09 April 2024

Decarbonisation is not the only benefit from Modal shift in transport

Kevin Buck, Global Clients UK & Northern Europe Managing Director

While the UK is the first major economy to halve its emissions (having cut them by 50% between 1990 and 2022), domestic transport has actually seen emissions rise in the past three years and is now the largest single emitter in the UK, responsible for 28% of emissions. Passenger cars are the most significant source of emissions in the sector and while politicians are acting across Europe to encourage electric vehicle usage, to make more space for bikes and pedestrians or to lower speed limits, is enough being done to improve and support bus networks? And is the environmental impact the only benefit from a modal shift from private cars to public transport?

Much has been said about decarbonisation within the wider transport sector, and it's been fantastic to see the progress already made in terms of electrification as the automotive manufacturers and leading land transport groups move towards their net zero targets. A CFO in marketing mode once said to me that "one bus takes 50 cars off the road" and he has a point in rush hour urban commuting where public transport clearly helps to support decarbonisation and improve air quality. Buses, especially modern, fuel-efficient, or electric models, have a lower per-passenger carbon footprint compared to private cars. Fewer cars on the roads means less traffic, and less traffic means there are fewer idling cars, less vehicle emissions and less time on the road. 

However, a more uncomfortable truth is that many of those using bus services don’t have the financial resources to drive and perhaps forgotten is the additional key role that the industry plays in driving social mobility by providing affordable access to work, healthcare and leisure. A recent review undertaken for the UK's Department of Transport confirmed that transport is an important facilitator of social inclusion and wellbeing which can affect social and economic outcomes and therefore inequality.

Transport is an important facilitator of social inclusion and wellbeing which can affect social and economic outcomes and therefore inequality.

While our own organisations are very vocal in their goals to improve diversity, our definition often focuses on race and gender without taking into account socio-economic status and social equity. It is true that from institutions we support communities but how do we help to provide the infrastructure for those communities, to ensure people aren’t isolated from each other or are able to enjoy wider opportunities?

Transport is clearly not a solution on its own but it is certainly part of the answer given that where public transport is available and affordable it is an important facilitator of social inclusion and wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that transport barriers are closely related to job opportunities in areas of socio-economic disadvantage, and if transport is (or is perceived to be) too expensive, then people are not able to make the journeys they need to get into work or move into education/training. People who depend more on the bus network for work tend to be lower paid, live in more deprived areas, and are more likely to turn down jobs due to transport issues, than those on higher incomes, who tend to use cars and trains more often.  

The impacts of transport poverty are perhaps worst for poorer people in rural areas. Services are further away, incomes are often lower, and transport costs higher, partly reflecting low population density which makes it harder to run public transport. Transport can be integral to improving equality, and the partnership between transport operators and government in areas such as the West Midlands is a great example of how a Just Transition can be targeted.

Hence while BBVA is working closely with the major automotive manufacturers and associated infrastructure providers to assist in their business model shift to EVs, we are also a strong supporter and advocate for the wider land transport sector. While the environmental benefits to modal shift are clear and will be a key contributor as part of the transition towards net zero targets, the added social benefits should not be overlooked. The E in ESG is clearly the focus for policy makers given the climate emergency, but we ignore the S at our peril and to society’s detriment.