Climate change: 'Gob-smacking' vision for future UK transport

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Bikes and busesImage source, Getty Images

People in the UK need to shift from cars to public transport to address the challenge of climate change, the government says.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities.

"We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network."

Transport campaigners have been astonished by his comments.

They are made in the foreword to the government’s De-Carbonising Transport consultation.

The document has been quietly published without notifying the media, and the veteran cycling campaigner Roger Geffen told BBC News: "It’s absolutely amazing.

"This makes Grant Shapps the first government minister in the UK to talk about traffic reduction since John Prescott tried (and failed) to achieve this aim in the late 1990s.

“There are some holes in the document, but it suggests that the government really does seem to be taking climate change seriously."

One such hole is aviation. Whilst making it clear that many car drivers will be expected to shift to public transport, walking or cycling if they can - Mr Shapps’ foreword appears to suggest that aviation emissions can be solved through technology.

This notion is strongly contested by aviation pollution experts.

Media caption,
What is climate change?

Mr Shapps said the shift in emphasis away from driving - where possible - could improve people's health, create better places to live and travel in, and also promote clean economic growth.

He said: "We are perfectly placed to seize the economic opportunities that being in the vanguard of this change presents. The faster we act, the greater the benefits.

"Twenty-twenty will be the year we set out the policies and plans needed to tackle transport emissions. This document marks the start of this process."

Stephen Joseph, visiting professor at Hertfordshire University, told BBC News: "This is utterly gob-smacking. We're still digesting the document, but Grant Shapps' words really do seem to signify a radical change."

The Transport Department has come in for heavy criticism in recent years for failing to cut emissions in line with other departments.

Some campaigners say the government needs to start by reducing the sales of big heavy SUVs, which need more fuel than smaller vehicles and create a greater demand for materials – even if they are powered by electricity.

When I broke the news of Mr Shapps' comments to former Commons Transport Chair Lilian Greenwood she replied: "Wow. That's incredibly welcome if the rhetoric matches the reality.

"Right now all our energies are on tackling the coronavirus but when we come out the other side we have an equally serious emergency because emissions from transport have to be tackled if we are serious about turning around the future of the planet for coming generations."

"It's great if the first choice is to be public transport and active transport - but that does mean the government has to change radically investment."