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The Road to Net-Zero: Decarbonising Transport


By Vikki Slade, Associate Director of Sustainability

Ask any Councillor what the most popular resident topic is, or look at the pictures on the front of election leaflets for council candidates and you will see that potholes and the state of our roads come high on the agenda.

Most roads in our towns and villages were constructed when cars were a luxury. Now they must withstand not only a vast increase in the number of cars, but also the weight of vehicles including buses, vans and HGVs which go on to cause cracks and subsidence. At the same time, the widening gap between the number of vehicles owned by households and the parking provision in council policies is seeing front gardens paved over, increasing the incidence of surface flooding and pavements taking the strain from delivery drop-offs and commuter parking.

Our road surfaces are taking the strain of climate change and increasingly extreme weather events. Flash floods cause loose surfacing to wash away and cold snaps create holes and cracks alternating with hot summers leading to melting tarmac. It is no wonder the roads are in a mess and with council funding under growing pressure, it is impossible for local authorities to keep up with demands from taxpayers to keep roads in a good state of repair.

James Birch, Head of Local Highways at Kier is also their Executive Sponsor for Sustainability and has been tasked with trying to answer the question of how roadbuilding, an inherently carbon rich polluting activity, can be made carbon neutral. Considering new materials, extending the life of surfacing and creating roads that can cope with the changing nature of vehicles are all on the agenda for this company; their first contract for a reinforced concrete bridge in 1928 is still holding firm, connecting cyclists and pedestrians to the canal towpath in Bath.

How we use our roads and whether we even need to build new ones is the question of our second guest, Professor Greg Marsden from DecaboN8. We added 2,600 additional miles to the road network between 2010 and 2020 and a 2% increase in the number of cars (and vans) on our roads in 2019 alone.

Do we keep building to meet the demand or is it time to get serious about modal shift and find ways to get us all out from being the driver’s wheel?

The Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), announced by the Secretary of State for Transport in March 2020, is now facing a legal challenge for failing to consider the Government’s own net-zero commitments. It is likely that Regional Transport Plans and evolving Local Plans will come under the same scrutiny too.

According to Professor Marsden, even local authorities with the most ambitious climate strategies are unlikely to be able to reach net-zero without fresh commitments around changing the way we move about. A permanent switch to home working just two days per week could transform congestion and urban transport issues. Investment in EV charging and other infrastructure could alleviate some of the remaining issues such as air pollution and the broader carbon footprint of towns and cities.

Join us for the next episode of What Has The Environment Ever Done For Us? to hear their thoughts on potential solutions and contribute to our Heroes, Hypocrites and Headlines of the month on all things climate related. Register here.

The Road to Net-Zero: Decarbonising Transport