Chapter from the 1994 Church and Nation Committee Report “The Environmental Impact of Economic Activity in Scotland”
In recent years transport has emerged as one of the most urgent environmental issues. Like energy, all forms of transport impact on the environment. Even the more benign can damage by overuse in a fragile location, as the effects of repeated booted feet on a popular “Munro” bear witness. How much more with mechanically propelled transport! The scale and type of impact varies widely - extreme events like accidents involving hazardous cargoes, as in the wreck of a supertanker, persistent effects like noise, and cumulative damage by pollution and encroachment on land. It is, however, in road transport where the most serious issues are arising. The greater availability of the car has extended the advantages of mobility. Better roads have have opened up greater economic opportunities for many areas. The availability of the car for general popular use has created the possibility, and thereafter the universal desire, for personalised transport, with the maximum of speed and convenience, and an equivalent effect in the freight sector. But these largely positive developments have brought an increasing cost. Our cars and lorries are steadily eroding our atmosphere, our living space and our very lives, through the relentless increase in the scale of road use. Of all these environmental impacts, this is the one most in our immediate control.
Road Vehicle Exhausts - the Number One Problem
Petrol and diesel exhausts are now the major cause of urban pollution, through a combination of noxious gases and airborne particulates, and especially the nitrogen oxides. Within a generation, cities which were so effectively cleaned up by the change to “smokeless fuels” following the 1957 Clean Air Act are now showing signs of serious atmospheric degradation again, but this time caused by vehicle exhausts. Edinburgh has a particularly bad air pollution record. The countryside is also affected. Vehicle and aircraft emissions make a significant contribution to acid rain damage in forests in Scotland and Scandinavia. Moves to reduce the emissions with more efficient engines and with catalytic converters on new cars, while welcomed, only partly reduce the symptoms. They do nothing to remove the cause, which is the fossil fuel-powered internal combusion engine itself. Moreover, no vehicle exhaust system yet devised can remove the “greenhouse” gas CO2. Transport now contributes nearly a quarter of UK emissions. The various Government measures being taken to reduce our CO2 releases by the year 2000, and to reduce acid emissions, will be overwhelmed in the succeeding decade because of emissions from the projected demand for road transport.1,2
Urban Degradation and Rural Necessities
Our insistence on road transport is causing many other problems. Ever more road schemes lead to increasing impact on our urban and rural landscape. To avoid the alarming predictions which are being made from becoming reality, urban planning and transport between cities need radical rethinking. Central Region have pioneered an exemplary and imaginative lead in co-ordinating transport and planning in an environmental context,3 which larger and more complex conurbations could follow. The cost of failing to take radical action will be a decline in the quality of urban living, not to mention the appalling annual statistics of road deaths and injuries. If such routine harm occurred in a chemical or energy industry plant, it would be shut down overnight. But because the use of the car affects the convenience of our daily lives, we turn a blind eye. Transport in the rural sector is a different story. Population densities do not support adequate public transport without heavy subsidies. Given our greater desire for mobility, remote communities usually have little alternative to the car for more than local journeys and to road freight for goods and produce. There will always be a measure of rural road use which is inescapable, but the environmental effect will be correspondingly smaller. The emphasis remains on the need for reductions in unnecessary urban and inter-urban road transport.
The Need for an Integrated Government Policy on Transport
There are serious long term penalties for society if the rising trend of road use is allowed to continue. The Government’s Sustainable Development strategy expresses a new level of concern over the issue, but stops short of firm measures which need urgently to be put in place to stem, or even reverse the trend.2 The employment of road use and car sales statisitcs as fundamental indicators of economic growth should be abandoned, and measures taken to counteract the undue influence of the road transport lobby on Government policy. To plan for the cities of the future requires an integration of public transport with the planning of land development and use, affecting business, schooling, shopping and leisure patterns. The siting of new developments needs to be met by a corresponding emphasis on public transport services to it. To persuade people on a very large scale to reverse the trend of the past 20 years, by leaving their cars in the garage and going by bus or train, requires a minor revolution in the convenience of public transport. American precedents suggests that the future may be to enact measures leading to the banning all non-essential vehicles from Scottish city centres, unless they are powered by other means than fossil fuels, coupled to an urgent change of will on the part of the Government towards local authority investment so that finances can be released for developing new public transport and light railway infrastructure. Rail, bus and air services need co-ordination, to optimise convenience for the public. Certain effects of bus deregulation - the excessive duplication of buses in some rush hour routes and a significant drop in less remunerative but socially vital services - show the opposite effect if things are “left to the market”. It appears that corresponding and widespread warnings from both experts and the general public about similar effects arising from rail privatisation have gone unheeded by the Government. In the carriage of freight, the continuing drift to the roads and away from the far more environmentally sensible use of rail is alarming. Goods vehicle mileage in the UK rose by over 40% in 10 years up to 1989.4 Yet there is a legislative and investment bias which continues to favour road use. The full cost of road use & new road investment is not being met by the users.
Transport and Our Own Lives
We often feel that global environmental issues are so big that we can make little difference. Transport is the exception. Striking examples of increased car use arise from the spread of edge-of-town shopping complexes, the habit of driving children to and from school, and driving to work with only one person in the car. A generation ago, most of us shopped locally and walked to school or work, or went by bus. We can all ask ourselves whether our car journeys are really necessary. If we wish to have towns and cities worth living in, the future lies in a return to walking, cycling and public transport for most local journeys. The convenience of the car is beguilling. We have got used to a pace of life which relies on it, but it is exacting a terrible price on life, limb and our environment. It is always easy to see how other people can change their car use, but it is our own we have control over, and that is where the change should start.
1. Sustainable Development : the UK Strategy, Cm 2426, HMSO, January 1994.
2. Climate Change : the UK Programme, Cm 2427, HMSO, January 1994.
3. All Change - the Transport Challenge for Central Region, Central Regional Council 1993.
4. Reducing the Transport Emissions through Planning, Departments of the Environment and Transport, HMSO, 1993.