Facilitating more sustainable travel behaviour: Innovative solutions at a time of scarce funds

Twenty years ago, three English towns - Darlington, Peterborough and Worcester – jointly received £10 million from the Department of Transport (DfT) to implement large-scale ‘smarter choice’ programmes.

The programmes, which included a range of initiatives to encourage the use of non-car options and to discourage single-occupancy vehicle use, included development of a strong brand identity, travel awareness campaigns, promotion of active travel and public transport, and large-scale work for individual, school and workplace travel planning. 

The programmes were a rousing success. Overall, in the three towns there was a reduction in total traffic levels of 2%, together with a reduction of 7-10% in the number of car driver trips per residentMoreover, a cost-benefit analysis undertaken on a relatively conservative basis and considering congestion benefits only, produced an excellent BCR of 4.5:1.

The response from the DfT was positive and funds were allocated for similar projects via the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF), which included specially trained staff for project delivery and workplace and school travel plan coordination. 

The LSTF has long since been abandoned and today funds for such initiatives in the UK are scarce. Conversely, there is now an even greater need for these programmes and the specialist skills of those staff. New app-based and other digital engagement solutions could help to extend the reach and impact of the more traditional engagement tools. Now is the time for creative thinking (including leveraging funds from the private sector) to implement them. 

Motivations for sustainable travel 

In the last decade increased climate consciousness in the public and policy focus from central and local government has led many organisations to set their own Net Zero targets. As part of reaching these goals organisations are assessing the commuter behaviour of their employees and visitors (which fall into their ‘scope 3’ emissions) and finding ways to encourage them out of single-occupancy vehicles. 

Concurrently the development planning process requires developers and occupiers to submit travel plans to demonstrate how they will manage the additional traffic generated by that development.  Those requirements are often more stringent than they were 20 years ago, and monitoring fees can be collected.

Electric vehicles have arrived in force and provide a very effective new way to help decarbonise transport and improve the air quality in our urban areas, but they don’t help address congestion. Drivers of electric vehicles still get frustrated when they sit in traffic, and many still want to use public transport, or cycle when it is quicker, safer and easier to do so.

The Solutions are at our fingertips

The motivation for more sustainable travel behaviour is clear for both business and individuals, but what levers do we have to help multi-option travel planning on a personal, organisational and even institutional level? 

Here there is undoubtedly a critical role for local government.  A skilled and experienced Sustainable Transport Officer in more boroughs and local transport authorities could ensure that the effort of individual business, as well as those working to discharge planning obligations, amounts to more than the sum of its parts. 

Sustainable Transport Officers could bring organisations together to share best practice, as well as provide guidance to make it easier for businesses (who don’t usually have a transport planner on their staff) to reduce employee car trips. They could also assimilate travel data collected by local businesses to inform better local transport provision, which could lead to improved bus routings or better-timed services. 

In some places, where there are large multi-year developments, this role could potentially be funded by Section 106 funds. S106 obligations are negotiated between the council and developer to mitigate the impact of a development and ‘secured’ through planning agreements. Authorities can charge a monitoring fee through section 106 planning obligations, to cover the cost of monitoring and reporting on delivery of that section 106 obligation.

Or the role could be funded by those officers charging businesses and other organisations for their time and advice – ensuring consistent and efficient approaches to understanding existing conditions (including travel surveys) across a given geographic area.

Some authorities do of course have Sustainable Transport officers (or similar) in place, but my view is that there are not enough! 

Learning lessons from elsewhere

Looking outside of the UK, funding to facilitate sustainable travel programmes seems much easier.  In the United States where I worked for six years until 2020, behaviour change – or Transportation Demand Management (TDM) - is much better funded at the national and local level. 

The Federal Carbon Reduction program provides $6.4 billion in formula funding for states to develop carbon reduction strategies including projects designed to reduce transportation emissions.  Eligible projects include “a project or strategy designed to support congestion pricing, shifting transportation demand to nonpeak hours or other transportation modes, increasing vehicle occupancy rates, or otherwise reducing demand for roads, including electronic toll collection, and travel demand management strategies and programs.”

In 2016, on the same ballot paper where the residents of Los Angeles County voted for the candidate they wanted to see as the next President of the United States, they were also asked if they supported a new one-half cent sales tax that would fund 40 major highway and transit projects over the years to come – nearly 70% of voters said yes! In an era of ever-increasing devolution could local governments in places like Manchester and Birmingham enable such a vote? 


To hear more about behaviour change, TDM and lessons learned on both sides of the Atlantic listen to our latest Voices of the Industry podcast episode 'Unlocking TDM: Lessons learned from both sides of the Atlantic' now.


Get our latest news and opinions

We are Steer

Yes, you are in the right place. After 40 years, we have changed our name from Steer Davies Gleave to mark our growing international footprint and our expanding portfolio into sectors beyond transport.

Explore our new website to learn more about Steer: who we are, how we work and what our future holds.