Free bus travel for all to help slash UK transport sector pollution?
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Busses should be made free to encourage people to ditch their cars and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, environmental campaigners have urged, as official statistics show that transport is now the most carbon-producing sector in the UK.
Greenhouse gases were down 3 per cent on 2016 to 460 million tonnes and the main pollutant, carbon dioxide, was also down 3 per cent, to 373 million tonnes in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available.
This follows a broad trend since 1990 that has seen the UK’s carbon emissions fall by around two thirds largely due to greener electricity production and lower energy usage by households and businesses.
However, transport emissions have fallen just 2 per cent since 1990 and now account for more than a quarter (27 per cent) of the UK’s total greenhouse gas output - a bigger share than energy supplies, businesses, homes, agriculture or other sectors.
Much of the pollution from transport, which includes road, railways, domestic aviation, shipping, fishing and aircraft support vehicles, is from road traffic, in particular passenger cars.
The UK Government has outlined plans to phase out the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, as part of efforts to curb urban air pollution and tackle emissions. Even this has plan has been criticised by MPs for “lacking ambition”.
Free bus travel is already happening in around 100 towns and cities, including more than 30 in the US and 20 in France, as well as in Poland, Sweden, Italy, Slovenia, Estonia and Australia, according to a study from Friends of the Earth and think tank Transport for Quality of Life.
Such a move would not only help tackle pollution but should deliver other benefits, such as reducing traffic and noise, improving air quality and boosting health, the campaigners argue.
Before it could happen in the UK, the public transport system would have to be re-regulated and sources of funding would have to be put in place.
Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth, said: “It’s an idea whose time has well and truly arrived.
“Free bus travel for the under 30s at first, before widening the scheme, would make for more liveable cities and cut damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
“It would cost around £3bn a year, but this is a fraction of the money spent on roads.”
Lynn Sloman, director of Transport for Quality of Life, said: “Our research makes it clear that UK transport policy requires a complete overhaul to enable us to comply with greenhouse gas reduction needs and other pressing public health concerns, such as air quality and obesity.
“We can learn much from other countries across the world, particularly on how to manage and deliver a well-regulated, high-quality public transport service.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Labour is already committed to re-regulation of bus services, which Friends of the Earth identify [sic] as a necessary first step to improving public transport to give low-carbon alternatives to driving.”
He said Labour would provide free bus travel for the under-25s where services are brought under public control, “a big step” towards the recommendation that under-30s should be able to travel free by bus.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Transport said: “As set out in our road to zero strategy, the Government’s ambition is for all new cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2040. We are investing £1.5bn to make this happen.
“We also support bus travel through £250m every year, as well as a further £1bn for the free bus pass scheme, paving the way to a more sustainable future.”
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “There is no doubt we need greater investment in public transport, so that where feasible, drivers have an alternative to sitting in traffic and contributing to poor air quality and congestion.
“RAC research shows that six in 10 drivers would use their cars less if public transport was better, something only 11 per cent of those surveyed disagreed with.
“The key to this must surely be making public transport as attractive as possible by ensuring it is reliable, frequent, convenient, comfortable and affordable.
“Making bus travel free to certain groups, and possibly to all, may prove to be the carrot that could change behaviour long term.”