Skip to main content

We Need to Talk About Transport


The transition to zero-carbon is essential to the mitigation of climate change, but despite Paris Agreement commitments, transport emissions are still on the rise. The transition to clean forms of transport is a hot topic for the upcoming climate change conference COP26, which will take place in November 2021 in Glasgow. 

Researchers agree that there are solutions to the transport problem, both simple and innovative, but we need to act fast. That much is clear from a local example; Bristol needs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 88%, to meet its ambitious net zero targets by 2030. For National Clean Air Day (17th June), I have been finding out about research on clean transport from experts at the Cabot Institute for the Environment at the University of Bristol. 

Professor Martin Hurcombe, ‘Access and Active Leisure in a Time of Pandemic: Tales of Two Cities’ 

Self-proclaimed ‘MAMIL’ (middle-aged man in lycra), Professor Martin Hurcombe from the Modern Languages department is a keen cyclist, a passion he has integrated into his research. As an offshoot of his research in literary studies, Martin became fascinated by the French sports press and the way it represented cycling. As a result, he is currently writing a book exploring attitudes towards cycling from the late nineteenth century up to the present. 

Martin is also working with the Brigstow Institute on an exciting project entitled ‘Access and Active Leisure in a Time of Pandemic: Tales of Two Cities’. This comparative study of Bristol and Bordeaux is exploring how the pandemic has highlighted longstanding issues around access to and enjoyment of urban spaces via active leisure. Both cities reflected profound inequalities, entrenched geographically, economically, socially and culturally, many of which originate in the cities’ parallel histories of empire, trade and industrialisation. Martin and his fellow researchers are investigating the ways in which the pandemic has heightened these structural inequalities, but also led to some positive re-shaping of the urban environment, from reduction of road traffic to a massive increase in cycling with recent government statistics show that cycling levels during lockdown rose by up to 300% on some days.

While the benefits of cycling are clear; a healthier population, decreased congestion and a cleaner urban environment, Martin laid out various key challenges faced in its promotion and uptake. These include the attitudes of drivers towards cyclists, infrastructural challenges and issues of safety. 

Why is it important to conduct cultural, qualitative research in the transport sector? 

To change attitudes, we need to take a broader cultural approach, not just an infrastructural one; issues of who has a ‘right’ to occupy the streets play out on a daily basis in how a cyclist or a runner feels and acts on the roads. Despite the challenges revealed by his public engagement research, Martin seemed determined that this kind of research will be valuable in ‘finding a way we can all share this space’. Research like this can be used to draw out diversity in active leisure and dispel the traditional image of the cyclist, to broaden it to include people of all sectors of society. Martin also recently worked on ‘Putting a Positive Spin on the Story of Cycling’ (PPS), that was developed with local charity Life Cycle.

We want to demonstrate that cycling was, and is, something for everybody.

Georgina de Courcy-Bower, E-scooters in Bristol

Georgina completed her Master’s in Environmental Policy and Management during the pandemic. Following the legislation of e-scooters in the UK on 4th July 2020, a change in law brought forward to reduce crowding on public transport as a result of COVID-19, she chose to write her dissertation on this new micro-mobility. Georgina explained that the Voi scooters, introduced to Bristol as part of a shared mobility pilot scheme in UK cities, were considered and promoted as a ‘last mile’ solution to fill gaps between transport links and homes or offices, in hopes to draw more people away from their cars and tackle congestion and air pollution – two key issues associated with the car-dominated transport system known to Bristol. 

Georgina decided to investigate the viability of these e-scooters as a solution to sustainable urban transport in Bristol, by conducting a policy analysis to explore the successes and failures of implementation of e-scooters in cities around the world. Overall, e-scooters were found to be a positive alternative to cars. However, Georgina did come across certain roadblocks to their success in her research; for example, the lifecycle analysis of e-scooters shows that they still produce significant emissions, particularly compared to active travel, because of their production and dissemination. 

Are e-scooters a viable part of the solution to sustainable transport? 

