New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Paul Curtis

Monday 26 July 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Paul Curtis

Associate Director
Vectos

David Taylor  
Hi, Paul. How are you? 
 
Paul Curtis  
Hi, David. Good, thanks. Yourself? 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, very good. Okay, so, I wanted to talk to you about your Net Zero Transport report. For people that might be reading this that don't know about the report, could you summarize the key points from it?
 
Paul Curtis  
Sure. Thanks. The report was sponsored by the RTPI, and it was a collaboration between three consultancies: LDA Design – they were the lead – Vectos, and City Science.  With the various net zero carbon targets that we are all working towards at the moment, the challenge was to try and understand how, in terms of surface transport, we get to 2030 reducing surface transport carbon emissions by 80%.  Is there a way that we could model that? And as such, what sort of interventions would allow us to reduce surface transport emissions? The sorts of interventions that we focused on were obviously transport, but also land use. So: elements of transport, but also thinking about carbon emissions from development, and the planning sector. There's a particular focus on what we call place-based interventions. That was important because we've seen, particularly during the COVID lockdown, that you can actually save quite a lot of carbon savings by living locally and obviously, working from home or schooling from home, but also shopping within a local walking distance. And really, what interventions can help us live locally. Because, in many ways, some of your quick wins when it comes to saving carbon are to eliminate car journeys, and in particular, unnecessary ones from daily life.
 
David Taylor  
Are you worried at all about a post-COVID distrust of public transport, leading to going back to more car use?
 
Paul Curtis  
In many ways, it's already happened. When we looked at the figures last year, and number of journey types, trip numbers were just falling, across the board. There were some good movements by local government, central government, and others, to try and lock in that change of behaviour, the reduction in car use – and switching to active travel in particular. I'm a keen cyclist, and it was a joy, cycling in my local area for my allotted one hour a day! And then also going up into central London, when that was permitted. Just seeing the city as it had never been! Wonderfully silent and pollution-free. But yes, it didn't last. And then with the social distancing – and I use public transport – there are limits on bus capacity and people are worried about maybe getting something in public space. So, the figures now do look like that car use has gone right back to where it used to be – and in some cases exceeded. 

The other challenge now is to try and get back to where it was, and continue that desire to shift towards active modes, and public transport. But again, that really brings in the whole local living perspective. Because if you reduce the need to travel for a number of daily tasks or travel beyond your immediate community, then you don't necessarily need to take any transport if you can walk and cycle. So again, that's where I think there is now momentum for the local living, the 15-minute neighbourhoods – in some cases for new developments and new communities to ensure that the design allows people to live local. But also, there needs to be some retrofitting of existing neighbourhoods. If you look at Paris, the mayor of Paris, she got elected I think it was last year, and one of her big flagship policies was bringing in the 15-minute neighbourhoods and almost exclusively retrofitting, of course, because it's for the whole city. That is gathering traction. Personally, I'd like to see that reflected more in government policy. As we speak, the DfT's transport decarbonization plan has been published. I've not had a read through yet...
 
David Taylor  
Today, wasn't it?
 
Paul Curtis  
Yeah, I saw the press release this morning, and the actual report didn't come out until a bit later. I'd love to see some mention of local living there and this 15-minute neighbourhood, to push that forward. But going back to our report, when we thought about what interventions can help us decarbonize surface transport, we categorized them into three types. There were interventions which allow substitution of trips, actually removing the need to travel beyond your front door, or at least your local community. So that would be covering stuff like active travel infrastructure. 

Through land use planning maybe putting in more co-working spaces in the local community, as people may not have the space or the atmosphere at home that they can work effectively. They can go to the end of the street or to the local High Street to find that co working space there. And indeed, for new developments, to ensure that co-working spaces are included in the design, 15-minute neighbourhood concepts, and ensuring that digital living can be maximized, having decent broadband, and so on. So that's substituting trips that you don't necessarily need to move far to do your activities. 

The second category we call shifting. So, shifting modes - when you do need to travel beyond your local community. People should be enabled to do that without having to jump in a car and maybe try and reduce car ownership down to one car per household rather than two and three. But to do that, they need to have your on-demand shared mobility services, decent modern public transport. We've seen this in Milton Keynes. They've got a very big pilot there of these, DRT minivans that run around the town centre and some of the suburbs. They’re trialling that to see if it can replace non-profitable bus services. So, demand responsive public transport, making use of technology a bit better. But also, to shift modes, you do need some sticks, not carrots alone. So, you probably do need to see more access restrictions and low traffic neighbourhoods, car-free zones, and controlled parking. Everyone's worried about reduced parking. But if we're going to have sufficient change of behaviour, we are going to need to see some parking restrictions as well. 

