With the publication of the UK Department for Transport’s (DfT) Decarbonising Transport Plan this year, we saw a clear direction for change with respect to things like active travel and the shift to a zero-emissions vehicle fleet. However, it is strangely silent on a plan in relation to decarbonising strategic journeys beyond that set out in Highways England’s own decarbonisation plan

A snapshot, but where’s the bigger picture?

While separating out major infrastructure and construction from the transport system for the purposes of the report helpfully removes the potential for double counting of the carbon effects, it also has the effect of eliminating the possibility to consider whole system’s carbon neutrality.

The Plan sets the scene in relation to car use in its foreward, with the statement that “Bad is spending longer and longer stuck in traffic” and that “in any imaginable circumstances the clear majority of longer journeys, passenger, and freight, will be made by road”. While the unimaginable is not necessarily contested, it is strikingly limited in scope, and this is borne out with the need to actively reduce the amount of car trips being absent from the modal shift considerations in the Plan. 

Instead, any such consideration is deferred to the future review of the National Networks National Policy Statement and the use of softer techniques to affect incremental change such as increasing the average number of car occupants on commutes, or a rewards scheme for sustainable commuting. Further, the plan sets out a notably inconsistent approach between the ways that strategic and local transport are considered. 

An embrace, not overhaul, of the status quo

Despite acknowledging that a zero emissions fleet will have no effect on reducing “other harms, such as congestion or road danger, at all” (p. 29), there is no consideration of how vehicular trips can – or even should – be reduced, beyond reference to continuing support to divert HGV trips to rail and waterways.

Indeed, the Plan actively embraces the status quo, noting that “Where the car remains attractive for longer journeys, it will face competition from high-speed decarbonised rail and zero emission coaches offering affordable alternatives.” (p. 38) With this statement, there is no discussion on the merits of increasing the cost of vehicle use to better reflect actual costs. Instead, and somewhat disappointingly, the Plan identifies that new energy business will help “drivers and businesses reduce their bills.”

This apparent contradiction between the treatment of the Strategic Road Network (SRN) compared with local roads, becomes more apparent in relation to what traffic levels could look like in future. There is plenty of discussion about whether changing commuting patterns will likely persist in future, but the prospect of reducing car use for those longer distance journeys can be interpreted as seemingly a lost cause, with the Plan noting that “even doubling” rail use in the UK would only reduce passenger travel by car by eight percentage points, “assuming that the overall demand did not rise.”

Further, there is no mention of the need to eliminate empty running (4,942 million km in 2020) or expanding the Mode Shift Revenue Support and Waterborne Freight Grant schemes which remove less than one per cent of total HGV trips onto other modes

Some hope for local roads – but business as usual for the SRN

As it concludes, the Plan states that “continued high investment in our roads is therefore, and will remain, as necessary as ever to ensure the functioning of the nation and to reduce the congestion which is a major source of carbon.” (p. 103) While for local roads this will result in the accelerated provision of walking and cycling infrastructure; for long-distance travel, in the absence of a call to action to expedite the reduction of vehicle use, this effectively greenlights road building and investment in the context of maintenance and operational renewal. 

By contrast, the need to reduce car use on local roads is overtly discussed in the Plan. There is a direct acknowledgement of the need to move away from a ‘predict and provide’ methodology to one which “sets an outcome communities want to achieve and provides the transport solutions to deliver those outcomes (sometimes referred to as ‘vision and validate’)” (p. 158). 

The Local Authority Toolkit to be published later this year, will give local highway authorities more powers to affect change in their areas and includes ‘congestion charging’ as a potential measure. Yet, for the SRN unfettered growth in traffic on the SRN appears to be implied; there is no discussion of the relevance of a vision and validate methodology. 

That road user charging on the SRN is not mentioned is peculiar, given the DfT’s own research highlights that “travel decisions are driven primarily by convenience and cost, not environmental concerns.” (p. 193) Indeed the absence of mode shift for strategic travel or demand management is notable, not least due to its inclusion as an aim for the third road period in Highways England’s decarbonisation plan. 

A major chance lost?

The DfT’s decarbonisation plan surely offered an important chance to set out a robust and integrated direction of travel to zero carbon for strategic routes. 

Instead, while the plan sets a course for local travel, strategic road travel is noticeable in its absence. The mix of contradictory measures (making public transport more competitively priced while also reducing the costs of driving), the two-tier approach to traffic forecasting between local and strategic, and the reliance on other – mostly as yet unpublished – strategies and toolkits means that the Plan does not set a course for decarbonising strategic travel to anything like the extent that it does for local travel. 
At the risk of presenting an overly simplified interpretation, the Plan reads as though dealing with car travel was a problem categorised as simply being ‘too difficult’. As a result, the prospect of this Plan succeeding in its current form have to be questioned.


Visit our COP26 page to discover more about the work Royal HaskoningDHV is doing to support and drive change towards the goals of this year’s UN climate conference. 

There you can also find more of our articles detailing the road to transport decarbonisation in the UK – and how the Department for Transport’s plans fair against the reality of climate change facing our world.