A New Green Shovel? Options for the transport stimulus package

09 June, 2020

Reading time: 8 minutes

As we begin the difficult transition out of lockdown, attention is already turning to what kind of stimulus package will be required to ‘reboot’ the economy. It will not be long before lists of ‘shovel ready’ schemes will be asked for by Treasury. Every lobby group worth its salt will be finalising its shopping list. What then for the transport sector?

As we begin the difficult transition out of lockdown, attention is already turning to what kind of stimulus package will be required to ‘reboot’ the economy. It will not be long before lists of ‘shovel ready’ schemes will be asked for by Treasury. Every lobby group worth its salt will be finalising its shopping list. What then for the transport sector?

There are four realities that we think define the critical choices ahead of government:

  1. The carbon emissions reduction trajectories for transport required to meet Net Zero would have been unachievable with the pathway being followed at the start of 2020. The scale and rate of emissions reductions required early in the carbon budget period required levels of demand reduction and mode shift on a scale no-one had a plan for. Given the scale of change we have already seen in travel behaviour, this is THE time to make a major one-off adjustment to the pathway;
  2. If stimulus spending is to deliver its aims, then it needs to be spent on ‘no regrets’ investments – those that we know we will need whatever the post-coronavirus restrictions mobility environment looks like;
  3. There is massive, indeed wholly unprecedented, uncertainty about future demand. The scale and nature of the recession, the timing and efficacy of a vaccine, the public willingness to return to public transport, the future appetite for working in offices in city centres, accelerated moves to online retail… What future would government be trying to stimulate demand for?
  4. People have experienced much better air quality, quieter streets, safer roads for cycling. It is now undeniable that different policy choices are available.

There are five sets of investment options which will define whether our shovel ready schemes are genuinely transformative and green or simply dig us into a bigger hole.

Making sure new transport options focus on: 1. Maintain what we have better 2. Be zero-emission ready 3. Invest to travel less 4. Reengineer our cities for people 5. Fund better housing development


1. Maintain what we have better

Arguments to expand roads as a stimulus measure are flawed. As well as the generic narrative that “road investment = growth” we have already heard arguments advanced that road expansion could be necessary if people switch from public transport or that this will be necessary to accommodate the growth in traffic from Electric Vehicles which are cheaper to drive.

Both strategies fail the first test by supporting a growth in car traffic at a time when vehicles are not zero emission, when growth in traffic is not inevitable and reduced demand for travel overall is what is needed.

Instead, if road investment is a priority then it should be spent on addressing the estimated £11bn backlog in local road maintenance. This is quick to deliver, labour intensive and should support the delivery of a major programme of active travel investments which has already been initiated by national governments.

We should take the opportunity to combine intensive maintenance with roadspace reallocation projects at scale: one lesson not to be lost from the current crisis is that many of the ‘key workers’ we rely on – and who are usually lost in the wider debate on transport – are poorly paid and rely on non-car based options.

2. Be zero-emission ready

Whatever mix of modes there are on the roads, they will all have to be zero emission. There is only limited benefit in accelerating the deployment of charge point infrastructure when the number of electric vehicles is so low. Scrappage schemes for cars are generally found (and known) to be poorly targeted and bad value for money.

Investments that would be ‘no-regrets’ include:

  • A strategic programme of upgrading grid and sub-stations to be capable of accommodating planned EV charging requirements, including in more rural and touristic areas;
  • A major e-bike grant purchase subsidy given their potential to compete with the car over distances of up to 15 miles;
  • Investment in R&D and deployment trials for clean hydrogen given the particular challenges of finding zero emission pathways for freight and maritime.

3. Invest to travel less

It seems hard to imagine businesses wanting to go back to working the way they did previously. We need many more people who can travel to work fewer days per week to keep doing so permanently. Supporting remote working is an obvious ‘no-regrets’ option and can be achieved through a major investment in high speed broadband and 5G, especially in areas not well served at present.

Such investments also serve to facilitate smart charging of EVs and the data backbone for future ‘Mobility as a Service’ offers. At the same time, accelerated investment in home energy efficiency, insulation and decarbonised heating systems will be required to ensure working from home is carbon beneficial in the round. Again, these kinds of schemes are labour intensive, offering thousands of skilled jobs.

