Flying: more or less

I just got back from America. We had a great time seeing dozens of family and friends. Yet, every time I fly, I feel a pang of guilt. Well, pang might be overstating it, but definitely a twinge.

After all, a major part of my professional life is advocating for sustainable transport and taking action to increase travel options that are friendlier to the environment and society. I tend to practice what I preach as well. I have commuted by bicycle, by train, and now mainly work from home. I walk my daughter to school and my groceries home from the shops. There are many benefits to making such choices, but I would not shirk from saying that reducing my carbon footprint is one of those benefits. I have learned about and believed in climate change for decades.

Yet I continue to fly. Regularly. As do many others. And although I feel a twinge of guilt, I wouldn’t want to see air travel severely restricted, even as I want to see the nations and cities of the world come together to fight climate change. In fact, if flight was restricted, wouldn’t the coming together of nations for whatever purpose be restricted as well?

So what place does flight have in the future of movement? Is the recent trend of more flights to more places carrying more passengers set to continue? Or will it come to an abrupt halt in our lifetimes?

Many argue for the importance of air travel on economic grounds, but only 19% of airplane passengers are travelling for business.

Yet flying for tourism, cultural exchange, exploration, international experience and involvement is not bereft of value either, not least economic value. Even if that value accrues to other countries more than my own.

And I would argue that flying for family has inestimable value to the positive development of our world civilisation. I previously suggested ( that leisure travel to visit family rather than for pure tourism likely accounts for a greater percentage of air passengers than commonly considered. Over 8 million people or 13% of the resident population of the UK in 2014 were born elsewhere. It would be fair to assume that a large number of these people, whether UK citizens or not, have family outside the country to visit, perhaps regularly, even if they can’t all boast of the numbers I saw this trip.

So flight must have a future. But perhaps its future requires more endeavour to remove those twinges of guilt.

The car is accelerating towards new technologies much faster than the airplane, but there is some progress to report. A solar airplane has flown over halfway round the world and is soon to complete the rest of its journey; Solar power is gaining traction in other areas of the sector as well.

Meanwhile, NASA and commercial aircraft manufacturers are reported to be researching the future of supersonic air travel, with the aim of not only economic viability, but less emissions too:

Trends in other forms of transport are emphasising the sharing economy and utilisation of idle capacity. With more cooperation between nations, cities and airlines, I am certain that air travel too could become more efficient. Whenever I read about the debate around hub airports and expanding London’s Heathrow, I always wonder what could be achieved if Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schipol and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airports could collaborate to better serve the flying public and the local communities, never mind the environment. If they no longer saw themselves as competitors, perhaps an analysis of flight paths and filling seats could translate to significant fuel savings. There could be apps that guide passengers to journey choices that enable flights and airports to operate at optimum capacity in near real-time. Such application of current technological trends and use of big data is surely more likely if conglomerates of airports are involved.

I would like to believe that human flight is a 21st century trend that is and can be sustained. But that will only be the case if air travel can supress its extensive emissions and I can fly, without the guilt.

Floods of the Future… Now

For my first blog of 2016, there are some obvious topics.

One is New Year’s Resolutions. I tackled that two years ago and wrote about physical activity and how perhaps the transport and public health benefits can keep us to our commitments a little longer: Looking back, the blog still stands. Or moves. No need to write it again.

A second topic is what is new in the New Year. Here in the UK, rail commuters are greeted every year by new fares. Higher fares. Despite the policy promises to freeze regulated rail fares and introduce flexible season tickets late last year, I’ve seen enough on the news and Twitter as people went back to work on Monday, 4 January to suggest that not enough has happened yet to make my blog last year an un-fare reflection of this new year as well:

The most obvious topic, however, is not one that has to do with the annual change of number on calendars, but one that has been inescapable news for the last month: Floods. Since the beginning of December, parts of the UK have seen homes, businesses, villages and even cities were submerged under feet of water as storm after storm made December 2015 the wettest for over 100 years in Scotland, Wales and northwest England.

Even in the comparatively dry southeast, I thought I might have to invent a new sport of mud-skiing when I took my children to a local playground. And when we went to visit relatives on the Welsh borders, I didn’t dare take my toddler out for a walk on the usually lovely (and high ground of the) village common for fear of losing him in mud as deep and dangerous as quicksand.

The year as a whole is provisionally making the Met Office’s list of top ten wettest years since records of such things began in 1910. Even before the rains of Storm Desmond, Eva and Frank battered the British Isles, a met office blog: noted that seven of those top ten years have been since 1998. Perhaps it is now eight of ten? Global warming and climate change anyone?

Enter link to transport:

Transport is a major carbon emitter, so transport planners are working hard to reduce emissions with measures aimed to increase walking, cycling and public transport use and to replace public, private and commercial vehicle fleets with electric/zero-emission vehicles powered by renewably-generated energy.

