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blog: What have transport decarbonisation, inclusive mobility, and obesity got in common?

Author: Neil Taylor

… it’s not a joke, but it may be time we all got the punch line if we want to effect genuine change.

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As of this year the UK now has both an inclusive mobility strategy (published in 2018) and a plan for how we can accelerate the decarbonisation of our national and international transport systems.  ‘Fantastic news, great work’ say some, ‘about time too’ others mutter.

Cynicism aside for a moment - realising the aims of these three strategies would likely represent some of the most socially valuable (and necessary) outcomes that the transport sector could achieve in the 21st Century.  They are also fairly hard to argue successfully against – both in the halls of government and down the pub – and could genuinely change many people’s lives for the better.

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Their long-term positive outcomes may only be rivalled by the role that more widespread uptake in walking and cycling could play in relation to the aims of the DHSC’s strategy for Tackling Obesity. Optimistically though, this strategy seeks to extend the population’s healthy life expectancy, primarily by focusing on reducing our calorie intake and preventing the advertising (but not the sale) of high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) foods. While this is admittedly key to one aspect of obesity prevalence in the population, encouraging people to become more active in their daily life would undoubtedly also help.

The Elephant In The Room

So far, so tenuous, but that last point does hint at where three common threads linking these otherwise disparate strategies may lie:

  • They all avoid the ‘elephants in the room‘ - difficult things that really need to happen if genuine and tangible change that would reflect a successful outcome is to be achieved; whether that be reducing private car use, actually getting people to move more, or dramatically re-designing urban environments and associated transport infrastructure networks that have origins in Victorian/Medieval/Roman times.  
  • Each focuses on the costs of delivering interventions/policies, but casually ignores the everyday-incurred costs of inaction or slower-than-ideal pace of change.  Social isolation and enforced dependence on automobility for many disabled and older people, poor air quality and climate change impacts, and the rising burden on NHS resources associated with worsening public health among many cohorts of society are all prime examples.
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  • They all look towards, and in the case of transport decarbonisation depend upon, emerging technologies – apps to help us lose and manage our weight, new forms of vehicle propulsion, assistive technologies to help disabled and older people navigate an increasingly busy and complex world. Perhaps this is merely a tacit way of acknowledging that we don’t have answers to some of today’s really tricky challenges, have been trying (patiently and gradually) to address them over the last 30-40 years, and so feel a need to look hopefully to the future for inspiration.

Taking an outcome-focused approach

All the above may just be an elaborate way of emphasising that it is often not what current government policies say or commit us to, but perhaps the things they are omitting to mention that can draw our attention.  For illustration, an alternative, deliberately simplistic, and outcome-focused take on policy responses to the three key challenges discussed in this blog (all of which contribute towards establishing a fairer and more inclusive society) could read something like this:

Decarbonising transport

  • Reduce the amount of motorised travel within and to/from the UK as much as is humanly possible, as soon as we can.
  • Make it cheaper to use all forms of local and national public transport than their equivalent car journeys on a per-capita basis.
  • Ensure the price of electricity available for EV charging is consistent for all households and locations across the UK – both for households with, and without, off-street parking.
  • Pause the allocation and delivery of new homes and employment land until national planning and transport policy frameworks enable joined-up planning and funded delivery of homes, jobs and sustainable transport connections in a way that facilitates growth but also results in net reductions of private motorised vehicle travel.

Inclusive Mobility 

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Tackling Obesity

  • Make it possible for people of all ages and abilities to walk, cycle or use a wheelchair/powered wheelchair to complete any journey within an urban area safely, and in a pleasant environment, with minimal interactions with motorised traffic.
  • Make it more convenient to walk, cycle, use a wheelchair/powered wheelchair – in combination with local public transport services, if necessary – to complete shorter journeys (0-5km), than it is to get there by private motorised travel options.

Framed this way few of these outcome statements are likely ‘vote winners’. However, they probably do represent some of the fundamental changes that need to occur, alongside many of the interventions already defined in current government policies, if tangible progress is to be made on decarbonising transport systems, improving their inclusivity and accessibility, and reducing the prevalence of obesity in the UK’s population.

Investing in whatever delivers the greatest benefits and long-term cost savings

Following this approach further, in all three policy topics discussed in this blog, a re-examination of why and how public money is currently invested relative to these overarching policy priorities appears warranted to some degree.  By including the aggregated long-term economic costs (e.g. to society as a whole, the NHS, the environment, and to people’s mental health and wellbeing) of not directly addressing these issues with measures that are likely to affect real change, it is possible to illuminate where the greatest need for investment exists, as well as which areas/interventions promise the greatest investment returns.  

Greatest Benefits And Long Term Cost Savings

This might ultimately yield a very different set of objectives, and re-shape ‘where the money goes’ in respect of establishing a more inclusive and sustainable transport system. Would we perhaps choose to spend less on major road and rail capacity expansion, and more on redressing imbalances in local mobility services and networks so they can be more sustainable and inclusive long-term? 

Beware the unintended consequences

Finally, and perhaps most critically, any investment appraisals will need to carefully consider the unintended consequences and impacts of interventions in one domain affecting the objectives of another. Electric cars are a good example – fantastic if they can reduce emissions and improve air quality in our towns and cities, but not so great if they also drive-up electricity consumption and energy prices to unsustainably high levels that result in:

  • Re-ignition of fossil-fuel based power stations (recently taken off-line) to meet rising demand for energy.
  • Greater pressure being placed on household financial budgets – which is likely to affect everyone, but particularly older, disabled and lower-income people.
  • EV charging-point strewn streetscapes that become harder for everyone to negotiate, due to pavement obstacles and trailing cables, which is likely to particularly affect people with diverse needs.

Thanks for reading and please GET IN TOUCH if you’d like to explore how this outcome-focused thinking and innovative approach to economic appraisal could be applied to establish more inclusive and sustainably-focused transport policies and action plans for your area.  


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