How infrastructure and behaviour change go hand in hand

24th November 2022

For the UK to reach net-zero, a balance must be struck between infrastructure and behaviour change, says Natasha Worrall

Transport keeps our society moving, but is the UK’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2021, passengers in the UK travelled 580bn kilometres, 77% of domestic freight was moved by road, and road transport added 115m tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity to build back better. In 2020, walking and cycling levels were radically increased in the short term, with distances travelled on foot increasing by 7% and on bike by 46%, while road traffic dropped by 60%.

Government response

In 2021, responding to the changes seen during the pandemic, the government prepared its Net Zero Strategy to guide the UK to its target of reaching net zero by 2050. The strategy sets out transport-related policies and investment packages that aim to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles, increase public transport use, encourage cycling and walking, and electrify railway lines. Additionally, the House of Lords advised that, to meet the target, we must implement the lessons learnt from the modal shift enabled by pandemic behavioural change.

Public transport

However, the pandemic also set back some of the progress that had been made in public transport, as commuters avoided buses and trains in favour of either working from home or using a private car. In 2022, road traffic levels returned to pre-pandemic levels; in some areas, they are even higher. There are several different reasons for this, including people returning to the office, the removal of COVID-19 travel measures such as pop-up bike lanes, vulnerable people’s preference for using private cars, and loss of confidence in using public transport.

So how do we reap the benefits of the shift we saw in 2020 on a larger scale? The answer is a whole raft of different solutions, from behavioural change and improving public transport’s attractiveness to large-scale infrastructure interventions.

“Without infrastructure, the modal shift cannot be achieved – but without behavioural change, the infrastructure will not be used”

Transport solutions

Transport infrastructure can include new road and rail links, dedicated cycle routes, bus prioritisation measures and the repurposing of existing infrastructure. However, new infrastructure involves embodied carbon, is costly, and can take many years to gain planning approval and be constructed.

Softer measures can include cheaper transport fares, behavioural change campaigns, permanent bus lanes, bus priority measures, improved public transport frequency and dependability, attractive travel facilities, wider pavements, public realm improvements and pedestrianisation of urban areas. However, these softer measures can be politically unfavourable, publicly unpopular and hard to implement in areas where space is constrained.

Globally, cities are responding in different ways. Paris has implemented 50km of new cycle lanes, Germany has temporarily introduced a €9 travel pass and Bristol has pedestrianised parts of the city. It is important to share and learn from these lessons, noting that political, economic, social and environmental drivers shape transport solutions.

Without infrastructure, the modal shift cannot be achieved – but without behavioural change, the infrastructure will not be used. A balance needs to be struck to allow us to reach our net-zero target. The pandemic gave us the opportunity to reshape our entire transport system for all users. Let’s harness the solutions to do just that.

Natasha Worrall, PIEMA, is an assistant project manager at the West of England Combined Authority and an IEMA Futures Steering Group member.

Image credit | Shutterstock | iStock


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