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Coronavirus impacts on transport & the priorities for recovery

Published 27 April 2020 by Transform Scotland

In advance of Tuesday afternoon’s Ministerial Statement on transport in the Scottish Parliament, Transform Scotland has published some early recommendations as to measures that the Scottish Government should be prioritising as it starts to assemble its recovery plans for transport.

Transform Scotland director Colin Howden said:

“The public has shown it is willing to make huge changes if the need is demonstrated. It appears to be showing greater respect for expert scientific advice, and the Government itself has shown itself prepared to take the advice of health experts. This suggests an opportunity for the Scottish Government to lead the transition towards something more positive.

“While it is still very early to identify the longer-term impacts of the pandemic both in Scotland and across the world, we would nonetheless make the following early recommendations.”

Transform’s five recommendations for the Scottish Government:

1. Reinforce measures for the avoidance of transport.

The rapid uptake of homeworking and videoconferencing demonstrates that the avoidance of travel is practicable for a significant portion of the population. While we might expect a bounce back towards face-to-face meetings in the medium-term, efforts should be taken to reinforce options for homeworking and the use of videoconferencing.

2. Lock-in the increased walking & cycling, and lower levels of pollution.

Many more people appear to be walking and cycling, taking advantage of the reduced levels of road traffic. Meanwhile, numerous examples of cities around the world are taking action to reallocate road space to these most sustainable modes of transport. Urgent action is now required in Scotland to ensure that this increase can be locked in once the initial lockdown is ended, and to provide adequate space for physical distancing in the short- to medium-term. It is encouraging the city administrations of Edinburgh and Glasgow are reported to now have the support of the Cabinet Secretary in taking forward such measures.

3. Put in place a major programme to rebuild public transport patronage.

The drop in public transport patronage is unprecedented in its scale and extent. Even given the welcome temporary government financial support to public transport operators for the period of the lockdown, these companies are likely to have suffered severe financial repercussions, and it remains to be seen what are the long-term impacts on public transport patronage. There is understandable concern that the narrative about physical distancing will have reinforced negative perceptions about public transport — irrespective of whether public transport itself had a significant role in the spread of the virus. [1] It is undoubtedly the case that a major effort will be required by the Scottish Government and Local Authorities to rebuild public transport patronage. A failure to do so, coupled with historically low oil prices, will lead to worsening levels of climate emissions, air pollution, and congestion. It would also have major social justice implications given the greater reliance of lower income groups, women, younger people & older people on public transport, and in particular bus travel.

4. Tackle irresponsible behaviour by road users.

A minority of road users appear to have taken advantage of the increased road space to behave irresponsibly: that is, by speeding and dangerous driving. We encourage and support enhanced action to punish this damaging anti-social behaviour.

5. Ensure that economic stimulus packages incentivise a ‘Green Recovery’.

Given the economic damage that the pandemic will cause, we expect that there will be calls for spending on infrastructure projects to be brought forward. Given the ongoing Climate Emergency, we propose two imperative features of all new infrastructure spending. Firstly, all new capital expenditure should be low-carbon — not least to correct the systematic bias towards high-carbon capex carried out by Transport Scotland over the past decade. [2] Secondly, in order to maximise multiplier effect benefits for the Scottish economy, priority should be given to capital expenditure projects which have greater potential to be carried out by Scottish companies and Local Authorities. [3] Only by following these principles can we be confident that economic stimulus packages can incentivise a true ‘Green Recovery’ from the pandemic. [3]



  1. We note that Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, was attributed in The Herald on 15/04/20 as having said that “evidence from China showed the virus spread more readily in families than public transport”. In the piece, he is quoted as saying “Clearly there is a population density argument but it’s quite complicated. I’m not sure it’s as simple a comparison as population density and death rates. … Was it pubs, schools, transport? I think we have to wait and have a good look at the data after the virus has died down to see just how transmission took place.” See <>.
  2. Scottish Parliament Information Centre ‘Scottish Government infrastructure investment’ briefing, 15/01/19. Figure 13 demonstrates the systematic bias, historic and current, in Scottish Government capital expenditure towards High-Carbon transport. See <>.
  3. This is likely to require capacity building & skills training in building low-carbon infrastructure at Transport Scotland and in the Scottish Local Authorities. This major transformation in capacity was already overdue if we have any chance of tackling the Climate Emergency let alone assuring a Green Recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.