The scale of the problem is clear: the world is on the brink of a climate catastrophe. The UK, due to both its enduring status as a significant global player and its historic emissions, has a responsibility to influence positive change both at home and abroad.
Historically, the media’s attention has been placed on discussing the negative impacts of the UK’s fuel, power, and heat sources. However, there has been a discernible growing appreciation for the impact that the UK’s domestic transport sector has on the environment. And quite rightly so, given that transport contributed 26% of the UK’s total GHG emissions in 2021. Why then, despite all of this increased focus and attention, did the total carbon dioxide emissions of the UK’s transport sector rise by 10% in 2021?
The answer is simple. The general public are seemingly unwilling to adopt alternative, sustainable transport methods. A point made evident by the fact that taxis and cars continue to be responsible for over half of the UK’s total road vehicle emissions. How then can the communications industry convince a car-centric country like the UK to transition to sustainable forms of transport?
The challenge of gaining public support for policies that require large-scale societal change is not a phenomenon unique to the United Kingdom. It has been done, and is being done, in cities and countries around the world. The successes seen by both Amsterdam and Paris in increasing the adoption of green transport choices are a clear illustration of the fundamental lesson that the UK must learn. You cannot simply invest your way to increasing the adoption of green transport. Instead, the public’s resistance to alternative choices must be overcome through clearly and passionately communicating the benefits at critical moments.
Amsterdam is regularly cited as being the perfect illustration of how the mass adoption of sustainable policies can occur. Its transition from a car-centric city to a cyclist’s paradise is, however, a flawed example. The lesson wrongly learnt from Amsterdam’s transition is that, were enough cycling infrastructure to be built, then people would promptly ditch their cars. This is incorrect. Infrastructure alone will not persuade those currently apprehensive about alternative transport to consider switching. Investment in sustainable transport, though well-intentioned, is ultimately meaningless if the requisite effort to shift the public’s opinions of this choice is not made by the national government, local authorities, and industry leaders.
“You cannot simply invest your way to increasing the adoption of green transport. Instead, the public’s resistance to alternative choices must be overcome through clearly and passionately communicating the benefits at critical moments.”
For Amsterdam, the unique cultural status of the bicycle in the Netherlands meant that it was exceptionally well positioned as an alternative transport choice. The confluence of this historical support for cycling with strong communication from activist groups led to a groundswell of support for large-scale societal change. The work of Stop de Kindermoord, a group campaigning against the increasing number of children killed in traffic collisions, was particularly instrumental in clearly, and powerfully, communicating the need for policy priorities to shift. This is not to say that there was no role for school programmes, community workshops, and public events, but that these were not as crucial as campaigners seizing the moment.
The re-prioritisation of active transport currently taking place across France demonstrates that the lessons from Amsterdam remain relevant. Blending much-needed investment with clear communication focused on seizing catalytic moments has the potential to drive forward large-scale societal change.
No one has more clearly understood this lesson than Paris’ mayor, Anne Hidalgo. By leveraging widespread post-strike discontent and concerns about the safety of using public transport during the pandemic, Mayor Hidalgo has been able to dramatically expand the French capital’s cycle infrastructure. Her focus on increasing ridership, which had started seeing success prior to the pandemic, was the groundwork for Paris’ shift towards becoming a much greener city. The public so clearly understood the value of taking the alternative choice that they were receptive to the ‘excuse’ these moments created for the streets of Paris to be irrevocably changed. Policies such as the ‘coronapistes’, temporary cycleways created during the pandemic, were an immediate hit. The future of Paris has now been forever changed by their impact.
The success of Hidalgo in marrying investment with clear communication reflects a lesson the UK must learn. Active transport investment must align with the clear communication of the benefits of sustainable transport choices. Our commitment to clearly and passionately communicating the benefits of active transport is no more perfectly displayed than through our work with VOLT e-bikes. We’re proud to be supporting VOLT as we work to ensure that the route to active transport is open to everyone, regardless of age, ability, or means.
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