Environment

Scotland aims to cut car use by creating '20-minute neighbourhoods' in net zero push

Scotland is aiming to cut car journeys by 20 per cent by 2030

Victoria Street, Edinburgh with cars parked along each side

Transport is responsible for over one-third of Scotland's carbon emissions. (Image: Sinitta Leunen/Unsplash)

Scotland has set out a bold new vision for towns and cities that aims to cut private car use by ensuring all services are within a 20-minute walk or cycle from a person’s front door.

The planning reforms, which were approved this week, aim to create “20-minute neighbourhoods” as a way to “prioritise tackling the climate crisis and reaching net zero,” planning minister Tom Arthur said.

This would be achieved through strong opposition to planning applications for out-of-town retail parks, drive-through fast food restaurants, and other spaces that would necessitate the use of a car.

Such plans will only be supported if they do not “negatively impact on the principles of local living or sustainable travel”, ministers say, while applications for renewable energy schemes such as wind farms will be prioritised.

Arthur said the new framework was “one of the most important changes since the modern planning system was introduced in 1948”. He added that it will support the development of communities and the economy “in ways that are both sustainable and fair”.

The reforms will also limit spaces dedicated to car parking in towns, with priority given to new cycle lanes and public transport links, so people can take advantage of local amenities and reduce their reliance on a car.

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Laura Young, a climate activist from Scotland, welcomed the move.

“Twenty-minute neighbourhoods are a true vision. Planning in sustainability and community centred living is key to enhancing the wellbeing of residents across the country,” she told The Big Issue, pointing out how these areas will create local jobs and free up time usually spent in traffic for other activities, such as time with family and friends, exercise, and hobbies.

Young herself moved from Glasgow to the west end of Dundee a few months ago, and says the area she now lives in mirrors a 20-minute neighbourhood, even if it’s not classified as such. 

She said: “Within a five-minute walk I have a local park, a greengrocer, a bakery, a small supermarket, and multiple cafes, pubs and restaurants. A car journey is never needed for my everyday life. I’ve certainly felt the benefits of it, and I’m able to have more time to walk my dog and appreciate my local area.

“I hope more places in Scotland can develop these models of having pretty much everything you need just a stone’s throw away.”

Twenty-minute neighbourhoods are not a new concept, and have already been developed in both Melbourne and Paris. The idea has grown in recent years as a way to tackle the climate crisis by cutting emissions while allowing people to spend more time locally and less time commuting or driving. 

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Edinburgh Council is already working in partnership with local communities on “a network of healthier, greener and thriving neighbourhoods,” which would help it achieve its own net-zero carbon target.

The idea aligns closely with the Scottish government’s wider target to cut car journeys by 20 per cent by 2030. Currently, cars contribute the most to Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions compared to other forms of transport.

Gavin Thomson, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FOE) Scotland, said: “Transport is Scotland’s biggest source of climate emissions. Taking action on climate change has to mean taking action to change the ways we travel. Our planning system has had a ‘car is king’ fixation for far too long, and these new measures from the Scottish government hopefully signal an end to that.”

Thomson also pointed out how out-of-town retail parks can damage local economies, which “makes it harder for people to get what they need locally,” and pushes people to drive. He added: “Ideas that reduce car dominance on our streets have benefits far beyond tackling the climate crisis. The air we breathe will be cleaner, people will find it easier and safer to be active, and our communities will be stronger.”

Transport is a primary source of air pollution across the UK and leads to 2,500 premature deaths in Scotland every year, according to FOE Scotland.

Kate Barnard, director of Enjoy the Air, an organisation that provides data on air quality, said: “Pollution continues to be a significant health and environmental concern. Twenty-minute neighbourhoods have the potential to have a really significant and positive impact on air quality.”

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