 The most effective way to encourage a modal shift away from cars will be to reallocate space to all other road users, such as forms of public transport or active travel. She suggested that we need to begin ‘designing cities around people’, proffering the local example of Cotham Hill, where the road has been closed to through-traffic to allow restaurants and businesses to expand onto the street and create a safer space for pedestrians and cyclists. Georgina concluded that when e-scooters are paired with other ambitious policies, they are more likely to provide public benefit. However, e-scooters cannot act alone in decarbonising the transport system.

Understanding the city as a complex system and taking a more holistic approach to environmental transport sustainability is likely to be the most successful strategy.

Dr Colin Nolden, Riding Sunbeams 

Dr Colin Nolden is the non-executive director of Community Energy South, an umbrella organisation for community energy groups. A member organisation pioneered the idea of connecting community-owned solar farms to the railway traction system, realising that it would be possible to repurpose existing solar PV technology to do so. This idea led to the formation of a spin-off company, now known as Riding Sunbeams

The current railway system’s electricity is supplied through supply points to the national electricity grid. Therefore, decarbonisation of electrified railways currently hinges upon the decarbonisation of our electricity grid. Riding Sunbeams provides an alternative to this with huge rail decarbonisation potential; supplying renewable energy directly into railway electricity substations and overhead rail gantries, bypassing the grid entirely. This can be achieved without the need for costly electricity grid reinforcements. Network Rail seemed like the obvious choice to approach with Riding Sunbeams’ innovation, especially given that they are the UK’s biggest single electricity user. 


What are the social benefits of renewable, community energy? 

Colin was in charge of conducting a Social Impact Framework (SIF) for the project and found that there is great potential for positive social impacts; community energy groups that could be developing solar traction farms are strongly rooted in local communities, and provide local jobs, volunteering opportunities and reduce economic leakage from geographical areas. So far, Riding Sunbeams has successfully implemented one pilot project, in the summer of 2019, a solar array of just over 100 panels connected to the railway outside Aldershot station in the UK. Since April 2019, Riding Sunbeams have also been exploring the potential for integrating other clean energy technologies like wind power. 

There has been significant support for the technology from the government and people championing it within Network Rail, and as a result Riding Sunbeams has procured funding from Innovate UK and the Department for Transport. Colin explained that the SIF demonstrated a variety of positive social impacts to community-owned traction supply that could tick a lot of the boxes Network Rail want to tick. Nevertheless, he concluded that 

Despite good will and innovation, ‘it takes a long time to disentangle things and implement new systems.

Emilia Melville, Moving Bristol Forward’s Transport Manifesto


Researcher, Emilia Melville, is one member of the team behind Moving Bristol Forward’s Transport Manifesto and its vision for a better transport future for Bristol. Moving Bristol Forward is a collaboration between Zero West and Transport for Greater Bristol Alliance (TfGB). Emilia became involved through Zero West, a community interest company, whose mission is to get the west of England to zero carbon. Teamed up with TfGB, it was important to them that this project had a significant participatory element. As a result of consultations with the public, a manifesto was written that envisions a different future for our cities; one that integrates many voices and imagines streets not overcrowded by cars, but filled with active travellers and efficient, clean public transport. To read the Manifesto’s 8 key aims, click here. The goal is to gain endorsements from organisations and policymakers, along with support from the public. 

How Bristol measures up to other cities in terms of moving towards clean transport?

There is a lot of good will, citing such schemes as Playing Out Bristol, a resident led movement restoring children’s freedom to play out in the streets and spaces where they live. However, Bristol faces many challenges, not least because of its heavy car-dependency. This is partly due to car-oriented planning and construction that happened in the 1960s. Commuters face issues such as a lack of connections between the outskirts and the centre, and not feeling safe on public transport or in active travel has been a recurring problem cited in public engagement sessions. The city lacks a combined transport authority, like TfL in London, that would allow for integrated ticketing, better-connected routes and an overall better coordination. Nevertheless, while the issues Bristol faces do require serious thinking about major urban planning changes, there have been examples of successful conversions in the past. Queen’s Square, now a beautiful and well-loved park, once had a dual carriageway and major bus route running through it! In 1999, the City Council made a successful grant application to restore it as a park as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme

Queens square, Bristol, before and after dual carriageway was removed to create the well-loved park it is today (Photo by Bristol Live).

To get behind the manifesto, you can write to your local representatives, share it on social media platforms or tell your friends and family about it. 