Yet, it’s not enough. The floods are here and even with all the commitments of the Paris conference, likely to get worse.

Still, is it a coincidence that a Transport Minister has been set to oversee the flood response in Yorkshire? Highways services often have responsibility over the maintenance of storm drains and street gutters. I only focused on transport in my review of the spending review:, but there are parallels between the budgets for the Department for Transport and local governments and that of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has responsibility for flood control. Namely, a focus on infrastructure spending, undermined by cuts in revenue and maintenance spending and indeed overall budget.

Conclusion? Transport planners need to get involved in adaptation and we need to be creative. Not by inventing mud skiing or recommending that people keep canoes in their garages (although the canoe is the bicycle of the water). Rather, by how we build and maintain our roads and drains and other public infrastructure.

Car parks, for example. When I worked at Reading, an annual question was how many days during that year had the Park and Ride site in the flood plain of the River Lodden been closed due to flood warnings and how much money had been lost in fares whilst paying rent on the private car park the service used. The solution to this perennial problem was realised in 2015: a replacement Park and Ride site on drier ground. Yet, ignoring the land ownership issue, true adaptation might have gone one step further – making the old site a fit-for-purpose water storage area that might protect property downstream.

Likewise, what role could riverside roads, whether highways or pedestrian/cycle green-ways play in offering another level to which a river could rise, another barrier before the waters cascade into buildings? Centuries-old bridges have been broken by the recent floods – could we not only rebuild them stronger, but also better, designed to not only withstand, but accommodate and re-direct flood waters?

This Christmas, the UK had yet another taste of the floods of the future. Floods have caused billions in damage more frequently than ever before. They will continue to do so unless politicians and professionals think strategically and creatively. Transport planners and engineers are one set of professionals that can help.

STIP Forward

Ten years ago, world leaders of almost 200 nations reached an historic agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst impacts of global warming by targeting a global temperature rise of no more than 1.5C. The Paris climate compact of 2015 was not without flaws and compromise, but it was a great achievement to secure signatures from so many countries to a legally binding document on addressing climate change.

One key element agreed was to review progress every five years. The national pledges in 2015 were insufficient to meet the 1.5C or even 2C maximum target, so ambition and action had to ramp up over time. But it was not a smooth ride. Some of the pledges were delayed by domestic politics or watered down by links to economic indicators.

However, the global agreement galvanised cities, who met in a parallel conference at the time. In just five years, walking, cycling, shared electric transport and public transport became the preferred modes of travel and of delivery over private motor vehicles run on fossil fuels. Cities pushed for green building standards, retrofitting buildings for the 21st century and insisting on carbon neutrality for iconic new developments. Such initiatives were supported by large private sector investment, as companies strove to become market leaders in the green economy and secure high-skilled employment for the future.

Thus, the world was on target in 2020 due to local action. However, to continue on that path over the last five years has required the international community to step forward again. We live in a local-global world, where nations can only offer so much, where countries may have less power over their own environment than a group of their neighbours.

Therefore, we have prepared this document, to be modified and ratified at the Climate Review 2025 conference in December. It is the Spatial, Trans-national Infrastructure Plan, and it brings together all infrastructure matters which are international and/or inter-continental. Such matters include aviation, shipping, long-distance pipelines, aqueducts and viaducts, watersheds and river systems, satellites and space installations.

Scientists, activists, economists, planners, senior civil servants, and diplomats have contributed to the pages of the STIP, ensuring it is based on accurate data and appropriate forecasts. We are aware that many of these topics are of strategic, international importance and must be dealt with delicately. However, as was highlighted in 2015, their absence in the original agreement and in many national pledges undermined the ambitions of the accord. Therefore, this Plan considers the impacts and outcomes of such infrastructure on trans-national and global climate without reference to national boundaries in order to maintain neutrality.

Through the work of trans-national teams and computers programmed to remove national bias, this document then offers spatial recommendations for international, inter-continental and global infrastructure. For example it proposes the appropriate number of hub airports and flight patterns in, to and from Western Europe to maximise the carbon efficiency of aviation, without undermining national economies.

We are offering to the world what many countries should offer to their citizens if they are serious about social, economic and environmental sustainability: spatial planning. If accepted by world leaders at the 2025 Review, these spatial planning recommendations will help us take the next step or STIP in preserving our planet for future generations.


Sarah Gomez-Chen

UN Climate Ambassador

November 2025





Bottom Up

You may well ask what a lecture on water management, a webinar on neighbourhood planning and my specialism of transport planning have in common. The obvious answer is that they are all subjects of RTPI-sponsored events this November (the transport planning one is on the 23rd) that I am attending for Continuing Professional Development and networking opportunities. This is true, but gives no indication of the insights I have gained from presentations about subjects only tangentially related to the work of a transport planner.

