Debate 3 - Paper 1

What can architects and engineers do towards achieving a sustainable urban transport system?

Mark Whitby BSc FEng FICE FIStructE
Whitby & Bird Engineers


  • Sir Jack Zunz, in the last Edge debate, argued that current policies for addressing the issue of sustainability are based on soft options, rather then hard theory. None target the challenge of how we are to effect the cultural change necessary to meet future energy targets.
  • The intention of this paper is to move the debate on to hard theory. It outlines a method by which targets for 2020 carbon energy consumption may be met through a system accountable energy use and of tradable quotas
  • Central to the proposal is the allocation of carbon energy quotas to individuals and businesses. These would be reduced on an annual basis, against targets set by government. Trading of a proportion of quotas would establish their value against which additional consumption or savings could be costed.
  • A futures market in the quotas would provide the missing link for value engineering, giving substance to much of the work that is currently in hand regarding energy conservation.
  • This is a concept that has a precedent in the existing scheme for pollution futures. It could dovetail with a current proposal for international quotas in carbon dioxide emission that may be tradable between nations.

Urban transport going nowhere fast?

The first steps: Influencing public policy for national good.

The title of this debate ‘Urban transport going nowhere fast?, while true on the ground, fails to recognise the enormous effort that is being made following the Earth Summit in 1992 and the publication of Agenda 21. This Institution has been a focus for moving the discussion forward with the Government and, I believe, much of their work is now bearing fruit. Central to this was the work of the 1995 Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and John Gummer’s challenge to the Institution to move away from day-to-day pressures and look 10-20 years ahead.

However, as Sir Jack Zunz said in the last Edge Debate, “Something is missing. The issue is so big”.

Key to these debates is the need to make practical policies that are consistent with the criteria set out by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

  • Universality - transport policy should acknowledge the diverse needs of society as a whole.
  • Social equity -that no section of society is unduly or disproportionally disadvantaged.
  • Minimisation of the role of Government - policies should wherever possible, be implemented through public acceptability or the market rather than by regulation.
  • Efficiency - that measures should maximise the benefits to society with minimum adverse impact and should be technically feasible.
  • Sustainable - policy measures should be in broad harmony with the principles of sustainable development.
  • Individual - freedom-to ensure freedom to travel is reconciled with freedom to enjoy safety, health and quality of life.

As far as infrastructure is concerned the policies discussed by the Institution and other parties, and possibly expanded upon by the previous speakers can be grouped under a series of headings:

  1. Adjustments in cost
  2. The provision of alternatives to the car
  3. Management and restraint
  4. Investment in transport infrastructure
  5. Education to change attitudes

At their heart is the problem that the western world’s current consumption of energy is excessive. The developing world is adding to the demand and it is recognised that in order to create some equality we must reduce our consumption. The result of this consumption is threatening our social well-being and our environment. Projections for continuing growth highlight the need for urgent action. We need to achieve a reduction of 50-60% of our current use of fossil fuels by the year 2020.

AESR: Population and energy demand per person for different regions.

Current proposals for dealing with this problem, as far as infrastructure is concerned, are broad ranging yet fail to demonstrate how we can achieve the reduction needed.

The measures proposed focus on increasing car tax according to the car’s efficiency; the restriction and taxing of parking both at destinations and at homes; traffic calming and speed reductions. Top of the list is the notion that fuel pricing can be used to effect a change: effectively a carbon tax.

Fuel pricing is a blunt instrument for achieving traffic reduction: neither socially equitable nor proven. The fuel crisis of the mid 1970s demonstrated that the use of vehicles is marginally affected byprice. For every 10% rise in fuel price, there is only a corresponding short term decrease in car usage of between 1 to 2%. All the current measures are short term.

All serve to illustrate Sir Jack Zunz’s sense that something is missing. The title of this paper - ‘The first steps’ recognises these problems and attempts to move the debate on to more radical means of achieving our ambitions.

The purpose of The Edge is to address national issues on which the civil engineering and architectural professions can fruitfully collaborate to influence public policy for national good, with the three Edge debates of 1997 taking sustainability and sustainable development as their themes.

However, today I’m not going to talk about how we engineers and architects can work at an urban level to resolve the problems of transport in towns. Much work is in hand; the tide is turning in favour of public transport, which will no doubt be followed through by the new government. I’m certainly not going to promote the good work of our Chairman’s College in proposing road tunnels beneath London with underground car parks above them as a Solution to urban transport. These sorts of proposals demonstrate the civil engineer’s vested interest in construction and an heroic faith in technology!

