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Road less travelled: How a 20-minute neighbourhood could reduce emissions

Road less travelled: How a 20-minute neighbourhood could reduce emissions

I don’t own a car. I don’t need one. Almost all my daily needs are met within walking distance of my home – the supermarket, my GP, a local park, the library, bars and restaurants, even a swimming pool. When the Holyrood office opens again, that’s a 40-minute walk or a 10-minute bus ride. Indeed, I only got around to my driving test 18 months ago and since then I’ve rented a car maybe twenty times for journeys further afield.

Leith is the epitome of a 20-minute neighbourhood. That’s the concept that the places we live should meet most of our needs. A key tenet is removing the need to drive, instead ensuring all our essentials are a 20-minute walk or wheel away.

The benefits are threefold: active travel is better for our health; it promotes being part of a community, which boosts wellbeing; and reducing car use also has an important role to play in our climate ambitions.

Transport is the single biggest contributor to Scotland’s emissions, and little has changed over the last three decades. While emissions in other sectors have fallen by approximately 45 per cent since the 1990 baseline, transport emissions have decreased by just 4.9 per cent.

Over two-thirds of transport emissions in 2018 were from road transport, of which over half comes from cars. Cars account for almost 40 per cent of total transport emissions.

For its part, the Scottish Government has committed to almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050. There are plans to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, to ban high-polluting vehicles in designated low emission zones and to increase the charging network for electric vehicles.

But simply decarbonising transport will not be enough. Even if all new cars sold in 2030 are zero-emission vehicles, there will still need to be a reduction in traffic and mileage to ensure global temperature rises do not exceed 2°C.

Daisy Narayanan, director of urbanism at Sustrans, explains: “By shifting into electric, you’re not solving the problems of congestion, you’re not solving the problems of what our streets look like, we’re not going to solve the problems of obesity.

“That’s where we bring it right back into quality of place and quality of life. Transport has to be an enabler of better life and better places. Just by shifting and electrifying private vehicles, it’s not going to bring you the advantages that shift of mode will have.”

But to do this, transport discussions must take place in the context of wider planning decisions. People cannot be expected to abandon their cars if neighbourhoods are built on the presumption of car ownership. Narayanan says: “I think the problem with the conversation around transport has been that it’s been quite siloed, and the economic benefits of transport have been seen in a certain way.

“By using the 20-minute neighbourhood concept and principle as part of transport and planning, it starts to change completely the way we look at how we want to live our lives. We need that shift not just in narrative. We need shift in investment, we need shift in the way projects are delivered, we need shift in the way projects are measured. We need to make sure quality of life and wellbeing are the umbrella under which these things sit.”

The conversation then becomes not just about removing the necessity of car journeys, but also what to do with the space this creates.

A true 20-minute neighbourhood would be a place which is not only liveable in terms of practical needs – such as access to groceries, healthcare and schools – but also a place in which people acitvely want to spend time. This means having community and green spaces such as libraries, allotments and sports facilities.

Community psychologist Professor Carolyn Kagan explains the importance of having these so-called third places: “They’re not home places, they’re not workplaces, they’re other places. A park is a third place, an art centre is a third place, a leisure centre is a third place.

“The importance of them is that they provide a basis for interaction on different terms. A home place you know who’s who and you know how you relate to each other, and the same in a workplace. In a third place you have all sorts of possibilities and opportunities for meeting others and interacting with them and that just leads to a better place as well.”

Kagan emphasises that having a mix of places within a community – rather than the zoned approach typically adopted by town planners – means more people having a stake in making it better. She says: “When you’ve got mixed interests in space, you have a much broader platform of different kinds of concerns about that space, of looking after it, of wanting it to be lovely.”

And by creating communities which people do not need to leave for work, for shopping, for leisure or to access public services, travel becomes a bonus rather than a necessity. It creates more scope for alternatives to private vehicles.

But Narayanan insists the idea is not about being “anti-car”. “If you can walk for a mile [or] cycle for four miles, you are taking away X number of cars from the street, making it easier and creating space for people who need to drive. People who’ve got mobility impairments or disabilities or who need to actually use the road can use it in a far more efficient, better way.”

However, this still requires enough people to leave their cars behind. There is a limit to how much improvements to active and public transport options can cause behavioural change. “That’s a really difficult thing to crack,” Kagan says, “which I think you can only do through restricting car use and making it unpleasant to drive, making it impossible and time-consuming in a local neighbourhood to use your car rather than just walk the ten minutes.”

Narayanan’s experience on the team behind Edinburgh’s city centre transformation project highlights the problem: while consultation revealed residents welcomed the idea of less traffic, proposals to achieve it were controversial. But Edinburgh Council’s try-then-modify approach may be the answer. Enforced measures like closing off city streets at weekends were trialed. Narayanan says this has “given people a sense of what could be” and increased support.

However, there remains a question around how much of Scotland could benefit from the 20-minute neighbourhood concept, given small populations in some regions means it might not be viable to have the essential facilities within easy reach.

Narayanan explains this is being considered by communities across the country now, but she believes the idea provides a structure through which decisions can be taken. She says: “What the 20-minute neighbourhood does is give us that framework for planning and transport. It’s about everybody who needs to be around the table to discuss what a place should be like, what a neighbourhood should be like, coming within this framework and having the discussion.”

Others are sceptical of these efforts. Director of the Scottish Community Alliance Angus Hardie argues a change to local governance is vital if a place-based approach is to be delivered. He says: “There is a danger it’s a very neat soundbite that everyone can sign up to. In a sense it’s very consistent with the mood of the moment, which is everyone has kind of fallen back in love with community because of how communities have stepped up around COVID.”

It is true that the coronavirus pandemic has opened up thinking about staying local, working from home and holding onto gains made in active travel. But ultimately, we need to tackle our over-reliance on cars long term. Reducing the need to travel by creating liveable places is a good option. How to get there is another matter. 

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