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The Policy Ask with Silviya Barrett: “Cutting public transport fares would help with high living costs”

The director of policy, research and projects at the Campaign for Better Transport on why we need to change travel habits.

By Spotlight

Silviya Barrett is the director of policy and research at the Campaign for Better Transport. She was previously research manager at the Centre for London, leading their transport and environment research programme, and has authored a number of reports on sustainable transport. She has also worked at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry researching issues affecting London businesses.

How do you start your working day?

My day starts with getting the kids ready for school. I then start work with a look through my diary and to-do list. I tend to tick off smaller tasks to warm up before getting on with various projects. If I am travelling into the office – which we tend to do a couple of days a week – I will catch up with emails on the train.

What has been your career high?

Every successful policy report launch is a career high as it is the culmination of months and months of hard work – from project development, fundraising and establishing a work programme to delivering insightful research and ambitious but practical recommendations for change. It’s even better when a recommendation you make becomes a reality – for example, when after years of campaigning by us, the government published a National Bus Strategy, containing many of our policy asks on how to make buses more accessible, affordable and reliable.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Starting at Campaign for Better Transport in February 2020. I had a couple of weeks in the office with my new team before moving completely online. It’s much easier checking with your boss how they want something done when you’re at the desk next to them, rather than pestering them by email on a daily basis.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Change takes time, so don’t be disheartened if it sometimes feels like you’re swimming against the tide. Keep speaking up for what’s right and people will get behind you.

Which political figure inspires you?

I am not a political animal but I admire politicians – at a national or local level – who have the courage to make the difficult decisions required to help us avert climate catastrophe and secure a brighter future for our children. I’m also inspired by campaigners like Melissa and Chris Bruntlett (@modacitylife on Twitter) from the Netherlands who live their values and showcase the benefits of sustainable transport to our health and quality of life.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Martin Tugwell: “Free public transport could deliver economic, environmental and social benefits”]

What UK policy is the government getting right?

The government has set strong targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has set in law the commitment to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 – a move that recognises the urgency of the need to tackle climate change. Good progress has been made on regulation to speed up the adoption of electric vehicles.

And what policy should the government ditch?

As important as they are, electric vehicles will never be the whole answer to meeting these targets. We also need targeted policies to encourage a modal shift away from cars and planes and onto public transport, walking and cycling. Instead, we still see rail fares rising year-on-year, we still see local authorities forced to compete for a too-small pot of bus funding, and we still see government support for more roads and bigger airports. These policies should be ditched.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Department for Transport is currently consulting on legislation to implement the recommendations of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. This is the biggest shake-up of the railways in a generation and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to radically reshape them to fit the needs of post-pandemic Britain. The rail network is a key component of our efforts to tackle climate change and meet our 2050 net zero target, so I’m eager to see what measures the government will implement to ensure the railway forms the backbone of a greener, cheaper and more efficient transport system.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

Around the world, governments have responded to the cost-of-living crisis by cutting public transport fares. New Zealand halved public transport fares for three months, Spain is making short and medium-distance train journeys free, and Germans get unlimited travel on public transport for €9 a month. A similar cut for the UK would help people struggling with high living costs, cut traffic and carbon emissions, reduce reliance on oil, and help public transport to thrive post-pandemic.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Wales and Scotland have both set targets to reduce the total number of journeys made by car. A similar target for the UK would force the government to be frank about the fact that our travel habits need to change, and that simply replacing all existing vehicles with electric ones will not be enough. It would focus more on increasing capacity on public transport – reopening more disused rail lines and giving more space to buses and bikes – rather than building more roads. And it would start sending price signals to match, making public transport the affordable choice.

[See also: What policymakers get wrong about health and climate change]

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