Transport is central to all of our lives. We make choices daily about where to go, how to get there, or if we should even travel at all. Perhaps there’s never been a time before when we’ve given it so much thought. In the past 12 months there have been numerous occasions when we’ve been challenged to consider whether travel is really necessary – whether due to the pandemic, increased opportunities for working from home, or because of extreme weather. But travel we must, eventually. And the issue of how to do so has perhaps also never been discussed more, such as during the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow which scrutinised all aspects of climate change, including the contribution of the transport sector.
This summit of global leaders reminded us that we must all take a close look at our travel choices now and in the future, and I include myself in that statement. I would admit that I don’t always make the right choice – and that’s because the right choice is still usually more difficult, more costly or more time-consuming. Unfortunately, an increasing desire to reduce our impact on the environment is not yet met with enough realistic or attractive options to do so.
There are many people in Scotland who face a lack of choice when it comes to transport, and drivers are no exception. Some people must walk, because they can’t afford the bus; others must take the bus because disability means they can’t drive; and others must drive because there’s no bus serving their rural community, or they work late shifts after the trains finish running, or there are no safe cycle routes to their workplace, or they have multiple stops to make at shops, school and with relatives, rendering public transport complex and costly. It’s easy to tell drivers that they need to change their habits, and it is certainly the right thing to do, but there is a long way to go before choosing sustainable public transport or active travel is cheap, accessible and easy for everyone.
Nonetheless, I’m encouraged by the steps already being taken: in January 2022 everyone under the age of 22 in Scotland will be able to travel for free on the bus when the extension of the concessionary travel scheme is rolled out. This has the potential to create a whole new generation of people whose first choice of transport is the bus. Combined with more and more electric buses being launched by operators across the country, and moves being made through BSIPs to introduce bus priority measures, there is cause for optimism. With just one double decker able to take up to 75 cars off the road, this could lead to a significant reduction in traffic and congestion in our cities, with subsequent improvements in air quality.
Initiatives like these may also help the Scottish Government achieve its ambitious 20% reduction in car km, announced earlier this year, which is essential for achieving those net zero targets. However, one concessionary scheme is not going to be enough to encourage significant modal shift, and more will have to be done. Transform Scotland has long been campaigning for the shutting down of unnecessary road building, the introduction of car-free zones and the consideration of Active Freeways, which can help more people safely walk, wheel and cycle to destinations. Fundamentally, a shift in planning is required too, so that communities are created in our towns and cities around sustainable transport, rather than trying to clumsily (and largely unsuccessfully) retrofit it into housing estates built with large driveways, limited access for buses and without pedestrian connections to shops and schools.
As 2021 draws to a close so, sadly, does my tenure as Chair of Transform Scotland’s board. A new opportunity beckons in a new sector, and although I’m sad to leave transport behind – it’s a warm, challenging and rewarding industry – I have the sense that it’s now where it should be: at the heart of Scotland’s plans for improving climate change, air quality and personal wellbeing.
We are on the right track, and if I return to transport at some point in the future, I feel confident I will come back to a sector which is even stronger than when I left it.