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Cities could have prime role in addressing climate crisis

Words: Laura Edgar
Join the dots / iStock-489832762

UK city regions have the ability to join the dots on transport, energy and the built environment to address the climate crisis and create healthier cities.

In its report Making the Connections on Climate, the Urban Transport Group uses practical examples to highlight the links that can be made on the climate at a city-region level between transport and energy, and between transport and the decarbonisation and adaption of the built environment.

The group, which represents seven strategic transport bodies in England and has associate members in various areas including Strathclyde (see box), explained that the report aims to provide those working for city region transport authorities with “a source of inspiration, ideas and a sense of agency on an issue that can seem overwhelming in its scale and urgency”.

The Urban Transport Group represents:

  • Transport for Greater Manchester
  • Merseytravel
  • Transport for London
  • South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive
  • Nexus (Tyne and Wear)
  • Transport for West Midlands
  • West Yorkshire Combined Authority

Associate members in:

  • Strathclyde
  • Bristol and the West of England
  • Tees Valley
  • Nottingham
  • Northern Ireland

Stephen Edwards, chair of the Urban Transport Group and executive director of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, added that the report “points the way to how cities can scale up on the connections they can make to deliver more comprehensive climate wins for cities”.

The projects considered in the report don't just reduce carbon emission or improve climate resilience, but also “have multiple wider benefits”, such as lower energy, operating and maintenance costs of transport infrastructure; the creation of jobs; and improving mental and physical health.

Projects considered in Making the Connections on Climate include hydro-powered transport interchanges, homes heated by waste heat from underground rail, green bus garages and urban pocket parks. Practical interventions can be made on a case-by-case basis, and the report explains how cities can be systematic and strategic in their approach.

Nottingham and Munich are cited as examples of cities that have used municipal ownership of public transport to be bolder in pursuit of de-carbonisation and powering public transport through renewable energy provided by their own energy companies.

But the report does highlight a number of obstacles facing cities as they decarbonise their systems. These include the pace at which the electricity grid is decarbonised; how quickly the cost of green vehicle technologies will fall; and the “highly centralised” nature of Whitehall, which has control of key funding levers.

“Further devolution of powers could be a key enabler for cities and city regions to take action on reducing emissions and improving resilience to climate change impacts,” it states.

Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group, commented: “Given the climate imperative, we need to learn – and learn fast – about how best to move to a more integrated approach to decision-making on transport, energy and the built environment.”

RTPI head of policy Richard Blyth said: “The work of transport planners is not only vital to ensure the connectivity of communities with essential services and jobs but it also has a key role to play if we are to take decisive and effective action against climate change."

Citing recent RTPI research on the location of developments, he highlighted that over half of the houses permitted in selected England city regions are not within easy walking or cycling distance of a railway, metro or underground station.

“Furthermore, a recent RTPI survey found that 83 per cent of planners feel that the planning system is not sufficiently well-equipped to deal with the current climate crisis. If authorities at a city region level are to take action to reduce carbon emissions and to improve climate resilience, our members feel that stronger direction is needed from central government and that there should be an increase in resources and capacities at a local level.

“The RTPI’s Resource Planning for Climate Action campaign, launched earlier this year, called on the government to take radical climate actions around transport, and to resource the profession adequately so that planners are able to devise and implement policies to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in transport infrastructure.”

Project examples:

  • Munich - Stadtwerke München (SWM) is the city's municipally owned company that provides public transport and key utilities. Its renewable energy expansion programme aims to generate sufficient green electricity from its own plants to cover all of Munich’s consumption by 2025. Seventy per cent has currently been achieved. Owing to practical constraints, Munich cannot generate its own energy within its geographical area, so it has undertaken a joint venture with TronderEnergi (Norwegian municipal energy utility) with whom it jointly operates four wind parks in Norway and will build four more by 2021 (generating enough energy to cover 409,000 households).
  • Nottingham – As the first UK city to introduce a workplace parking levy, Nottingham invested the proceeds into public transport and now has some of the highest levels of public transport per head in the country. It has 59 green buses, the biggest citywide charging infrastructure for buses. Nottingham City Transport is the largest operator of double-deck biogas buses in the world.
  • Nottingham – The council owns the EnviroEnergy company, which has a power station (fuelled by municipal waste) and a heat and power grid. The power station provides heat and power for 4,700 homes and 100 businesses across Nottingham (including major facilities like the Victoria and Broadmarsh shopping centres, the National Ice Centre Arena and Nottingham Trent University). This makes it the largest municipal heat and power provider in the UK.
  • Netherlands railways – 100 per cent renewably powered.
  • New York and London - Solar roofing at scale.
  • Rochdale – A hydro-powered interchange.

Image credit | iStock