We are here to discuss how we can influence public policy. If we are to be serious about Agenda 21, we must work backwards from the date 2020 and plan how we are to achieve what is effectively a phenomenal change in behaviour. The last 18 years have demonstrated how much the behaviour of a nation can be changed, for good or bad, by public policy. We are talking about the next 23 years. We are talking of a long term plan: not just little things like sleeping policemen to slow down traffic but changing the nature of the traffic altogether.

It’s not simply a case of everybody abandoning their gas guzzling cars and replacing them with more efficient equivalents but about people using cars significantly less.

It’s not about switching our source of energy from fossil fuels to renewables, but about using significantly less energy.

This reduction is the issue. We know that a nation could legislate against the use of private vehicles or attempt to tax them out of existence but as a believer in a free country, I can appreciate the reaction to such proposals. Furthermore, such legislation is undesirable in that it forces behaviour patterns onto the population rather than encouraging them to develop the choices of their own free will.

By way of illustration, let me point out how little legislation there is in this country regarding smoking. However, a body of public opinion has developed to the point where collectively we behave responsibly, despite a powerful lobby from the tobacco companies. It would be interesting to establish the effect that pricing has had in this. I believe it played only a small part in achieving a major change in social behaviour, which, from a historical point of view, has been achieved relatively quickly. The other reason not to encourage a tax on fuel is that a government may become dependent on this for revenue and consequently regard the issue of economy with some ambivalence.

For us to achieve economy in the use of energy and with that the generation of pollution (though the two are not absolutely linked), we have to develop awareness about how we use energy. This is the egg that comes before the chicken. Without an enhanced public awareness, all the measures that will relieve the urban problem, such as wider use of public transport and the promotion of walking and cycling, might simply be viewed as the products of a narrow minded society that believes we will achieve the answers simply by providing the alternatives. This in not to say that these measures are not necessary but that they are not sufficient to make the difference.

As I have said, we are talking about a long term energy strategy. A strategy that aims to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel energy to 40% of that which we currently use. This encompasses the embodied energy in construction, the energy we use in the maintenance of our environment and the energy we use in transport. We know what we can do about the use of energy in buildings and some fundamental experiments are underway which point towards major savings in this area. We cannot build without using energy and clearly expect, as was debated previously, a continuing consumption in this area.

As far as transport is concerned, we will need to demonstrate the benefits of saving energy to the public. In the short term, some of the work on public transport will need to be coupled with restrictions on the use of motor cars. A simple piece of legislation would be a rating of car parking spaces in cities such that there would be an incentive for removing them.

However, returning to long term behaviour, I wish to promote a radical concept that has for its basis the projected use of energy in 2020. A concept based on our use of fossil fuels that rewards responsible behaviour.

Initially this could be purely personal but would undoubtedly become compulsory.

My proposal is that people should be able to monitor the carbon content of their energy consumption both in terms of travel and in their use of energy at home. The notion of carbon being a measure is important. Energy has many sources, with fossil fuels clearly the target for economy but with the carbon content of other sources also needing to be quantified. Clearly wind power comes with an almost zero carbon content but nuclear energy, due to the embodied energy in the construction and management of nuclear power stations and nuclear fuel, has its own penalty. For engineers, it is perfectly logical to calculate the carbon content of fuels and production such that their relative value can be appreciated.

For an initial period of five years, individuals should monitor their own use of carbon through a carbon card. This would be similar to your Tesco Club Card, and would allow people to appreciate the amounts of carbon that they use. Counting carbon would be a matter of life style - just like counting calories! Not everybody would be interested but with time and social pressure, it would become second nature. Remember the analogy with smoking. We are talking about something which should have a similar social stigma: the unnecessary use of cars, whether to school, the shops, or to work or to the cottage in the country. A major change in behaviour is required.

