Invest in bus travel to drive green recovery, studies urge

Public transport ‘essential’ to driving economic activity, study argues, as bus operator First Group pledges zero emission fleet by 2035 Increased investment in bus travel across England is “essential” to driving the economic recovery from Covid-19, boosting community connectivity and slashing transport emissions, fresh research published today by Greener Journeys argues. A study carried out by KPMG on behalf of the campaign group estimates GBP2bn of investment would generate 425 million additional bus journeys every year in England outside London, helping to drive down private car use which has shot up in the wake of the pandemic.

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Moreover, every GBP1 invested in bus travel would generate GBP4.48 in wider social, economic and environmental benefits, with all local authority areas in England outside the capital likely to see an increase in bus use of at least 20 per cent, according to the study.

Bus travel has almost ground to a halt during lockdown, which has hit the broader economy hard, with buses previously providing the top means of access to most city centres. But with private car use shooting up as people avoid taking public transport over fears of contracting the virus, the Covid-19 crisis risks spurring a longer-term health and environmental crisis in driven by higher air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, warned Greener Journeys. The campaign group’s chief executive Claire Haigh said mass transit was “essential” in facilitating economic activity, and that investing in and encouraging use of public transport would be critical to restarting the economy, as well as delivering beneficial environmental outcomes.

“We need a green recovery and that will require a massive shift from private transport to public, shared and active travel,” she said. “The forthcoming national bus strategy must maximise the potential of the bus to tackle pollution, reduce social deprivation and reignite the economy.” Air pollution linked to road traffic causes 40,000 early deaths a year, while a 10 per cent decrease in public transport connectivity is associated with a 3.6 per cent increase in social deprivation, the study notes. In its latest report, the Committee on Climate Change noted that road transport accounted for the largest increase in global greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade.

In addition, meanwhile, growing numbers of bus operators are announcing plans to phase-out fossil polluting diesel buses in favour of low emission hybrid, electric or hydrogen-powered alternatives. Just yesterday First Group, one of the UK’s biggest bus and rail operators, said it would scap fossil fuel buses from its fleet altogether by 2035, by which point it has pledged to operate a zero emission fleet. The company’s UK fleet – which currently boasts around 5,000 buses – is expected to run on batteries or hydrogen within the next 15 years, marking just the latest major shift to clean transport in the sector following similar commitments from rivals National Express and Go-Ahead. Meanwhile, a second study published yesterday by the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight has proposed a radical solution to one of the most difficult areas of road transport to decarbonise: long-distance haulage.

Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) account for a massive 4.2 per cent of total UK carbon emissions, making decarbonising the sector essential to meeting the UK’s 2050 net zero goal, but yesterday’s report argues a 4000-mile network of overhead power cables linked to lorries traversing the UK’s motorways could eliminate the bulk of carbon dioxide from lorries. The plan for an electric road system would cost GBP19.3bn and put all but the most remote parts of the UK within reach of the trucks by the late 2030s, with the potential for the investment to pay for itself within 15 years, according to the research centre, which is funded by government grants and industry partners including Tesco and John Lewis. Powered by the grid, “catenary cables” would power lorries driving in in the inside lanes of 4,300 miles of UK roads via an extendable rig known as a pantograph, according to the plan.

The electricity delivered through the cables would then power a lorry’s electric motor while simultaneously charging an onboard electric battery, enabling trucks to continue to destinations beyond the electrified grid. Tests of electric road systems have already been carried out by Siemens in partnership with truck firm Scania in Germany, Sweden and the US, while a scheduled visit to test sites in Germany from Department for Transport officials has been delayed due to the pandemic, the report notes. Cutting HGV emissions has long been seen as a major technical challenge, with lithium ion batteries to date having been better suited to electric passenger cars rather than long-haul, heavy haulage vehicles.

But more recently a growing number of low- and zero-emission HGVs have taken to the road, with developers such as Tesla and Tevva pushing forward with solutions ranging ranging from electrification to carbon negative biogas.  And yesterday’s study seeks to offer an alternative solution to the conundrum, arguing a lorry kitted out to travel on electric highways would only require a battery of a similar size to an existing Tesla car in order to cover most of the UK. It suggests that a first phase of building work on the busiest roads could take two years at an estimated cost of GBP5.6bn, which would cover almost a third of the miles travelled by heavy goods vehicles in the UK.

Rolling out the technology across the UK’s remaining roads would bring the total cost to GBP19.3bn, it estimates.

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