In his ‘Director’s Note’ for the January 2022 Transform newsletter, Transform director Colin Howden casts forward over the coming six months and more, and asks ‘what does 2022 have in store for sustainable transport?’.
Well, things are already coming at us thick and fast.
Last Thursday saw the publication of the Scottish Government’s traffic reduction plan. We’ve still to review it in detail, and I expect we’ll find it deficient in various ways, but overall it’s really positive to see the Scottish Ministers promote road traffic reduction as a centrepiece of its climate strategy for transport. ‘Reducing the need to travel’ (or the ‘Avoid’ in Avoid-Shift-Improve) has always been at the vanguard of the sustainable transport critique, and so it’s imperative that we now get the Scottish Government to deliver on this. The newly-founded Cross-Party Group on Sustainable Transport will be considering the plan, and we’re delighted to have Transport Scotland’s Heather Cowan speak at the next meeting of this on 27 January.
We are imminently expecting the publication of the long-awaited Strategic Transport Projects Review (‘STPR2’). The first STPR, which was published in 2008, concentrated on what we would see as ‘megaprojects’ – large infrastructure projects, some of which we saw beneficial, but many hugely damaging. The ‘Phase 1’ report of STPR2, published last year, suggested a move to smaller-scale interventions, with a focus on maintenance of existing assets and a focus on sustainable transport projects. We’re going to need to see this focus continue, as if government continues to prioritise its new capital expenditure on new road capacity – as with its current multi-billion pound spending focus on the A9 and A96 dualling schemes – then we can forget about those traffic reduction targets being met, and with it Scotland’s climate targets.
This month sees the introduction of free bus travel for the under-22s. We’re confident that this will help ensure that younger people continue their use of public transport into their later years. This age group is less likely to hold driving licences and generally seem less interested in car ownership, so there’s an opportunity here for cutting car mileage and climate emissions. We’ve heard various complaints around how this has been implemented, and some mixed messaging about when people should apply, but this is an undeniably welcome move and we should be foursquare behind it.
This new policy will help inform the ‘Fair Fares Review’ which we’re expecting the Scottish Government to commence in the coming months. This review, which resulted from the August 2021 deal between the Government and the Greens, will study existing discount and concessionary schemes. Perhaps more interestingly, it has pledged to consider this in the context of reducing car use costs and rising public transport fares. This really takes us back round to whether the traffic reduction plan will be a success: while moves towards free public transport will help, it will not be sufficient in the absence of road traffic demand management measures which impact on the attractiveness of car use, whether by intervening on price or on accessibility. It might be convenient to wish away this apparently unpalatable fact, but it will need to be faced if we want to see significant cuts in emissions from transport.
So what else should we be keeping an eye on in 2022?
This week sees the closing of the consultation on Transport Scotland’s discussion paper on a new aviation strategy. We found this document to be hopelessly complacent in its promotion of aviation expansion and its promotion of fantasy responses to the climate impacts of flying. We’ll be responding in detail to this document, and publishing our response within the week. We’d encourage you all to have a look, and consider sending in your own response.
The next month will see the Parliament consider the Scottish Budget for 2022-23. I found this year’s Budget to be even more disgracefully impenetrable than ever. I’ve been studying the Scottish Budget for the past 20 years and have always sided with ‘cock-up’ explanations of its inscrutability: that the responsible civil servants didn’t want to overburden the document with detail. However, I’ve reluctantly now gone across to the ‘conspiracy’ position that the Government has chosen a path of deliberate obfuscation in its presentation of the Budget.
March sees the completion of the Government’s call for evidence on its Draft National Planning Framework 4 (‘NPF4’), although the Parliament is already taking evidence. There is obvious crossover here between STPR2 and NPF4, and we would argue that the former is likely to have a considerably greater direct impact on the direction of Scottish transport policy, but the latter is nonetheless important, with previous iterations of the NPF being particularly important for ports and airports.
April sees the new ScotRail come into operation. There will be very significant governance changes resulting from this, but it would be foolish to expect major changes in the nature of Scotland’s railways soon after these changes come into effect. (Our rail campaigner Paul Tetlaw has been monitoring the changes at ScotRail in detail, and he will be imparting his analysis in our February newsletter.)
May brings the local authority elections. This will provide an opportunity to take stock on what progress has and hasn’t been made over the past five years, and an opportunity for new commitments to be made towards sustainable transport across Scotland’s 32 local authorities. It’s certainly not too early to be speaking to political parties in your own council area to see what their aspirations are for transport following the elections.
Beyond this, we need to be keeping an eye on the various helpful policy commitments that have built up over the past couple of years. As well as the 20% traffic reduction commitment, we’ll be looking for swift progress on the commitment to ‘remove the majority of fossil fuel buses by 2023’: while Scotland’s bus companies have been making excellent progress in procuring new electric fleets, there’s a long way to go to hit that target, and the clock is ticking. Likewise the ‘rail decarbonisation by 2035’ commitment: while that date may still sound some way off, change in rail can move at a glacial pace, but decisions taken in the near future will determine the nature of our rail rolling stock for decades to come.
And if we’re talking about things that move slowly, how about the now-hilarious lack of progress in delivering ‘Managed Motorways’ on the Glasgow motorway network? This was a promise in the September 2019 Programme for Government yet we’ve seen precisely no action by Transport Scotland on this matter. It seems that the agency has unlimited resources for new road-building, but lacks the will and/or the competence to better manage its existing road asset a few hundred metres from its front door.
Beyond the Scottish Government, it must now be time for the Parliament to conduct a new review of the City-Region Deals. This appears to us to have been disastrous from a sustainable transport perspective, with the vast balance of new capital expenditure directed to high-carbon projects.
It would be easy to get sucked into the unceasing froth around the minutiae of CalMac, Ferguson Marine, ScotRail and Prestwick – and indeed it seems likely that these topics will continue to occupy the eyes of the media and political classes for the time being. However, I can see a real opportunity for progress to be made this year in some rather more substantive and, dare I say, transformational, matters. The year provides the opportunity for national capital expenditure priorities to be refocused towards zero-carbon transport. It allows the potential for national debate to challenge the system of transport prices which incentivises people to choose cars over public transport. And we have the opportunity to put in place a national plan for road traffic reduction, something which must be at the heart of sustainable transport policy.