On Board with Professor Graham Parkhurst
On Board with Graham Parkhurst, Professor of Sustainable Mobility & Director of the Centre for Transport & Society at University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)
Professor Parkhurst is one of the West of England’s thought leaders on public transport. He has two decades of experience researching and teaching transport and mobility. His recent research has covered decarbonising transport for a sustainable future; transport policy and social inclusion; the potential of a more collective and connected transport system to reduce environmental impacts whilst furthering socio-economic objectives; and the societal implications of autonomous vehicles. On Board caught up with Professor Parkhurst to get his views on air quality, behavioural change, regional priorities for public transport and clean air zones.
The role of a more integrated transport system in enhancing air quality is much talked about - what can the findings of your research in this area tell us how this can be achieved?
Simply waiting for all motor vehicles to be replaced with zero exhaust emission technologies is not going to be an adequate solution to our air quality problems. Even if only zero-emission vehicles were sold from tomorrow, it would take 15-20 years for all the petrol and diesel vehicles to be replaced as new cars are bought. During this time the unacceptable situation in which people will fall ill and some die early due to pollution from road traffic would only slowly improve. But, the current plan is that petrol and diesel vehicles will still be available for purchase until 2040, and zero emissions vehicles are a very small share of sales currently. So it could be much longer than 20 years before we see significant improvements if we do nothing else than improve car technology.
So we also need to reduce pollution by reducing the amount of motor vehicle traffic in our cities. Fewer motor vehicles means fewer sources of emissions, but could also mean reduced congestion, so the remaining vehicles operate more efficiently.
We could achieve a reduction in motor vehicle journeys by encouraging people to walk and cycle more, or by using public transport or by sharing car journeys. Because individual people have different options available to them, we will need a combination of these solutions.
We’ve had some exciting and innovative public transport developments across the region recently with the launch of the first Metrobus rapid transit service and MYFIRSTMILE, an integrated cab-bus service. Both are aimed at making bus travel more attractive and reducing people’s reliance on the car to travel to and from work. Can you give successful examples of interventions that drive behaviour change, so the majority of people don’t drive to work?
Behaviour change interventions are most likely to succeed if the new behaviour becomes the most obvious and natural choice. So the cycling stands and bus stops need to be close to where people want to go, in attractive locations, and not tucked away beyond the car park. The alternatives to the car also need to be competitive on cost grounds. It also helps if influential people in society, which might be pop stars or politicians, are taking a lead in themselves making the change.
We also need to be sure that people are aware of the changes, and can access the right information to make their personal choices. Sometimes they might need showing how to use a new way to travel, such as cycling, or how to buy a ticket, such as with the new Metrobus machines.
There is evidence that people are more likely to make a change when they are undergoing a significant change in life, such as moving house or starting a new job.
What works best will vary from location-to-location. City centres can be served effectively by traditional public transport. Some medium-size cities such as Oxford have managed to reach the point in which more people travel to the centre by bus than car. The key to success is usually combining frequent, attractive bus services with limits on the amount of parking and parking charges which discourage choice of the car, particularly by lone travellers.
Out of the city centres, successful solutions are more likely to involve car sharing schemes and more innovative flexible public transport options that are beginning to emerge.
What would be your top 3 public transport priorities for the West of England?
My first two priorities relate to the reliability of journey times. People cannot risk taking public transport to work if being late means losing their jobs, and they can’t risk relying on using buses to catch trains, or to collect children from childcare if the bus might not turn up on time. The main influences on reliability are the priority that buses are given to avoid congestion caused by private cars, so that is my ‘number 1’ and the speed with which passenger board buses, so that would be ‘number 2’. My third priority relates to both buses and trains, and that would be to enhance integration by making transfers easier, through coordinated timings, through-tickets, and effective real-time information.
I am aware that these initiatives are being pursued in the West of England, but it is important we continue to be ambitious. As the improvements bring benefits we should seek to increase public transport frequencies as this is a key to encouraging greater use in a society in which many people have come to expect services to be very readily available.
Reducing road traffic congestion and improving air quality are major societal challenges and the Government has just launched its clean air strategy consultation with Ministers wanting to halve the number of people exposed to high levels of pollution from fine particles by 2025. What version of Clean Air Zone do you think would be best for Bristol and what effect on air quality and congestion would a CAZ have that doesn’t include passenger cars?
Determining exactly which form the Clean Air Zone should take needs to be subject to careful study, and I have not been personally involved in technical work for a Bristol Zone. What I can say is that the form of the Clean Air Zone needs to be based on the best available evidence if it is going to have public support and be effective in reducing pollution in practice. In my view, this clearly means we cannot rely on the car manufacturers’ laboratory tests of vehicles – and diesel cars in particular – as the basis of permitting entry to the Zone. Some countries use the performance of a vehicle during the equivalent of the annual MOT test as the basis for permitting access to high-pollution areas.
Another key decision that needs to be taken is whether high-emission vehicles will be banned from the Zone, and a fine levied if they are illegally brought in, as has just been introduced for two streets in Hamburg, or whether high-emission vehicles can legally be taken into the Clean Air Zone on payment of a charge, as in London. The complete ban would likely be more effective, although probably less popular. So we need to know whether both of these solutions could bring a significant improvement in air quality, or only the complete ban.
Private cars would need to be part of the scheme for it to be worth implementing. They are the clear majority of traffic in the city centre, causing most of the pollution. Whilst the emissions from a single diesel bus are higher than from a single diesel car, once we allow for the larger number of passengers, the bus usually moves more people for a given amount of emissions. And of course, the bus will be an important way that people with high-emissions cars can continue to access the city centre, hopefully in healthier, less congested conditions.