I wonder if a New Year has ever been more welcomed than 2021? Following on from the so-called “unprecedented challenges” of 2020 we are all longing to turn the page and begin again. Unfortunately, a new year does not automatically reset our current circumstances, but it does bring hope. At the risk of sounding cliched, I am choosing hope as I enter this new year and take up the role of Chair of Transform Scotland.
Last year, at around this time, Transform Scotland asserted that “addressing the climate emergency needs a transport revolution”, and in 2020 that’s what we got. Cars were left in driveways, buses were free for those who really needed them, trains ran on time with seats to spare, and the public walked and cycled more than ever. Bicycles and e-bikes became must-have items and roads were closed to make way for pedestrians and cyclists in the centre of our towns and cities. The reduction in traffic meant that air quality soared. People noticed and celebrated the health benefits of more exercise, reduced pollution and, for many, a better work-life balance free of stressful commuting.
On the face of it, yes, we got what we wanted. However, a global pandemic is neither a desirable nor a sustainable means of change. The wider economic, societal and personal consequences of the virus have been tragic and disastrous, and the few ‘silver linings’, in transport terms at least, are already proving to be transitory. As we’ve moved in and out of lockdown conditions, traffic has returned to our roads, air quality has declined again and newly-bought lockdown bikes have been languishing in driveways and garages across the country. Despite growing evidence to show that public transport is one of the safest ways to travel, social distancing and safety fears mean trains are still largely deserted, bus patronage – already a pre-pandemic challenge – is through the floor and coach companies are on their knees.
In 2021, assuming a successful rollout of the vaccines already being administered, things will improve and some kind of normality will return. And in terms of transport, I’m hoping for real change this year and beyond, because we’ve seen it happen and we know it’s possible. Transform Scotland set out its post-pandemic thoughts during 2020 in a series of reports containing recommendations which would help to rebuild confidence in public transport, reverse lockdown inequalities and lock in the benefits of the rise in walking and cycling. I have hope that the government is trying hard to achieve this too – it’s promising investment in bus priority and zero-emission vehicles, pouring more money into active travel and setting new targets for reducing car use. Its vision for a sustainable and green future by 2032, captured in the Climate Change Plan Update, gives more encouragement – as long as this vision is backed by continued, ambitious action and not undermined by disproportionate spending on roads and high-carbon infrastructure.
My own occupation is in the bus industry, and so I have particularly high hopes for the next phase of Transform Scotland’s #lovemybus campaign, which aims to show people the wide-ranging personal, community and environmental benefits of travelling by bus. I believe bus can and should be at the centre of a just, green recovery for Scotland which also supports the economy. There’s optimism for an influx of young passengers, with the incoming free travel scheme for Scotland’s under-19s, giving them better access to education, jobs and other opportunities. The promise of better journey times for all is offered by bus priority measures and other infrastructure investment through the Scottish Government’s £500m Bus Partnership Fund. And our economy could be reinvigorated by the building of £120m worth of zero emission vehicles at ADL Ltd in Falkirk. If this is also supported by continued funding for active travel solutions, along with better place-based planning decisions, the bus industry is in the perfect position to lead a long-term and sustainable transport revolution – one which lasts beyond a few weeks, and encourages real and meaningful modal shift.
I think changing people’s behaviour is one of the biggest challenges for Scotland, and the rest of the world, in the face of the climate emergency. In 2020 people’s transport choices changed through necessity and desperation; while this is neither desirable nor sustainable, it has given us a glimpse of what is possible. In 2021 I have hope that our travel behaviours will change through better understanding, improved choices and a real desire to help ourselves and others.
Transform Scotland will continue throughout this year to push for a long-term recovery which prioritises active travel, sustainable public transport, better digital connections and, above all, is fair and accessible to everyone. Now that really is a future to hope for.