Transform’s policy officer Marie Ferdelman reflects on this Thursday’s Scottish local elections.
In two days people across Scotland will be voting to elect their new Councillors. The issues that will inform people’s vote will be varied, but transport will undoubtedly be one of them and for good reason.
At a national level there is a clear recognition by the Scottish Government that addressing the climate crisis is essential and Scottish Ministers have made ambitious commitments in the area of transport, which remains Scotland’s largest source of climate emissions. The commitment to reducing car kilometres by 20% by 2030 stands out among these commitments as particularly ambitious. Together with other targets, including decarbonising rail and bus, achieving this reduction is key to hitting our climate targets in the transport sector. However, the route map for reducing car use that was published in January shows how much the Scottish Government is relying on measures that require support from local authorities to deliver on this commitment.
No traffic reduction without local authority action
Increased funding from the Scottish Government for more and better walking and cycling infrastructure, one of the measures in the route map, is a prerequisite for large-scale improvements in this area. However, local authorities hold power over where and whether this infrastructure is built. Of the improvements to local walking and cycling infrastructure that we have seen in recent years, many are thanks to an increasing number of Councillors willing to face down motorist backlash and see through projects that, once constructed, often do gain substantial local support. And it is important to mention here as well the perseverance of local campaigners, who have spent many often unpaid hours advocating for better conditions for walking, wheeling and cycling. Without them many schemes would have undoubtedly never got off the ground, been quietly dropped at the first sign of resistance, or been seriously compromised in their quality.
Unfortunately these efforts are still undermined by parties who claim to support active travel in their manifesto and at a national level, but whose Councillors oppose schemes locally at every opportunity. A particularly blatant example of this are the Edinburgh Conservatives, who state in their manifesto that they support a cycling network for every town but have also promised scrapping the Spaces for People schemes in the city.
Attachment to failed transport policies runs deep amongst some political parties
But while there has been progress on active travel infrastructure, most parties’ position on further road-building has hardly moved on since the 1960s. Several major parties and their candidates are still promising their voters more and bigger roads to win votes. The focus on maintenance (the promise of fixing potholes remains as popular as ever) is something we can agree with. However, promising more traffic generating roads is not only expensive, it also jeopardises reaching the traffic reduction target and Scotland’s ambition to move towards a more sustainable transport system that is in line with our climate commitments. Increasing road capacity stands in direct conflict with traffic reduction and climate goals and advocating for both simultaneously is highly irresponsible. So, while much of the funding for these large-scale projects comes from the Scottish and UK governments, local support or opposition will make a meaningful difference in whether or not these roads are built.
But it is not only infrastructure where the Scottish Government relies on local authorities for support. The demand management measures in the route map, such as the Workplace Parking Levy — which is one of the most likely policies to drive reduction of car use — have to be implemented by local authorities. Not only would Workplace Parking Levies tackle congestion and air pollution, but most importantly they would send the necessary pricing signals to discourage unnecessary car use and help to reflect the true cost of driving. It is encouraging to see that both the Workplace Parking Levy and congestion charging in cities are gaining serious support but there is undoubtedly still a high level of resistance to these measures. It’s particularly disappointing to see how far backwards that Scottish Labour has fallen given that it was that party which introduced the Scottish road pricing legislation, and which led the campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in Edinburgh’s 2005 congestion charging referendum. But the fact that these measures are back on the agenda does show that there has been a significant shift in the options that at least some of the parties are willing to consider.
Increasing ambition for sustainable transport
Edinburgh and Glasgow in particular, as large cities with extensive public transport networks, have an opportunity to substantially contribute to transforming the transport system by reducing car traffic. A recently published paper by researchers from Lund University reviewed the evidence from European cities for interventions that can reduce car traffic and ranked them according to their effectiveness. One of the researchers, Kimberley Nicholas, is now looking for a city that is willing to be the first to implement the full range of these measures. Edinburgh and Glasgow already have an existing commitment to reducing car traffic by 30% and implementing congestion charging and a Workplace Parking Levy – which were deemed among the most successful measures – are already under discussion. Either one of Scotland’s largest cities could take on this challenge with a group of committed Councillors in charge.
Local Authorities will be essential to delivering change in the transport system and in particular to reaching the 20% car kilometre reduction target. Without their support, the ability for the Scottish Government to influence the way people travel will be severely limited. We hope that on Thursday Scottish people elect Councillors in every local authority that recognise the urgency of the climate crisis and their role within tackling it. Having the courage to act locally on the pledges that have been made at national level will be essential. And we hope that many local authorities will take the initiative to go beyond national policy to ensure that their local area is doing the best it can to deliver a better and more sustainable transport system for the people who live there and address the climate crisis.
And finally, our Councillors are our most direct representatives in government and are often responsible for changes that most directly affect us in our daily life. So whichever candidate or party you decide to support and whether transport matters to you in that decision or not, make sure to go vote on Thursday!