Major water infrastructure such as barriers and dykes have strong parallels with major transport infrastructure like roads and railways. These are projects of national scale and investment. One seeks to reduce the probability of flood damage and the other to provide increased capacity, usually for long distance travel. Neither actually manages water or movement. Nor do they directly address the consequences thereof, be it a flood that breaches the barrier or the increased traffic brought in by a new road link or attracted by a new high-speed railway station. Nor do they create resilience in a local community to adapt.

Professor Woltjer’s lecture on 16 November was called A Place-Based Approach to Water and Infrastructure Management, and although mainly about water management, one of his first points was that infrastructure in western cities is part of ‘complete’ networks. Therefore infrastructure management is more about replacement and adaptation to changing circumstances, rather than building new major infrastructure, be it dyke or road.

Later in the talk, I was struck by a slide on local flood groups. These are people in communities coming together to plan for potential consequences, by having evacuation procedures or emergency food stores. They also seek adaptation strategies together, perhaps identifying areas suitable for water storage or objecting to development that increases land area impervious to water drainage.

The link between the flood groups and the parish councils or urban forums who come together to make neighbourhood plans is plain. But the flood groups do not have any legal status nor funding stream. The Environment Agency has limited resources to adequately manage its own workload, never mind support these groups, although it may be that this happens on a more ad hoc or voluntary basis.

It occurred to me that local transport planning is in a similar position. With the disappearance of 5-year funding allocations tied to the Local Transport Plan back in 2011, the capacity for capital projects in individual neighbourhoods like public realm enhancements or new pedestrian crossings was greatly reduced. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) offered certain opportunities, particularly for revenue-based schemes, e.g. personal, work or school travel planning, but not all areas were successful in winning funding. Nor would all local highway authorities be aware of the needs of every neighbourhood or invest in every neighbourhood.

Furthermore, LSTF is almost over and there is no indication yet that it will be replaced. All we know ahead of next week’s spending review is that the DfT, the DCLG and Defra have all already agreed to extensive additional funding cuts. Devolution deals may be the main silver lining to all this reduction in local spending, but the webinar on neighbourhood planning did make me wonder whether localism cannot successfully be taken even further. It was a question I asked during the webinar, and I look forward to receiving feedback.

I have already expressed my general support for devolution in earlier blogs: and I have also expressed my reservations about devolution without appropriate tax and spend powers given to the optimised geographies.

Professor Woltjer asked if flood-prone areas could locally tax households that increase their hard-standings. The webinar asked multiple times about the appropriate geography for a neighbourhood plan, particularly in an urban area. So, in conclusion, I ask whether we need an even more bottom-up devolution of legal and financial powers for water management, transport planning and other neighbourhood impact management, resilience and adaptation issues? Or am I reading too much into a couple CPD events?

An Agenda Item for Paris

Had you heard of Vanuatu before Cyclone Pam recently brought the tiny archipelago nation to the world’s attention? Most people would say no. But I would say yes. Not because I’m a bit of a geography buff, although I am, but because it was mentioned in something I read about small island nations and their concerns about the impact of climate change and their susceptibility to sea level rise and natural disasters and the commitment they want to make in reducing carbon emissions.

In the same imaginary file in my brain are the commitments of city mayors around the world to reduce emissions. These commitments are often far more ambitious than those of the nations in which these cities reside. There is plenty of city-to-city networking going on too, again independent of national governments.

But then the major impacts on the cities, like the impacts on small islands happen at the ‘small’ level. Small in terms of land area, ratio of coastline to area, local identities. Not necessarily small in terms of population or cost.

Remember Hurricane Sandy?

I wrote a seminar paper for a professor studying the impacts of climate change on urban infrastructure that predicted the flooding of the subway tunnels. That was in the last millennium. The concerns about the compound effects of sea level rise and the increasing numbers of violent storms are not new.

There is a somewhat new urgency about negotiations, however, leading up to the Paris summit. It’s as if we are running out of time to make those serious commitments at a national level. We must look to Vanuatu and other frontrunners like Costa Rica for inspiration on how to change our ways or at least the amount of our carbon emissions. And fast.

Did you know that Costa Rica has generated all of its electricity from renewable sources for the first 75 days of 2015 so far?

But that was electricity, not energy. Which brings us to what this blog has to do with transport. Campaigning, as the Guardian currently is to eliminate dependence on dirty power plants is all very well and good, but that only includes energy used as electricity. What about transport? Or heating?

Ignoring the latter as outside my field of expertise, let’s focus on transport. I know that electric cars have come a long way, electric trains are spreading across the UK and there are a number of low emission and no emission bus fleets out there. There are also many good reasons for people to travel sustainably even if they don’t believe in climate change; it was the subject of one of my first blog posts: Yet how far can technology and changing travel behaviours take us? They don’t remove the fact that people want to move around, that not just lifestyles, but livelihoods demand it and that can use a lot of energy.

