How can cities achieve their net-zero carbon transport road maps?

The Occasion

The UK Government has committed to achieving net-zero carbon economy by 2050. Cities have a crucial role to play in this journey, especially through their transport sector. Most UK cities have now developed roadmaps for becoming zero-carbon locations, many with a target date ahead of that laid out in national legislation. However, as a recent ITC report  has revealed, significant questions remain. Are these roadmaps achievable in the timeframes designated? What steps need to be taken now in order to ensure that these targets remain on track? And what policy initiatives are needed to help local authorities meet these ambitions?

The ITC held its 2023 Spring Discussion webinar to address these questions. The event was chaired by ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret OBE in conversation with a panel of leading experts including: Ritu Garg from Arup Group, Chris Carter from Nottingham City Council, Claudia Peñaranda from Transport for London, and Professor Ying Jin from the University of Cambridge.


How can cities achieve their net-zero carbon transport road maps? Key issues from the panellists:

  • Ritu Garg highlighted the key policy challenges that cities faced to achieve net-zero carbon transport. She explained that various structural barriers existed including a lack of co-ordination between different modes of transport, challenges associated with different scales of city, and the neglect of freight transport. Principles for delivery of net-zero carbon transport included the need to recognise embedded carbon in the infrastructure, removal of emission-intensive vehicles and the importance of using clean and renewable energy sources.  She championed the use of clear and manageable carbon reduction targets, with interim milestones, as well as and tailored strategies that took into account different kinds of trip and social needs. Moreover, cities should promote density as a low-carbon strategy, with the associated opportunities for freight consolidation and active travel encouragement. She stressed the importance of actions such as raising awareness of travel emissions amongst young people, helping to shape their behaviour at an early stage, focusing attention on car-orientated places and encouraging modal shift away from the car in areas where there was good public transport access.
  • Chris Carter shared perspectives from Nottingham’s net-zero carbon road map. He explained the city had already achieved a strong degree of success in reducing by 50% carbon emissions per capita. This had happened through efficient targeting of what he described as “low-hanging fruits” including policy initiatives such as investing in cycling and walking infrastructure, improved travel information, integrated ticketing, and enhanced bus and tram services and their pioneering workplace parking scheme which subsidised the city-owned bus company and other public transport structures. He added that the city welcomed experimentation, and was leading trials for e-bikes, e-car sharing and vehicle electrification. At the same time, Nottingham was focusing on behavioural change through the use of reward schemes for sustainable travel and penalty payments for excessive car-usage in the private sector. Despite significant challenges, he believed that strong local leadership, a unified vision, and political long-termism had allowed the city to achieve significant progress towards net-zero.
  • Claudia Peñaranda showcased London’s plan for decarbonising transport in the city. She drew attention to TfL’s bold goal to reach net-zero carbon by 2030, and noted that London enjoyed some advantages in implementing its road map due to its governance structure that allowed for integrated planning of transport and development. Using the ‘avoid, shift, and improve’ policy framework, London had invested heavily in sustainable transport, improved infrastructure such as EV charging points and behavioural nudging, such as through its Low Emission Zone. Financial investment was essential, and TfL faced a challenge due to its reliance on passenger fares and needed improved funding for capital projects. Inclusiveness was also important in policy making given London’s diverse social groups.
  • Professor Ying Jin provided reflections on the policy challenges raised. He pointed that some technologies required to reach net-zero had not yet been invented, and supply chains could also act as bottle necks and were outside the influence of cities. He praised the progress made by cities such as Nottingham and London, and noted the importance of setting realistic, intermediate targets

    Key themes raised in the Q&A discussion:

    The discussion was chaired by transport expert and ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret OBE

    1. To what extent are the current net-zero carbon targets realistic? Some guests questioned whether current net-zero carbon deadlines were realistic, and observed that over-ambitious targets could be counterproductive. Others suggested that the purpose of such targets was to help speed up decarbonisation even if the actual deadline was missed. It was proposed that the use of interim targets, setting achievable shorter-term goals and securing easy decarbonisation wins were good principles on which policy makers should focus. A further key issue raised was the need for significant behavioural changes to achieve net-zero, such as modal shift or reducing certain kinds of travel, and it was noted these changes were often harder to achieve.
    2. The pathways to net-zero carbon must be politically acceptable. A number of guests suggested that the political capital required to achieve net-zero carbon transport was limited and should be used carefully. A key challenge is to ensure that net-zero carbon policies are socially equitable and do not unduly penalise lower-income groups. Measures such as congestion charging and penalising non-electric car owners may create cost burdens which could worsen transport inequalities. Pricing carbon at a punitive level could also create similar problems. Some suggested initiating efforts at the institutional level before targeting individuals.
    3. What is the role of data in achieving net-zero carbon transport? The importance of having good data to guide efforts towards net-zero carbon goals was emphasised, since this allowed for an evidence-based approach when prioritising interventions. One example was the baseline assessment of emissions undertaken in the Midlands which allowed authorities to uncover different travel patterns and journey types. This has allowed the development of a tool to assess interventions in terms of their effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions. Some guests championed collecting data through experimentation and being open to sharing that data with other cities. Others emphasised the need to obtain localised data at a neighbourhood level.
    4. Local Authorities can only do so much and need support from other layers of Government. It was noted that there are limitations to the actions that Local Authorities can take in the overall push towards a net-zero carbon economy. Most carbon emissions from travel arise from longer-distance journeys (above 10 miles) which cross over many Local Authority boundaries. The call for a single entity that could manage, fund, and prioritise initiatives was echoed by some attendees, as well as recognition that different jurisdictions had different responsibilities in achieving net-zero targets. The benefits of having consistency in policy were noted, such as through the use of 5-year plans. Finally, there was a call to establish greater mutual trust between layers of Government and with the public around the impacts of net-zero carbon policies.