Transport Decarbonisation – How the UK can lead to a brighter future

Transport decarbonisation is an opportunity for the UK to lead the world into a brighter future. A future where we are no longer needlessly adding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. A future where vehicles no longer emit poisonous gases, leading to poor air quality.

But it is also a huge challenge. We need to fundamentally change much of our technology, regulations, working practices, user behaviour and supply chains. It can feel daunting and overwhelming. So how do we tackle it?

In our view, two complementary approaches must be undertaken in parallel. We have labelled these approaches ‘system efficiency initiatives’ and ‘vehicle technology initiatives’, as follows:

The two approaches are described in more detail as follows.

System Efficiency

Reduce Travel Demand / Encourage Shorter Journeys

Reducing the need to travel, or reducing the need to travel as far, is a quick win in terms of reducing the negative impacts of transport on the environment. Working from home and holidaying in the UK are two trends that were forced on many by the pandemic. The question is whether these trends will continue as the world recovers from COVID and whether people can be encouraged to travel less to reduce their carbon footprint compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Further investment in initiatives such as Urban Consolidation Centres (UCCs) could help deliver goods to people more efficiently and intelligently at a system level. Here at Connected Places Catapult has investigated UCCs in detail in the past, as described in this report for the Department of Transport (DfT).

Mode Shift

Mode shift away from more polluting modes of travel is an important part of the transport decarbonisation jigsaw puzzle. Shifting travellers from private cars to walking, cycling and public transport has long been encouraged by transport planners as a means of mitigating against traffic congestion. Walking and cycling also represent the most environmentally friendly methods of travelling as well as providing health and wellbeing benefits. With the publication of Gear Change, the UK Government is recognising this opportunity and has committed to the provision of far better cycling infrastructure than we’ve seen to date, but it is questionable as to whether it is enough. Perhaps we need to be bolder, invest more and create a far more comprehensive network of segregated routes for cyclists. On urban streets where there is insufficient space for cycle paths, we could think about one-way roads or preventing through traffic. At junctions, we could give pedestrians and cyclists clear priority over motorised traffic. Such measures may also be vital to facilitate the growing number of e-scooters on our roads.

Connected Places Catapult recently held the Active Travel Summit to develop an ambitious, coordinated and directed active travel programme that will help grow the UK active travel market and drive jobs, enterprise, innovation, investment, and trade opportunities in this area.

For freight, more can be done to switch from truck to rail or other modes, as well as continued innovation in new and exciting new ideas, such as underground delivery. Instead of using vans for last-mile deliveries, they may be feasible by bicycle courier or cargo bike, which again, would benefit from proper cycle infrastructure.

Vehicle Technology

The second approach is to improve technology to create better zero-emission options. Connected Places Catapult developed a four-step plan, which can be used to address emissions from any mode of transport:

Step 1: Define end-state options

The first step is to define the scope and use cases, and to gather data on all the technologies, fuels, and use cases of interest. The output of this step will be a matrix of technology and use case combinations, identifying which are the most promising combinations for the future. For example, for heavy goods vehicles, options might include hydrogen fuel cells or direct electrification through overhead catenary wires.

Step 2: Explore requirements for transition

This step involves articulating the transition that would need to take place for a certain technology/fuel/use case combination to be widely deployed. The first part of this is to ensure that there is clarity of understanding of what constitutes the endpoint of any transition.  Stakeholder needs are explored, and an assessment is made of where the UK might expect to be on each issue in the future, based on the current state and available forecasts.

Step 3: Identify barriers

The previous step effectively provides a gap analysis, by listing what would be needed for supported commercial deployments to take place, and what might be in place (without additional intervention) by the desired timeframe. This step then identifies the barriers to filling the gaps. Again, stakeholder engagement is required, predominantly with transport operators, to understand needs and perceived barriers.

Step 4: Explore potential interventions

Once barriers have been identified in the previous step, potential activities and interventions to overcome them can be considered. These activities and interventions may be for government or for other parties to address. They can be combined in different ways to create programmes of work (including demonstrations) that will facilitate the transition to zero emission transport.

Case Study: Zero Emission Road Freight Trials

Connected Places Catapult has applied the above approach to long-haul heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). Through stakeholder engagement, it was agreed that the long-term desirable end state for HGVs is an electric power train, with the main three desirable end-state options considered to be hydrogen fuel cells, electric road systems or pure battery-electric technology with fast charging. Our engagement work last year provided stakeholder insights on the barriers to such a solution:

Such analysis helped us build the business case for large-scale trials to address some of the key barriers, such as technology readiness, vehicle and infrastructure availability. This was instrumental in securing the first year of funding to take forward feasibility studies for the trials, as announced in July 2021 by the Department for Transport:, and recently confirmed within the Net Zero strategy:

“Building on the success of our £20 million zero emission road freight trials, we will expand these to trial three zero emission HGV technologies at scale on UK roads to determine their operational benefits, as well as their infrastructure needs.”

Further information on the Zero Emission Road Freight Trials can be found here.

A Universal Approach

We believe such an approach can apply not just to HGVs, but across the transport sector and potentially to other sectors as well. Connected Places Catapult are currently applying the same principles to airport infrastructure as part of our Zero-Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) project, and are keen to continue to work with stakeholders to help accelerate the UK’s transition to zero-emission transport, and to help the UK to lead the world into a brighter and more sustainable future.