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Comment: Harnessing growing eco awareness to drive public transport take-up

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Jonathan Edwards, transport market leader at global professional services company GHD, on how growing environmental consciousness should be used to encourage drivers away from cars.

Jonathan Edwards, transport market leader at GHD

The only certain outcome of the global Covid-19 pandemic is that there will be no returning to the way our world operated before. Consumer habits were changing and environmental consciousness growing long before the pandemic, but the global shutdown forced many of us to reflect further on our behaviours, social values and environmental footprint. This hiatus has put both consumer demand for greener lifestyle choices – and the clean energy transition – into overdrive.

Few sectors have as large a role to play in helping the UK achieve net zero than transport, but our relationship with different modes of transport has changed during the pandemic as we sought to keep ourselves safe. Public transport suffered heavily as a result of the extended lockdowns and restrictions, seeing passenger and revenue levels plummet as people opted not to travel at all or use cars in order to decrease their exposure to the virus. This has understandably left operators focusing predominantly on business continuity, at a time when they also need to be investing in the decarbonisation of their operations.

However, the need is now and the time is right to harness this heightened level of environmental awareness to encourage people to use public transport, such as rail, rather than their cars. A recent GHD survey, which was carried out in early 2021 to gain insight into how changing attitudes and behaviours will shape the way we move in the future, showed that car looks set to remain the most popular mode of transport going forward. However, this is clearly not conducive to helping achieve the Government’s net zero goals.


Travel less than before the pandemic Travel the same amount as before the pandemic Travel more than before the pandemic
Air 36% 29% 9%
Rail 31% 33% 8%
Bus 30% 33% 10%
Car 27% 47% 17%

Building a greener future through transparency

At GHD, we strongly believe that introducing more transparency around rail emissions and more clearly communicating the environmental benefits of mass transit could be a key way of encouraging people to make greener travel choices. While there is helpful data available, such as the Office of Road and Rail’s annual rail emissions statistics for trains in Great Britain, we should be looking to make information like this more accessible and consumer-friendly, and carbon labelling could be an effective way of doing this.

A GHD survey last year found that 81% of UK consumers support the concept to ‘carbon label’ consumer services, particularly on travel tickets, energy bills and water bills, and that 59% would choose lower carbon options if better informed about their overall consumption. 60% of respondents even said they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly services.

It’s clear that there’s a strong appetite among the UK’s population to better understand and improve the impact of their carbon footprint, and we should be looking to facilitate this wherever possible; transport, especially rail, could be a great place to start.

Our survey this year showed that, post-pandemic, green issues will be the highest priority for 14% of people when choosing which goods/services to buy – and we expect this figure will climb sharply going forwards. Therefore, there are clear commercial drivers, as well as sustainability ones, for operators to set the gold standard in emissions transparency.

  • Latest Department for Transport figures have been published quantifying the impact of the pandemic on business travel of all forms. For more details, click here.
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