The publication of the Department for Transport’s plan for decarbonising transport becomes even more important in light of this – and begs the question, are the targets achievable within the funding and plans outlined? And perhaps more importantly, do those targets go far enough?
In the latest article from our series in the run up to COP26, exploring the road to NetZero in the transport sector; Sarah Simpson, Transport Planning Lead at Royal HaskoningDHV, explores the role of road safety in delivering decarbonisation. 

When the Department for Transport released its Decarbonising Transport Plan this summer, many statements, promises and funding assurances were made among the document’s 220+ pages. 

When it comes to road safety, and its perception; they are helpfully mentioned – not least in the role that perception of road danger plays in discouraging people from cycling – but there also appear to be opportunities missed to truly recognise the importance of road safety, and safe mobility more broadly, in meeting net zero targets and enabling behaviour changes.

The Government’s announcement of a £338 million fund to increase cycling and walking infrastructure upgrades has been warmly welcomed across the board. Indeed, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change has noted the importance of investment in active travel infrastructure towards changing travel behaviour in its report to government. However, compared with the £27bn dedicated to the strategic road programme this is seen as a drop in the ocean by some. 

Alongside this, the prospect of Active Travel England – a new inspectorate and standards body for active travel – is a positive step and brings a new proposition for the importance that cycling, in particular, is expected to have in the country going forward.

A nudge when a push is needed?

While the Decarbonisation Plan draws on a number of soft measures to help nudge us towards zero carbon travel behaviour, including rewards schemes and promoting car sharing; there is plenty of evidence that shows that nudge economics are not all that successful when applied to transport. 

Further, it is largely apparent from the Plan’s associated deliberative research that actual road danger and, importantly, the perception of danger, present tangible and substantial barriers to people enjoying walking or cycling on their local streets. Taking cycling as an example, a UK government study showed that 66% of adults in England said it was “dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”, the highest figure for more than a decade. 

In creating roads and spaces that successfully invite people to walk, cycle or use public transport rather than getting in their car, we need to ensure that people feel safe in that environment – and that may require more substantial, deeper changes than the current soft measures.

Five pillars for healthier and safer roads

While perception of danger can be changed through education, a more effective means of affecting change could be through the adoption and use of road transport as a Safe System in design.

The recently published report Safe Roads for All, considers how active travel can be more safe and healthy for all users, by adopting a Safe System approach. Such a Safe System design works on the principle that people make mistakes, but that death or life-changing injury is too high a price to pay for those mistakes, and seeks to design out the potential for death or serious injury through five pillars of action:

  • Safe Roads - While vehicle and engineering technology has provided considerable improvements to crash survivability over past decades, our human bodies are just as vulnerable in a crash as they ever were. Eliminating the prospect of these most tragic of outcomes at a design stage – particularly for pedestrians and cyclists – will be critical if we are to create roads and spaces that people feel safe using.
  • Safe Speeds - the real-world consequences of being in a crash involving a fast-moving object – whether it is a bicycle at 28mph or a motorbike at 60mph - can be catastrophic. Reassessing the speed limits on our roads network in the light of eliminating death and serious injury will be vital. And slower speeds have the potential to directly support transport decarbonisation by reducing GHG emissions to a certain extent, and indirectly by making vehicular travel less attractive, which could promote shifts to other more sustainable modes of transport.
  • Safe Use – All road users should be equipped to use this infrastructure safely. And importantly, they should be able to do so both when all is working well, and when the system fails. Knowing how to respond if someone behaves in an unexpected or non-compliant way, is vital for people to be able to feel confident in using their local streets and roads, and to do so safely. 
  • Safe Vehicles – With the need for our roads to be inclusive and accessible to all to promote behaviour change, there will be a need to ensure that the decarbonisation of our vehicles does not impose new and unmitigated hazards onto certain user groups. These hazards can be mitigated by further developments of in-vehicle crash avoidance systems, or in roads design. For example, the implications for all of us, but particularly for those of us who are sight impaired, of vehicles that are quieter presents a new challenge which must be considered in how we design our roads and footways, and how we are educated in using them. 
  • Post-Crash Response – A consequence of the historic lack of investment in cycling and walking in the UK, means that understanding best practice in design is not necessarily available in all parts of the country. A shift in how transport planners analyse crash data will be needed to ensure that individual factors and features are identified and, importantly, fed back into best practice. Crash analysis will therefore need to move from the aggregate to the specific, from trend-based to forensic, and from behaviour-focused to factor-focused. 

The role of a new Active Travel England body in establishing this Safe System approach will no doubt be important to ensuring the desired mode shift to walking, and cycling in particular. But it will fall to individual transport planners and engineers, as well as project teams, to stay curious and ensure that what is being delivered has road safety as its lode star, and therefore that this new and valuable infrastructure can be as accessible through perception as it is through use

In coming articles, we will be exploring the Department for Transport’s plan for decarbonising transport in more detail, and within the context of other important conversations ongoing in the transport sector. We’ll be tackling topics from road networks and energy transitions to the question of funding and finance – in the hope of shedding light on the challenge ahead and what the government, public and private sectors can and need to do in order to reach that all-important goal of NetZero carbon by 2050.

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