1. Transport
December 11, 2019

Could “20-minute neighbourhoods” help get us to a zero-carbon future?

By Daniel Gillett

The Sustrans manifesto. 

This year has brought a number of unique weather events to the UK: the highest temperature ever recorded, unprecedented flooding, and the prospect of a sub-zero general election. And while we might struggle to lay the blame for hiking to the polling station in crampons at the feet of climate change, our sweltering summers and increasingly unpredictable seasons are the result of greenhouse gases generated by human activity. 

We know that transport is the single largest contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions. This is hardly surprising: 68 pe rcent of all commuting trips are made by car, while even in London half of all car trips are under two miles, a distance which could be cycled in 12 minutes or walked in 40.

As climate concerns rise, solutions for reducing our transport emissions are proliferating. Given our fondness for new tech and our reluctance to change our habits, these are typically geared towards providing an engineered means for us to maintain our routines while reducing our carbon footprint – electric vehicles (EVs) being the prime example.

However, the continued use of EVs is unlikely to result in a low-emissions transport system due to their manufacturing process. A recent inquiry into decarbonisation by the Science and Technology found that:

“In the long-term, widespread personal low-emissions vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation…this should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required, for example by encouraging and supporting increased levels of walking and cycling.”

 That’s why Sustrans’ Manifesto for UK Government calls for the next government to commit to creating neighbourhoods where people live within a 20 minute walk, or roughly a five minute cycle, of their everyday services and needs.

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The design and location of where people live has a large influence on where they travel, either locking people into car dependency or making it easy for them to travel by foot, cycle or public transport.

In the UK, too many new neighbourhoods have been planned around car travel, at the expense of providing the local jobs and services that communities need to thrive. People with cars are reliant on driving to pick up a pint of milk, and those without cars are left with poor access to everyday items and services.

As the UK population continues to rise, it is critical that we stop building isolated estates, and instead build neighbourhoods where people can quickly and safely walk or cycle to work and for their everyday needs.

  • To help policy makers create 20-minute neighbourhoods, our manifesto recommends four specific actions for the next UK government:
  • Update the National Planning Policy Framework to incorporate 20-minute neighbourhoods as a central principle, where dense, mixed use developments are integrated with public transport;
  • Help local authorities more easily unlock sites for 20-minute neighbourhoods.
  • Develop new planning practice guidance to ensure that new developments must embed walking and cycling provision;
  • Complement the Transforming Cities Fund by introducing a Transforming Places Fund to support 20-minute neighbourhoods in smaller cities and towns.

As humans, old habits die hard. But ours are beginning to threaten the stability of our communities, natural environment and economy.

By  adopting the 20-minute neighbourhood principle we can begin to move towards a zero-carbon transport system, clean up pollution and create better places for people to live all at the same time. 

Daniel Gillett is a policy officer at transport charity Sustrans.


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