And then finally, the third set of interventions we call switching fuels. So, once you've exhausted all your design options for substituting trips, and shifting modes. At that point, we think you should start thinking about putting in the electric vehicle infrastructure charging. And yes, electric public transport fleets. The reason why we think you shouldn't just go ‘right, we've got this target to decarbonize, what are we going to do, okay, let's just electrify everything, and sticking charging everywhere. That will, that will see us through and get us a lot of carbon savings’. It will get you a lot of carbon savings. But if you go straight for the switching fuels option, you completely miss that opportunity to redesign your local communities, to design in your local living, your digital living. And in the end, you'd have exactly the same space allocated to vehicles. They just would be electric powered or hydrogen. So, the switching fuels, infrastructure is absolutely necessary. But it kind of needs to follow the other two categories.
 
David Taylor  
But essentially, the distance between planning and transport is too large in this country, is it? Is it that these two things should be better integrated? And, as a subsidiary question to that, what's it going to take for the UK public to connect cars and the growth in car use to sustainability issues? I mean, I was thinking the other day when there were those flash floods in London – I instantly connect that with global warming. Not everybody does, but that's my immediate suspicion. Do you think I'm alone in that? Or do you think it's going to take something fairly catastrophic before people actually connect and join the dots?
 
Paul Curtis  
Oh, goodness! I mean it's really frustrating, because, you know, all the low traffic neighbourhood schemes in London and other cities, they go down very well with focus groups, The principle is positively received. But then you do obviously get the NIMBYs. When I cycle into work, I go through a newly created low traffic neighbourhood in Surbiton. And for me, as a cyclist, it is absolutely wonderful. There is this café, which is thriving now, because its footfalls gone through the roof. You've got lots of people hanging around on the streets. It's opposite a playground so you've got all the families and kids interacting, and there's no vehicles for literally a 10 yard-stretch because you've got these two bollards at either end. But on the council website, you see all these people that are opposing it. I don't know, it does seem like a brain block. People are supportive of carbon reduction. But when it comes down to not being able to drive down the street that they want to, there is quite a backlash. Of course, it's the objectors who have the loudest voices. They're not necessarily the most numerous. It's just they're often the loudest. Maybe it will hit home if the government – any particular government – makes that very difficult decision to start making fuelling your vehicle more expensive, if it's a diesel or petrol, than if you're charging it. Or through road pricing; that they recoup that way. But to answer your question, I think there is a disconnect between the principle of going zero carbon, which is generally positive, and then the actual change in behaviour required by the individual.
 
David Taylor  
So, last question: are you optimistic about net zero targets, and are targets the way to go? I mean, I do get a lot of reports that constantly warn about missing targets. And you know, it's difficult for that message to hit home with any power. Are you optimistic about that? Or is there something else that could be done?
 
Paul Curtis  
I think targets are essential. We've been talking about carbon emissions for decades, I remember in the 80s, when I was a teenager, on Blue Peter, they were talking about energy saving light bulbs, and the changes that we need to make, and there's been a lot of false starts on this. But where the planets have finally aligned is that we have this top-down 2050 target via the UN. And you've got the nations that have signed up to it, governments therefore. We've got the 2030 ban on new ICE vehicles being produced on a production line in the UK and 2035 for hybrids. They’ll be phased out. That particular policy, I think, has had much more effect in driving forward the agenda than the 2050 net zero, because that's so far off. You feel like you can just kick the can down the road. But when all the manufacturers of vehicles now suddenly realize they have to do something about it, that's then had an implication on EV charging infrastructure, and all these Giga-factories being produced, and putting in the EV charging points on highways, but also locally. I think that's really helped to accelerate this movement. And then we'll see what's in this transport decarb plan. I hope it is ambitious enough. The problem is, and coming back to your previous question, the disconnect between land use planning and transport planning. And certainly, in our circles now, at Vectos we’re constantly banging the drum for, what we call vision and validate. It's the opposite, really, of predict and provide. You cannot support sustainable growth by continuously building roads. But through some vision and validate, you basically set out how you want people to move around and to live and then you design it in a way that allows them to do that. So, I think you do need the targets - we might not hit them; we might end up being a couple of years late or more. But I think it does certainly focus the minds.
 
David Taylor  
Brilliant. Well, thank you very much for your time. That was really great.
 
Paul Curtis  
Yeah, nice one, David. Cheers! Bye.
Read the full Net Zero Transport: the role of spatial planning and place-based solutions report

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Paul Curtis

Associate Director
Vectos


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