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You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead! – Part 3

Still getting around

Thinking about reducing the carbon impact of cars and transport in my last piece also got me thinking about the de-carbonisation of the driver behind the wheel of our chosen mode of transport. Another dimension to travel that will, I am sure, become a reality within my lifetime, is self-driving vehicles. So many of our towns and cities have been shaped by increasing car ownership and the need to accommodate vans, lorries and buses. Planning policy and, as a consequence, placemaking, is still heavily influenced by planning for vehicular traffic. This has led to bland lookalike developments, particularly when viewed from above, where so many residential developments look like lungs, with an ever decreasing scale of roads leading to closes and cul-de-sacs. Constraints of forward visibility, turning radii, parking spaces and highway capacity significantly bind the hand of the masterplanner.

My daughters continue to mock me when I suggest that in the not so distant future, we are unlikely to bother with the hassle and expense of owning a car and will rely instead on other mobility solutions, such as self-driving cars, for journeys that can’t be made on foot or by bike or even electric scooters. However, I am firmly of the view that it is the way forward and the implications could be far greater than the change in method of propulsion of the vehicle itself.

The negative impacts of private car ownership are extensive; they are expensive, they emit carbon dioxide and noxious fumes, they cause congestion, they crash and kill or injure people and they demand vast amounts of real estate in the form of roads and parking places. The carbon benefits if such issues were substantially minimised would be huge. Of course, the benefits of car ownership are also huge; freedom of mobility, access to work and leisure opportunities, compensation for inadequacies in life….

Imagine if you could plan developments without the need to provide parking spaces, garages, wide roads and all of the associated street furniture, traffic lights and gubbins that goes with keeping traffic flowing. Congestion would be limited as every vehicle will know where others are and will manage the collective flow to minimise delays and they would likely manage to avoid bumping into each other and people going about their business. As they will be electric, they won’t be pumping out fumes whilst they are going from place to place. And, once in towns, car parks would be a thing of the past and the space they occupy could be turned to other uses as the cars can drive themselves out of the way and only come into town at the point they are needed.

Redeveloping towns with all of the space won from cars would help to breathe new life and economic activity back into town centre. I touched on this in my blog ‘Are houses obsolete?’. However, from a carbon perspective, turning car ownership into the more virtuous concept of zero carbon mobility will see both reductions in emissions, but also a potential reduction in embodied carbon, as a smaller fleet of vehicles used to higher intensity will mean that less resources are consumed creating vehicles that are otherwise used for just a small proportion of the day.

Car parks and car parking have been a recurring theme of my professional life. At Public Sector Plc, we frequently talk to councils who speak in animated terms about a really exciting town centre regeneration opportunity that they would like to bring forward. ‘Excellent’, I say. ‘Is it a car park?’ ‘Why, yes it is’, they say. ‘Marvellous, can we get rid of all the current parking provision?’ ‘Oh no’, they say. ‘Members actually want more spaces’. ‘Ok, can we use the revenue from the re-provided car parking to help fund any new car park?’ I ask. ‘Oh no’, comes the reply. ‘We rely heavily on the income generated from our car parks’.

And herein lies the challenge. A surface parking space might cost £3k to provide, whilst a decked space might be in the region of £15k. Even worse, to put spaces in a podium structure beneath a development can cost in the region of £25k per space. Economically this is an enormous challenge. You have to leave 30-50% of the site free to accommodate not just the re-provision of existing spaces, but a potential increase in general spaces, plus the requirement for the development itself. And the value to fund this must all come from the land receipt that has to be be generated from the development you can deliver on whatever is left of the site. In the vast majority of the country this is simply unfeasible. Which is, of course, a crying shame as the regeneration itself is so badly needed.

If you could sweep away vast quantities of car parking spaces, the potential to breathe new life and vitality into our town centres is massively increased. And the shortfall in car parking revenue could be addressed through commercial ground rents, geared leases, commercial leases or private rented housing stock. Each of these would be a great economic stimulus in their own right and provide the opportunity to shape town centres for the better. In the meantime, taking tentative steps to reduce dependence on the private car and putting the emphasis on making town centres more attractive, diverse and accessible will help facilitate the journey to a low carbon future for travel and transport, with attendant benefits for the places where we live, work and spend our leisure time.

Perhaps this all presents a picture of some form of dystopian Blade Runner style future. I don’t see it that way. A life where I spend less on transport, the transport I take is as flexible and efficient as my current options, but is zero carbon and opens the way to a rejuvenation in place making unconstrained by absorbing a fleet of cars on a daily basis sounds to me like a utopian dream.

Like I say to my children; ‘trust me, it’ll happen’. It may not happen as I have outlined, but I do see a revolution in personal mobility around the corner and the changes arising as a result will, I believe, be profound. All of these things; reducing emissions, reducing embodied carbon, thinking differently about the journeys that we, our food and our ‘stuff’ takes will be necessary to achieve a zero carbon future. I find that an exciting challenge and an opportunity to re-think so many aspects of our lives in a positive way.

Change is coming. I know that there is a natural tendency to fear change and embrace the status quo, but, as the old saying goes, ‘the only constant is change’. We have seen from the covid-related changes that we have all been forced to make, that not all change is bad. Making change positive as we move to a low carbon economy is a duty we all owe to our children, no matter how sceptical they and we are.

We left the horse and cart behind, we can leave the car, as we currently know it, behind too. Really.

Adam Cunnington