There is another side to this carbon card which has the same benefit as the Tesco card. Big brother can watch you. Tesco’s market research has been immeasurably improved by its understanding of its individual customers. Through a carbon card, we can establish a better understanding of carbon use. Just to measure its consumption, even across a population of only 10% would be useful, even if these people were the ones who believed they were responsible users. Users would receive monthly returns, collating their overall use of carbon in terms of their use of electricity, gas and petrol. This initial voluntary period would be used to establish reasonable estimates of carbon consumption across a spectrum of society, including businesses and commercial road users including taxis. In terms of electricity, people could elect to choose the source of their power, thereby limiting their carbon consumption.

But how are we to achieve the targets set for 2020? Clearly in a free society, we cannot expect everybody to behave responsibly. There are still people who smoke on trains and a test case is going to the House of Lords. So we will not necessarily be able to achieve a change in behaviour by simply asking people to count their carbon. Something more radical will be necessary.

Imagine in 2020 we are using our target amount of energy. How will we pay for it? How can we reward people whose lifestyles are benign and still allow others the luxury of free choice? If we imagine the use of carbon being finite, then it is possible to imagine every citizen having an allowance. Not necessarily an equal amount, as needs will dictate that on a nation-wide basis, some people would require a greater allowance than others. For example, people living in the country possibly would have further to travel and less access to public transport than those in towns. However, everybody could have an allowance and choose whether and how to use it.

Initially, I believe, we would start by making people aware of how much they were using. But as time passed, the allowance would become a quota, with a diminishing total in circulation as time progresses towards the 2020 target. The reward would be a form of reverse taxation. Those not using their quota would sell to those wishing to use more than their quota.

They would receive a financial return, rewarding their choice of lifestyle. In essence, a market would be set up whereby the value of unused quotas was established through trading. Individuals not using their quotas would receive a cheque with their quarterly statement.

Such a person might live in a large, energy efficient household, and not use a car at all and use their rebate to subsidise their use of public transport. Those using more than their quota, would when purchasing their energy, have to buy the additional quota. This would put up the price of energy bought over and above ones quota but also enhance the value of low carbon energy. The price of the unused quotas could be determined by supply and demand with a potential futures market developing. This would be the means by which one could realistically justify investment in energy saving devices.

Imagine you were considering investing in solar power. You could justify your decision against the projected value of the carbon quota you would save, and possibly you could pay for the system by selling your “futures”. On a larger scale, commodity companies could plan the long term investment in systems such as Nuclear Fusion, on the basis of its project value, not on the basis of extrapolating current inflation in the fuel price. Naturally values into the future may change, as exchange rates do, and this would depend on the value and success of the rival alternatives.

It would be OK to save up your unused quota for the summer holiday or, possibly, save it up for your retirement : it may make a good investment.

We are talking of an idea on The Edge of credibility - possibly as marginal as the idea of roads under London - but both are necessary to move the discussion on.

Any other time but now, it would have been impossible. But today, with the credit card network linked throughout the country, the idea only requires a central database: something not much larger than the system running the national lottery.

Let’s evaluate this proposal against the criteria established by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution:

  • Universality - It does acknowledge the diverse needs of society as a whole.
  • Social equity - Unlike a fuel tax,it would not unduly or disproportionally disadvantage any section of society. Research would establish the types of allowances required.
  • Minimisation of role of government - While possibly requiring legislation to enforce its use, the system could otherwise be managed by the producers and the market. Initially it would be promoted as a voluntary exercise with the support of the power companies and government.
  • Efficiency- Possibly it is technically feasible to set up and manage.
  • Sustainable- Governments can set the targets on an annual basis much as they have just set the Bank of England’s inflation targets.

Individual freedom -It allows choice and encourages economy.

People may now be wondering whether on earth this will work. In discussing it with colleagues, I learned about the Sulphur Dioxide Futures Commodities Market, set up by the Chicago Board of Trade. In California the 1990 Clean Air Act requires that polluters progressively reduce their sulphur dioxide emissions. Allowances are given to producers that reduce over the years, with a proportion held back for sale to those exceeding their quota.

A futures market has been established as a result, by which companies can now value engineer - the costs of mitigation. Those companies coming in under their targets are able to sell their unused allowances on the market.

Agenda 21 focuses on the need for people participation. It is inappropriate in the timescale to look to future generations or place undue reliance on scientists and engineers inventing a solution. Government clearly wants a lead from the community. This proposal is devised to stimulate discussion. We engineers and architects are at the heart of this debate and have a responsibility to lead the discussion and formulate the solutions.

I’m already looking forward to the next election and imagining various parties debating their carbon targets.

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