My Thoughts on Our Talks About Transport

I asked Emilia what she would say to the person that does not believe in the power of the individual, for example, someone who thinks ‘it won’t make a difference if I ride my bike versus drive my car, so I’ll just drive’. She replied that, firstly, riding your bike is great! You inhale much less air pollution than someone in a car, can make eye contact with fellow road-users and get a good burst of exercise. She concluded that change needs to happen at different levels: it is important that we show policymakers that we want to see change, whether that be by writing to them to endorse the manifesto, or increasing the presence of active travellers in the streets. As Martin explained in our conversation, critical mass is key! The same can be said for using public transport; the higher the demand is for it, the more likely we are to see policy changes that increase investment in it, thus resulting in greater regularity and efficiency of services.  

As the UK hosts COP26 for the first time, this is a key opportunity to galvanise efforts to achieve the UK’s legally-binding net zero emissions goal by 2050. Speaking with the four transport experts led me to these conclusions: 
The Department for Transport needs to encourage the public to avoid journeys by car that can be taken by other means of transport.
There is a need to shift necessary journeys to the most sustainable modes, and alongside this, clean up motorised journeys by transitioning to Zero Emissions Vehicles
Alternatives to private cars need to be made more readily available, accessible and attractive. 
Finally, we should build on the momentum of the shift towards active travel brought around by the pandemic, encourage a return to public and active transport and a shift away from motorised travel. 

-----------------------------------

This blog is written by Lucy Morris, Master's by Research (MScR) student at Cabot Institute for the Environment. Lucy is currently researching 'Why Framing Animals Matters: Representing Non-human Animals On-screen' and produced this blog as part of a part-time role as communications assistant at the Cabot Institute.

Lucy Morris













Interested in postgraduate study? The Cabot Institute runs a unique Master's by Research programme that offers a blend of in-depth research on a range of Global Environmental Challenges, with interdisciplinary cohort building and training. Find out more.








Popular posts from this blog

Are you a journalist looking for climate experts? We've got you covered

We've got lots of media trained climate change experts. If you need an expert for an interview, here is a list of Caboteers you can approach. All media enquiries should be made via  Victoria Tagg , our dedicated Media and PR Manager at the University of Bristol. Email victoria.tagg@bristol.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 428 2489. Climate change / climate emergency / climate science / climate-induced disasters Dr Eunice Lo - expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells , and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter @EuniceLoClimate . Professor Daniela Schmidt - expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems . Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports. Dani will be at COP26. Dr Katerina Michalides - expert in drylands, drought and desertification and helping East African rural communities to adapt to droughts and future climate change. Follow on Twitter @_k

Urban gardens are crucial food sources for pollinators - here’s what to plant for every season

A bumblebee visits a blooming honeysuckle plant. Sidorova Mariya | Shutterstock Pollinators are struggling to survive in the countryside, where flower-rich meadows, hedges and fields have been replaced by green monocultures , the result of modern industrialised farming. Yet an unlikely refuge could come in the form of city gardens. Research has shown how the havens that urban gardeners create provide plentiful nectar , the energy-rich sugar solution that pollinators harvest from flowers to keep themselves flying. In a city, flying insects like bees, butterflies and hoverflies, can flit from one garden to the next and by doing so ensure they find food whenever they need it. These urban gardens produce some 85% of the nectar found in a city. Countryside nectar supplies, by contrast, have declined by one-third in Britain since the 1930s. Our new research has found that this urban food supply for pollinators is also more diverse and continuous

#CabotNext10 Spotlight on City Futures

In conversation with Dr Katharina Burger, theme lead at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. Dr Katharina Burger Why did you choose to become a theme leader at Cabot Institute ? I applied to become a Theme Leader at Cabot, a voluntary role, to bring together scientists from different faculties to help us jointly develop proposals to address some of the major challenges facing our urban environments. My educational background is in Civil Engineering at Bristol and I am now in the School of Management, I felt that this combination would allow me to build links and communicate across different ways of thinking about socio-technical challenges and systems. In your opinion, what is one of the biggest global challenges associated with your theme? (Feel free to name others if there is more than one) The biggest challenge is to evolve environmentally sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive, safe and violence-free and economically productive cities. The following areas are part of this c