A recent blog from the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT, Transform Scotland’s equivalent south of the border) tackled five common transport myths to sort fact from fiction.
Transform policy advisor Chris Day reviews these myths and presents five more of his own that he believes need to be dispelled.
5 common myths
Myth 1. Not many people get the bus nowadays
As the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) noted, buses are the most used form of public transport. In Scotland, almost 3/4 of public transport journeys are made by bus. Passenger numbers are near pre-pandemic levels. So it’s crucial we have regular, reliable, affordable, zero-emission buses in every village, town and city.
Myth 2. Flying gets me where I need to be quicker than the train
CBT says comparing journeys like for like (the full journey time) reveals that rail travel from within the UK to the near continent is generally quicker than flying. In fact, 14 of the top 20 busiest UK routes are quicker by train if airport travel and processing times are included.
CBT makes the good point that the ‘total journey time’ by plane is often underestimated. For Scotland, improvements in rail journey times (such as LNER’s recent announcement of Edinburgh-London journey times being cut to under 4 hours) further debunk the myth.
Myth 3. Everyone owns a car
In Scotland, 1 in 5 households do not have access to a car and only 50% of lower income households have car access. CBT makes the point that a society built around driving means they can end up neglected and excluded, particularly in areas which lack a decent public transport network. It is important to note that, for the many people who do own a car, it may not be out of choice but due to a lack of other alternatives.
It is also worth remembering that car access for individuals within car-owning households will not be equal. That is, there will be plenty of people within those households who have only patchy car access because the car(s) owned are driven off in the morning to sit in car parks for the day.
Myth 4. Public transport doesn’t work in rural areas
CBT argues that this reflects a funding imbalance. Their analysis revealed that, south of the border, the top 12 local authorities awarded the most government funding for sustainable transport are all urban authorities. This may be true, but at Transform Scotland we’d argue that more effort needs to be put into finding formats and models for rural public transport that do work.
Myth 5. Building more and bigger roads will help reduce congestion
CBT notes that we cannot build our way out of congestion with more and bigger roads because of ‘induced traffic’. The more road capacity we create, the more traffic uses it. This additional traffic results in the predicted congestion benefits of a new road being quickly undermined.Indeed; as anyone who’s paid any attention to Transform Scotland will have noticed, we’ve been banging this drum for years.
Myth 6. There’s a War on Motorists
For the long answer, it’s hard to beat this piece by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre.
1.8 million cars were registered in Scotland when the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999; but this rose by over a third to 2.5 million in 2020. Similarly, in 1999, cars drove 31.6 billion km in Scotland, and this has risen by 16% in the decades following.
Meanwhile, relative to the Retail Prices Index measure of inflation:
• the cost of motoring fell by 19%
• rail fares increased by 31%
• bus and coach fares increased by 102%
(Note: data for rail fares GB-wide; some ScotRail fares have increased less)
Moreover, the Scottish Government has invested more than £11 billion in maintaining and expanding strategic roads since the mid 2000s. Extra costs are incurred by projects like the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and M8 completion, using contracts which spread the cost over many years. The Infrastructure Investment Plan 2021-26 includes road projects expected to cost over £6.5 billion.
Scottish Councils made £39.4m from parking in 2019-20, £14.44 for every car registered here. Meanwhile, most drivers already own vehicles compliant with Low Emission Zone limits or will switch before enforcement starts. LEZs cover an estimated 0.38% of Scotland’s road network.
No Scottish local authority has yet committed to introducing a Workplace Parking Levy. The Scottish Government currently has no plans to introduce road user charging or road tolls on the trunk road network, and no Councils have done so.
Myth 7. Reopening all the closed railways will fix transport
Many railways have been closed since the Victorian ‘railway mania’, with the most famous closures taking place as part of the ‘Beeching cuts’ in the 1960s.
It is often believed that reopening such railways is a simple means of reconnecting communities with sustainable transport. We believe this to be true in some instances (for instance, the Borders railway or the Buchan Line) but prioritising investment for reopening all old railways will not solve all our problems since:
- Old railway routes often reflect the pattern of Victorian passenger and freight demand, which often bears little resemblance to today.
- Many old railway trackbeds have been built on or obliterated.
- Even where trackbeds survive, there is usually no way of linking them into the existing network, which is already capacity constrained (for example, Glasgow’s St Enoch station, or Edinburgh’s Princes St station aren’t there now!).
Myth 8. The problems with buses will be solved by re-regulation and municipalisation
A commonly held (but often controversial) belief in transport circles is that local authority ownership and/or re-regulation of bus services will boost service reliability and patronage. This claim is often accompanied by data or graphs showing the decline in bus use since deregulation (1985).
But the data quoted rarely shows that bus use has actually been declining since 1945; if anything it has levelled off in recent years. This is also usually cited alongside successful municipally-owned bus operators like Lothian Buses (or Reading, or Nottingham City Transport), but omitting the less successful ones like Boro’line Maidstone or Halton Transport.
Sometimes, but not always, this argument goes no further, with no insight into how municipal and/or regulated bus operators would turn patronage around. In 2017, KPMG (‘Trends in Scottish Bus Patronage’) showed that the most important factors were car ownership (by far), online services, and journey times; none of which are addressed by regulation or municipal ownership.Sometimes it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s about local authorities dreaming about what they could do if they ran bus operations instead of thinking about what they can do about bus-friendly local planning and roads.
Myth 9. The aim of transport planning is (or should be) to help everyone get around
Transport is a ‘derived demand’, that is, a means to an end, rarely an end in itself. So it’s about how to achieve societal goals without compromising others. In the 1950s to the 1980s it was assumed this meant maximising individual mobility, until it became clear that this imposed significant social and economic costs, often on those who benefited least from it.
More recently, a balance has been struck, though there’s still a long way to go. Sometimes wider societal goals are best achieved by minimising individual mobility, or maximising the most efficient forms of mobility.
Myth 10. The best public transport solution is [insert favourite mode here]
The question of which mode of public transport is best can divide a room, with some claiming trams and subways, some advocating for railways and others making the case for buses. However, the best public transport solution is the one which best addresses the particular problem. If there’s very high demand, for example over 40,000 passengers/hr, it will be heavy rail. If it’s modest demand, for example up to 5,000/hr, it will be buses. Light rail is somewhere in between. This also applies to costs and buildability; heavy rail is very expensive and difficult, buses cheap and fairly easy, light rail somewhere in between.
A combination of modes is needed to make up a reliable transport system which addresses the needs of communities. It is crucial that these are integrated to make mobility easy and accessible for all.
We’re keen to hear your views on common misconceptions in transport and encourage you to submit your own myths to firstname.lastname@example.org.