Train in station

As a society, we’ve become heavily reliant on using our cars. Yet with the correct facilities and structure in place, improvements can be made to our public transport connections and allow for an easier, more eco-friendly way of travelling.

UnSUBURBIA has investigated the impact cars are having on our city centres and how wise investments in public transport facilities can enable a move towards a car-free society.

Are cars killing our city centres?

For some, driving into the city centre is a necessity, be it for work or leisure. However, the emissions caused by these vehicles are having a profound impact on the environment around us, damaging both our health and the planet.

Research suggests that in the heart of London, one of the busiest areas for road traffic, each car costs the NHS and society £8,000 due to air pollution over its lifetime. On a country-wide scale, health costs from air pollution that could be attributed to a typical UK car over its 14-year lifetime amount to £1,640, while a van costs £5,107 over its nine years on the road. The financial implications caused by the road traffic purely from a pollution standpoint alone is staggering.

The health damage caused by emissions by diesel cars is said to be five times more dangerous than in petrol cars and 20 times higher than electric cars, according to studies. Worryingly, air pollution is linked to about 40,000 premature deaths each year in the UK.

This damage in the city centres, however, is avoidable. Our city roads can become uncongested through having the right public transportation infrastructure in place to meet both needs and demand. For the sake of our own health, we must seek an alternative to win the battle against city centre congestion and pollution.

Negative connotations surrounding public transport

But to promote a move away from cars to using public transport, a change in mentality towards it is needed. One of the biggest issues with the UK’s public transport systems is the delays – something which has tarnished the reputation of many services and operators within the rail industry.

Recent figures revealed that in 2018, rail passengers lost an estimated four million hours (the equivalent of 23,809 weeks, or 457 years) due to trains being delayed. Around 80 trains a day were faced significant delays in 2018, affecting eight million passengers for an average time of 29 minutes, according to a report by consumer group Which?.

Manchester Oxford Road was the worst performing train station in the country, with 68 per cent of rail services delayed and five per cent being cancelled all together.

Passengers are able to claim compensation back on delayed services, but this isn’t the point. We want our railways to run on time and without any hassle, allowing us to go about our commute with ease and efficiency.

Outdated facilities are a point of concern for some commuters too. How would you rather get to work: in the comfort of your own car, or be squashed in onto train carriage from the 1980s? Some of the trains themselves just don’t cut the mustard for modern-day commuters and can create a negative mindset around the idea of catching a train over driving.

It’s a vicious circle which can only be broken through improving the facilities and services associated with public transport.

Investment to aid improvements

To make our rail networks more efficient, more investment is needed in the right places. This, in return, can make the train seem a better option and begin the move away from a car-crazed society. If you make the services better, the commuters will come.

In the financial year 2017-18, £20.8bn was invested into the running and up-keep of the UK’s rail service. This isn’t just pocket change – vast sums of money are being pumped into the railways to maintain and improve services. And although this investment went up year-on-year, the passenger numbers and income from tickets both dropped, highlighting how there isn’t a correlation between an increase in revenues and an increase in investment.

Summer timetables are helping improve the rail connections, adding 1,000 new services each week to timetables to help meet demand and improve the quality and efficiency of the rail network. The investment in adding these new services can help reduce the number of cars heading into our cities, as commuters can have more faith in the reliability of the train services.

Carriage quality is also a huge area of investment for rail companies. Northern recently announced it was spending £500m to improve the standard of its carriages across the north of England. Having these modernised fleets will only make taking the train seem a more lucrative option.

LNER has also begun to roll out its Japanese-designed, British-built Azuma models, with the 65 new trains replacing the old fleet of 45, providing over 12,000 more seats across its timetable between Leeds and London King’s Cross.

The highly-controversial HS2 high-speed train further highlights the government’s commitment to improving the UK’s rail connections, with an estimated £57bn being invested into the project. However, many argue that the money being used for HS2 would be more wisely spent elsewhere.

Could we achieve a ‘car-free’ society?

The ideology of our towns and cities being car-free may seem slightly far-fetched, however initiatives around the world are already in place to work towards implementing this on a much larger basis.

Helsinki, Finland, is one of the leaders in trying to rid cars from its city centre. The Finnish capital is aiming to make cars obsolete within its limits by 2025 – not by banning cars altogether though, but instead through improving and enhancing its public transportation service to such a level that locals don’t need to drive.

On the outskirts of Freiburg, Germany, the neighbourhood of Vauban has taken a novel approach to promoting a car-free society, by having “stellplatzfrei” – which literally translates to “free from parking spaces”. Due to there being no places to park, 70 per cent of residents don’t own a car and 57 per cent sold a car to move there. Here, the locals have to be reliant on public transport for longer journeys.

Major cities such as Madrid and Brussels have also taken steps to keep cars out the city centre. The Spanish capital implemented blanket bans on non-resident cars driving in the centre, whilst only emergency and delivery vehicles will be allowed in certain areas of Brussels city centre, called Le Piétonnier.

In Leeds, a new approach has been taken to mixed-use developments to improve the quality of public transport links and promote the idea of residents and commuters going car free. A brand-new train station has been built at Kirkstall Forge, giving those who will live or work there fast, efficient connections to the nearby city centres – you can be in Leeds in just six minutes, whilst Bradford can be reached in under 20 minutes. With services running every 30 minutes, which increases during peak times, it gives commuters the perfect way to get from A to B without needing to use a car. The need for a car here is almost obsolete.

Being on track for a cleaner future

With smart investments, the future of public transport is one which will prosper. And as society sees that the effort is going in to improve facilities and efficiencies, it will buy back into the ideology of choosing public transportation over taking their cars and relieve our cities from being clogged with vehicles and pollution.