Targeting Traffic project lead Elspeth Wray reports on the Government’s ambitious commitment to cutting traffic levels by a fifth by 2030.
Cutting traffic has always been one of Transform’s key campaign objectives. Less traffic means cleaner air, less congestion, better quality of life, and safer streets. Unfortunately, over the past two decades, traffic reduction has been sidelined in favour of technical fixes such as electric cars.
Therefore we were delighted when the Scottish Government announced its target to cut car km by 20% by 2030, as part of its climate change plan back in 2020. The Government’s technical advisors showed that Scotland could only achieve its overall climate targets if there were significant cuts in transport emissions, and that the shift to electric vehicles would not be enough to achieve this on its own.
So, after two decades out of fashion, road traffic reduction was once again back on the table.
While we are very much supportive of this target, it’s evident that much more urgent action is needed to achieve it.
In Scotland, traffic volumes have been broadly increasing over the past three decades, rising to new highs in 2019. Traffic dropped during the pandemic but has risen back up rapidly afterwards.
Transport Scotland expects this trend to continue with car traffic continuing to rise unless urgent action is taken.
Current actions to cut Scottish traffic rely on individual behaviour change, improving alternatives such as public transport, and encouraging people to travel less. Whilst it’s vital we give people viable bus and train services and make it easier to walk or cycle, meaningful traffic reduction will also require disincentives to driving.
This could mean anything from restricting car access to city centres to increasing the cost of driving, or changing the way that car travel is paid for. At the moment, the high upfront sunk costs of car ownership mean that once someone has invested in the cost of buying a car it often makes more economic sense to go by car rather than public transport.
However, measures to cut traffic can be divisive and politically sensitive. To engage the public on this topic, the Scottish Government ran a consultation on its traffic reduction Route Map and commissioned research into the ‘exploration of equitable options for demand management to discourage car use’. Both remain as yet unpublished.
The Route Map contains a commitment to development of a Car Demand Management Framework by 2025. We would like to see more urgency here. In order for demand management measures to be implemented in time to encourage the shift away from cars and towards sustainable modes, it is critical that the Government picks up the pace on rolling out its plans.
One major obstacle is that the Scottish Government does not have the powers to introduce a national road user pricing scheme. Cooperation with the UK Government is required, which is currently refusing to engage on the issue. With measures to restrict traffic having become a polarising issue and now firmly part of the culture wars, it seems unlikely that any progress will be made under the current administration in Westminster.
In the absence of a national charging scheme, the alternative is local or regional schemes introduced by local authorities under the umbrella of a Scotland-wide framework. With its unprecedented commitment to cutting car traffic, Scotland should not shy away from the opportunity to lead the UK on traffic reduction measures which can be implemented on a smaller scale.
Not long to go
It is widely acknowledged that traffic reduction requires both the carrot and the stick. On the former, the Scottish Government has made progress in recent years in incentivising sustainable travel with its record commitment to investment in walking, wheeling and cycling and under-22s free bus scheme. Meanwhile, it is crucial that the stick plays a larger role to complement these achievements as we approach 2030. Given that the deadline is just 7 years away and commits us to cutting traffic to levels last seen in 1994, the Government must build on its success and take coordinated and effective action to curb car use.