How do we make transport decarbonisation desirable at the individual level?


In the midst of understanding what net zero transport means; policymakers, investors, consultants and engineers typically start by focusing on the feasibility of overcoming that challenge. Describing potential solutions across the other two Design Thinking pillars is rare; with the viability and desirability of solutions assumed to be solved by others later down the line.

Whilst the urgency is only increasing to define what net zero (and net zero transport) means for a particular place, organisation or timeframe (and being clear about what we are measuring), there is even more importance to tackle how we can make the transport decarbonisation challenge desirable for the diverse population expected to adopt new travel behaviours and lifestyle choices.

What’s the current position on net zero transport? The DfT’s ‘Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge’ was critical back in March 2020 in identifying the possible net zero pathways (for surface emissions) to 2050, (and subsequently re-forecast through the CB6 Budget as part of the target to cut surface emissions by 78% by 2035).

I frequently point public and private sector clients and co-professionals to RTPI’s Net Zero Transport research (published in January 2021). In a highly accessible manner, it outlines the types of interventions that could be suitable for different place typologies along a net zero transport pathway. The image below outlines an 80% carbon reduction pathway for 2020 to 2030 (average across the four place typologies within the study).

While this shows ‘the possible’ and what’s feasible, the next critical piece is to deploy some design-led thinking (with a bit of social science and commercial acumen) to explore ‘what’s actually desirable for end users’ and ‘what’s the viability of delivery’. We of course need the golden three to develop solutions that lead to products and services that will actually be adopted by end users.

The decarbonising potential from e-bikes to DRT to mobility hubs and local co-working will only be adopted if the target market perceives the (real and perceived) cost and convenience to improve on their current situation and be within their reach. A worrying situation post-Covid is the increasing proportion of financially vulnerable who are simply worrying about making ends meet – and don’t have the capacity or the headspace for behaviour change or the climate crisis. The FCA is now showing that more than half of the UK population are classed as financially vulnerable.

The way forward, in my view, is to elevate Human-Centred Design and Design Thinking in the planning process; learning from the principles of service design, human-centric planning and taking a refreshed view of how we engage, co-design and elevate diversity and inclusion thinking.

Our Future Mobility team seek to do that by seeking to recognise the unmet needs of specific individuals and population segments through a range of methods;

Solving this transport decarbonisation challenge will bring about changes to the future labour market. We will demand designers, generalists, innovators and product managers who can think holistically and critically whilst prioritising across a number of disciplines and analysis. In addition, we will need well-rounded social scientists as the next generation of transport planners with supplementary skills in data science, psychology, and behavioural science.

As the sense of urgency grows stronger for Net Zero, and as net zero transport pathways are identified, we absolutely need to address the imbalance and focus on desirability (as well as what do we deem to be equitable outcomes). Net zero transport is within reach but it will need to start with a focus on people, their unique circumstances and their mobility needs.

Toby Thornton is Technical Director (Future Mobility) at WSP UK

Feature Image Source: Unsplash

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