Especially if they want to move long distances. And there is the elephant in the room. The airplane. I’m a big user myself, as I describe in my blog post about how my entire family lives three thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. So I’m thrilled that the first solar-powered airplane is up and flying. But I’m still not convinced that technology or personal choices will make enough impact with enough speed.

This is an international issue. From Vanuatu to Costa Rica, or New York to New Delhi. Perhaps not only London and the southeast of England need an Airports Commission, but the world as a whole. Carbon taxes added to ticket prices by individual countries or paired countries could make the situation worse, making it cheaper, for example for people to purchase indirect flights that take them hundreds of miles and tanks of fuel in the wrong direction only to fly back on themselves.

So if we want to keep flying, the only way to improve efficiencies and manage demand is to review it at the highest level possible. I hope the issue of international air travel is on the agenda for Paris anyway. If not, well, then, may I suggest it?

Compelling Climate Sceptics

Since the debate began, a few decades ago now, there have been climate change evangelists and fossil fuel fundamentalists. The followers of the former are climate change converts with varying degrees of eco-warrior activity, whilst the followers of the latter are climate change sceptics with varying degrees of gratuitous carbon consumption. Then there is everyone else; people who don’t pay too much attention to the debate, but swing one way or another in terms of the carbon emissions of their actions depending on which direction the currents of legislation, taxes, campaigns and cultural norms sweep them.

Transport is a major source of carbon emissions, so it is no surprise that it can often be a battle ground between evangelists and fundamentalists. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) release yet another report to a world that seems to be in a trend towards scepticism or at least indifference, I have seen a policy swing away from sustainable transport towards road-building and pro-motorist policies. What are sustainable transport promoters like myself to do? I would suggest we use different artillery.

I have long been of the view that the buzzword ‘sustainability’ is not a synonym for ‘environmentally-friendly’ or ‘low carbon’. It encompasses those concepts, yet is intended to mean so much more. Think of it, perhaps, as a synonym for a long-term solution. In the case of transport, we are looking for a long-term solution for all the people that want to travel now to get where they want to go. I propose that walking, cycling and public transport offer better long-term solutions, and thus are more sustainable than car use for reasons beyond climate change. Reasons that the general population, climate change sceptics and even those who, like myself, are followers in the cause of climate change yet without much passion are likely to find more personally compelling.

Reason number one: congestion. Otherwise known as traffic jams or at least the inability to drive as fast as the speed limit and road layout allow. Everyone could drive carbon-neutral electric cars (assuming that the electricity doesn’t come from fossil-fuelled power stations, of course) and it would not solve the problem of congestion in towns, cities or on the strategic road network. Walking, cycling and (busy) public transport are all much more efficient ways to travel in terms of space used per person.

Building more roads creates more space for the car, but it is not sustainable in the sense that there are a finite number of cars that can fit on our road network and a finite amount of land to use for roads in places where people want to travel between homes and jobs, services and facilities. There are even fewer options if valuable housing or employment land is excluded. In the centre of our biggest cities, like London, one might almost say there is a negative amount of land for new roads. That’s why the congestion charge there makes sense. It’s not an environmental measure to reduce carbon, although that is a co-benefit. It’s a measure to tackle congestion.

Reason number two: health. We live in an age of sedentary jobs and sedentary leisure activities. Yet our bodies require quite a lot of moving around to operate at their optimum. What better way to fit regular exercise into your daily routine, for no additional cost, than walking and cycling when you need to travel? It’s a lot cheaper than a gym membership and you can save money compared to driving. If the distances are longer, taking public transport usually provides the opportunity to walk at one or both ends of the journey. Depending on the route, distance and infrastructure, walking, cycling and public transport might take less time than driving. Even when it takes more time to travel, you save the time you were otherwise planning to spend forcing yourself to jog around the block. Exercising more, being healthier – doesn’t that equate to a more sustainable lifestyle?

Reason number three: ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Okay, the motor industry does contribute substantially to the world’s economic output. But what about the cost of owning a car, even before fuel prices or parking charges? A family who keeps one car on the road instead of two can save a lot of money. Then there’s the cost of congestion to lost productive time, the cost to businesses of absenteeism due to low physical fitness, the cost of traffic accidents and yes, even pollution. I’m thinking of local air pollution, not just carbon. The stuff that can give people chronic respiratory conditions, with high healthcare costs. The cost to the healthcare system of all these sedentary, unfit families is even higher. So sustainable travel is sustainable for the economy and particularly your household economy.

The IPCC is now 95% sure that man-made climate change is occurring. A large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from vehicle tailpipes. But if you’re still a climate sceptic, I hope you find that one of the sample of other sustainabilities I describe compels you to occasionally leave your car at home.