Green Wheels of Change: The Future of Urban Mobility

Even before Covid-19 upended society as we know it, the Government had set out an ambitious agenda to transform and innovate the UK’s transport network – to realise our net-zero ambitions and bring air quality levels in line with legal limits.

As part of the Government’s consultation looking at decarbonising our transport network at the start of the year the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, pledged “bold and ambitious action” to ensure that “public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities”.

Fast-forward a few months, and the effect Covid-19 has had on our transport network and systems has been seismic. Green modes of travel such as cycling soared during lockdown. Swathes of central London have been partially or fully pedestrianised. But with traffic levels starting to rise and a typically dreary autumn and winter on the horizon, it is far from certain that the popularity of active travel will be sustained.

Behaviours aside, one certainty remains: that Covid-19 has given policy and decision-makers to pause for thought, as they reimagine the future of urban mobility. Both at a national and local level, we have seen a renewed focus on tackling the obesity crisis (thanks in part to the Prime Minister’s own experience) coupled with the strategic imperative to ‘build back better’, and more sustainably. The challenge is undeniably vast, but if Government gets this right then the prize will be equally great.

We have seen that the political will to see this through exists at the highest level. The Transport Secretary is minded to further embrace innovative modes of mobility. Last week he affirmed this commitment, stating: ‘the time for a green transport revolution is now’. And from a policymaking perspective, there have been several exciting announcements – from the legalisation of e-scooter rental trials to DfT’s request for ideas to help formulate an official transport decarbonisation plan.

As Chris Heaton-Harris MP, the Minister of State for Transport put it during our recent webinar: ‘everything remains on the cards for this Government’ as they look to decarbonise our transport network. Everything from how and where we travel, to the interoperability of these systems, their impact on carbon emissions and public health more broadly, how the electrification of our transport network will be funded, and how the Government incentives particular modes of transport all are up for debate. To provide an example, previous initiatives, such as the Cycle to Work Scheme, are no longer as relevant given the changes to working practices and so whole funding streams will need to be re-examined.

Private sector providers, from startups to established operators, face a once in a lifetime opportunity – to shape the agenda and ensure future legislation supports their strategic goals.

Invariably, policymaking becomes a zero-sum game. There will be winners and losers among competing modes and even models of mobility. Decisions made in the coming months will dictate the shape and scope of the industry for decades. Looking at the micromobility sector, for instance, we have already battles lines drawn over the ownership versus shared e-scooter model. With the latter of these emerging victorious from early battles, manufacturers and retailers will be concerned that it has put the ownership model significantly on the back foot for years to come. It remains to be seen if those at the forefront of the industry can marshal the arguments necessary to win the day.

One thing is for sure: mobility firms need to meet the right people, deliver the right messages at the right time, and actively engage as the debate evolves – both at a national and local level.  We believe it is critical that this positive momentum continues, and that a coherent strategy in place to ensure every available opportunity to the industry is taken.

The time for action is now before opinions become crystallised.

Hume Brophy’s team of dedicated consultants made up of transport experts, ex-Government Ministers and policy professionals stand ready to help. Please contact simon.jennings@humebrophy.com if you would like to discuss this further and find out about the work Hume Brophy is doing in this space.