Welcoming in the new year, director Colin Howden, reviews the latest for sustainable transport in Scotland and what we can hope for in 2024.
A Happy New Year – well, perhaps! The final week of the Scottish Parliamentary session in December didn’t exactly give a lot of cause for optimism, what with the Budget slashing funds for sustainable transport and the following day’s Ministerial announcement that the Scottish Government wanted to speed up spending on its multi-billion pound road-building programme — with this new subsidy to road use presumably using funds taken away from public transport investment.
It would give me great delight to strike a positive tone about the prospects for transport in 2024, but as it appears that the current Scottish Government administration’s plans for sustainable transport have come to a grinding halt, this would be entirely dishonest.
Off track transport commitments threaten national climate target
Back in August last year, we reported on progress against the Scottish Government‘s sustainable transport commitments — or rather the lack thereof — and little has changed to give us confidence that its commitment to cut traffic levels by 20% by 2030 is on course.
Now, while road traffic reduction might seem to some a somewhat arcane topic, the country’s climate change plans are founded upon it. According to the Government’s own modelling, without traffic reduction, one doesn’t bring about the emission reductions required in the transport sector, and with transport the largest source of emissions, one can’t then hit one’s overall climate targets.
So one would have hoped that three years on from the announcement of the traffic target, and with less than six left until the target date, that something resembling a credible plan of action would be in place — but this appears as distant as ever.
So what do we need to see happen in order to turn things around?
Clearly we need actual progress on the ground in delivering the sustainable transport infrastructure that will make active travel and public transport genuinely attractive options to the private car. We need to see local authorities prioritise walking and cycling for short trips. We need to see buses being given priority on the roads. And we need to see concrete plans for continued investment in the public transport fleet, along the lines of that which we set out in our report for the Parliament’s Cross Party Group in November.
But we can’t expect to see a mass shift away from private cars without the correct financial incentives
Within the next few weeks, we are expecting to see the publication of the Fair Fares Review. The Scottish Government should be given credit for its two attempts to intervene on public transport prices in recent years, namely the under-22s free bus fare scheme, and the trial removal of peak hour fares on ScotRail services.
However, these have been undermined by the UK Government’s decision to freeze road fuel duty for the past decade, thereby cutting the price of car use in real terms, as well as continued real terms increases in bus fares. But it doesn’t help when the Scottish Government itself announces, as it did, days before Christmas, to increase all rail fares by double the rate of inflation. So the Fair Fares Review will have to set out a clear programme of further interventions that will incentivise public transport use.
But more attractive public transport fares will not on their own make sufficient inroads into cutting traffic levels. For this to happen, we need to see progress on the ground in implementing traffic demand management. We are now over a quarter of a century since the Scottish Government first began promoting the idea of road pricing and new parking levies. Yet while the policy documents and consultations continue to pile up, we’re absolutely no closer to anything being implemented.
Edinburgh is currently consulting on a workplace parking levy scheme, which is to be welcomed, but while the city has talked a good game in this area for decades, it has delivered nothing on the ground. But without measures such as this, Edinburgh will not hit its even higher traffic reduction commitments (30% rather than 20%), and nor will Scotland’s other cities — and without that, we fail on climate.
So what hope can be found?
The government’s agency Transport Scotland has in recent years developed a reputation, fairly or unfairly, for incompetence in transport delivery, with high-profile topics such as the A9, Ferguson Marine, Prestwick Airport and the failed Abellio franchise dominating political and media attention.
So would it prove any more painful for the agency to refocus its delivery on local transport? With the vast bulk of transport trips being local rather than long-distance, it would have the prospect of improving the transport experience for more people than will be benefitted by the prestige projects of which the minds of newspaper editors are so besotted.
This shift would have a fighting chance of cutting traffic levels, rather than just talking about it. And a specific focus on walking and on bus users would have benefit for those folk most affected by the cost-of-living crisis.
We at Transform will certainly be making this case, and let’s hope that those in power can see that this might actually be an opportunity rather than a problem.