Transform policy advisor Tom Flanagan reports on the Government’s progress in delivering its commitments to improve the affordability and accessibility of public transport through fares.
In 2021, the Programme for Government (PfG) committed to both a ‘Fair Fares Review’ and a free bus travel scheme for under 22s:
Fair Fares Review: ”commission a Fair Fares Review to ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to transport fares”
U22s bus travel scheme: “provide nationwide free bus travel for Scotland’s young people aged under 22 from 31st January 2022”
— PfG 2021-22
So, how are the Scottish Government and its agency Transport Scotland doing on the public transport fares commitments it has made?
It is probably fair to say that “the jury is still out”.
Slipping deadlines: Fare review timeline extended
This is principally because the Fair Fares Review was meant to report back in June 2023 and has now been delayed until October 2023. The official reason for this was the quick succession of Transport Ministers that were appointed soon after Humza Yousaf was appointed as First Minister. The argument goes that allowing yet another new Transport Minister, Fiona Hyslop, time to consider her voluminous in-tray over the summer recess made eminent sense.
The more prosaic reason might be that with public transport services in flux resulting from the sluggish return of passengers following the Covid pandemic, that there is little that can be said without confirming the level of financial support available through the Scottish Budget for 2024-25 which will not be released until the end of 2023. As this will be Humza Yousaf’s first as First Minister, there is a great deal riding – in more sense than one – on it.
In a recent feature piece, the Guardian bemoaned the situation by asking, ‘Where Have all the Buses Gone?’. While the article focused on the situation in England, low passenger numbers in parts of Scotland are leaving communities at risk of losing local bus services as routes become financially unviable. Following the withdrawal of the Network Support Grant Plus to bus operators, a lifeline during the Covid pandemic, Transport Scotland’s Bus Directorate had forecast a 7% reduction in services. This did not take into account the reduction in frequencies and the impact in many communities has felt far larger. For instance, for residents in Fauldhouse in West Lothian, the impact is 100%.
Since the publication of the National Transport Strategy (NTS2) in February 2020, large parts of those progressive priorities around equalities and affordability remain unrealised as there is no overarching vision for public transport and its role in supporting the Scottish economy, society and local communities. It is expected that the Fair Fares Review will be accompanied by a ‘Vision for Public Transport’, but this is so far not forthcoming. Without that, the commitment to a 20% reduction in private car km travelled, in support of the climate change targets, will seem increasingly hollow.
Celebrating success: Removing barriers to travel for Scotland’s young people
On the Under-22’s Bus Travel Scheme, the Scottish Government can boast greater success. After committing £359m in the Scottish Budget to provide free bus travel to 2 million people, after a sluggish start, due to the requirement to re-submit documentation to prove eligibility, the scheme is bearing fruit.
At Transform Scotland’s Zero Carbon Public Transport summit in June, Bettina Sizeland, Transport Scotland’s Director of Bus, Accessibility and Active Travel, reported that the under-22s had made 68 million journeys by bus since the start of the scheme. No doubt, that number will have increased considerably over the summer period.
As the scheme is deemed a success in allowing young people to travel, expand their horizons and participate in increased leisure and productive activities, it does not come without its risks, as the reports of an increase in anti-social behaviour have been linked to free bus travel. It is to be hoped that this does not result in a demographic deficit on the bus network, with older passengers being fearful of travel due to safety concerns.
Looking ahead: An opportunity for innovative policy making
Given that recent initiatives – like the under-22s scheme and removal of peak fares on the railway – appear to be ad-hoc and stand-alone, it is clear that the outcome of the Fair Fares Review and Vision for Public Transport must be a coherent and fully funded Delivery Plan. We must see a programme of improvements to engender inclusivity and recover patronage.
And, the success of the experiment in free bus travel for the under-22s will hopefully prompt the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to be bolder and more innovative in its approach.
5 September 2023
Our response to the latest Programme for Government.
31 August 2023
Our latest report ‘Off Track’ finds that Scotland’s most vulnerable transport users are being neglected by Government delays. The Scottish Government had promised to report on its Fair Fares Review…