ambition going up all the time, to the point where our budget is not sufficient to meet demand.

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“We’d like that to continue. We would also like to see the temporary infrastructure that a lot of local authorities have introduced such as the widening of pavements and the closing of some narrow roads – so people can safely socially distance from each other – be made more permanent.”

John Lauder  believes that to change attitudes, an element of stick as well as carrot may be needed. “We have to ensure that those short everyday journeys in towns and cities are always more attractive to do on foot or by bike than by car.  Streets will still be accessible by car for those that need it. Maybe just taking slightly longer by private vehicle. 

“It may be difficult but it’s the reality, if we want to get emissions down. We have to make some difficult decisions and that is going to require some firm and strong leadership at a civic level in our towns and cities.”

He also sees Scotland’s Climate Assembly – a group of people broadly representative of the population – as hugely important. 

“We’ve given evidence to it and I found it very refreshing. It’s really interesting to work with people from every walk of life.”

There may well be opportunities, Mr Lauder believes, in the change in working and commuting patterns forced by the pandemic: it may well be that homeworking will now become more of a permanent fixture.

This could well mean people staying in their residential areas more, leading to a greater degree of localism and what is known as the 20 minute neighbourhood – in other words, people meeting their everyday needs within a walk and cycle of this length.

This is already being implemented in cities such as Melbourne and Paris.

“We’re beginning to talk about this much more now. The evidence would seem to be that a lot more employers are planning to have their staff based at home. 

“You have to ask what that is going to mean for commuting and the dominance of the car. We may have to  plan a lot more in terms of our suburbs and small towns.”

Is he optimistic about the future? He says: “Well, we’ve seen a positive change in infrastructure planning. I think there is a realisation in government that we do have to find a better way.”

  • This article was brought to you in partnership with Sustrans.