4. Reengineer our cities for people

The pandemic has publicly revealed that there is considerable suppressed demand for walking and cycling in safe conditions, which many people have campaigned for over the years. With public transport capacity limited for the foreseeable future, and local high streets under immense pressure from the shift to online shopping, there is an urgent need to make these the modes of choice for as many people as possible.

This is not optional: even with reduced office working, our cities will grind to a heavily polluted halt if the shortfall in public transport capacity is accommodated by increased car travel.

In addition to the large-scale roadspace reallocation in towns and cities to walking, cycling and buses, which could be delivered in tandem with the road maintenance plan, we suggest:

  • A major expansion of regional routes and the inter-urban National Cycle Network to make it e-bike ready;
  • Funding for docked or hybrid bike share schemes, with shared e-bikes given priority in outer city areas, market towns and National Parks;
  • Funding for urban e-cargo micro consolidation points (e-cargo bikes and electric vans). This tackles the rising volumes of urban freight and the difficulties that reallocating roadspace away from freight generates.

5. Fund better housing development

Too many car dependent developments are still being built, so new ways of delivering more sustainable new housing are urgently needed. The market has failed to deliver these despite years of policy advice and guidance, and so the time has come for governments to invest in high quality public transport and active travel networks in advance of land release in order to unlock better sites for development.

We also see major challenges for town and city centres with a loss of retail and potentially office development. Providing funds and powers to support rapid re-designation and renewal of the existing building stock in what are some of our most accessible spaces would generate housing supply in less car dependent places, reduce the future pressure on public transport networks and – crucially – help sustain and reinvigorate the economic activities that remain in these locations.

Final reflections

To use the well-known phrase, the reopening of the economy after lockdown is not ‘the beginning of the end’ of the changes in how we travel around, but rather it is – or needs to be – the ‘end of the beginning’ of a whole set of radical policy shifts in how we use mobility to support the economy and society.

There are a raft of policy interventions (including different revenue structures such as public transport fares reform and road pricing) that we know would embed the positive changes that have become visible during the lockdown. Assuming some kind of viable vaccine and/or effective treatments emerge, the challenge of making the public transport system fit for purpose will remain front and centre for years to come. There are also things which should be undone, such as the ring-fencing of Vehicle Excise Duty for Highways England’s spending on road capacity increases.

There are major challenges to developing a coherent policy programme, not least the chorus of ‘Get Britain Moving Again’ voices that gets louder every day. At least half of the ‘no regrets’ green transport stimulus measures we outline above are not for the Department for Transport and its devolved equivalents to deliver. It is more important than ever to realise that effective transport planning is about ensuring the right outcomes rather than grabbing funds for things we do not need. This is not the time to be digging expensive holes for ourselves.

About the authors

  • Greg Marsden is Professor of Transport Governance at the University of Leeds and Director of the DecarboN8 Network.
  • Jillian Anable is Professor of Transport and Energy at the University of Leeds and is the mobility theme leader at CREDS.
  • Iain Docherty is Dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Stirling and infrastructure theme leader for the Productivity Insights Network.

Banner photo credit: Frank Chou on Unsplash

You may also be interested in…

Street in Oxford. Photo by Tim Bechervaise on Unsplash

Recovery from the Coronovirus Crisis: Opportunity or threat to low carbon transport policy?

This blog challenges the simple narrative of opportunity to low carbon transport policy presented by the Coronavirus Crisis by reflecting on other past ‘opportunities’ which have been squandered or, worse still, have been used to bake in higher carbon policies.

Aerial view of a roundabout and traffic via Shutterstock

Building tools to make transport research cheaper and easier

CREDS researcher, Malcolm Morgan, explores building tools to make transport research cheaper and easier.

Airport, photo by Tomas Williams on Unsplash

Why supporting tourism doesn’t mean supporting airport expansion

Sally Cairns and Jillian Anable reflect on a Westminster Media Forum policy conference on UK tourism, and the introduction to the next Commission on Travel Demand inquiry.