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June Newsletter — Director’s Note

Published 16 June 2020 by Colin Howden

Risky Business

Risk was the theme of our evidence to the Parliament’s transport committee.

The recording of the 10 June evidence session is available on Parliament TV at

Setting out the “broader risk context”, Paul Tetlaw outlined the risks of a Corona Recovery that sees a “great expansion of car use” at the expense of public transport: air pollution, climate emissions, obesity, car-clogged cities, and the undermining of decades of growth in rail travel.

“[I]f we consider public transport alongside other modes of transport, … we know […] that travelling by train is 20 times safer than travelling by car in terms of the likelihood of dying in an accident, and that it is hundreds of times safer in terms of the likelihood of being seriously injured. Similarly, travelling by bus is much safer than travelling by car.”

However clumsily it has been framed and articulated, the UK Government’s ‘Stay Alert’ message was clearly an attempt to communicate that decisions need to be taken, both centrally and personally, about the risks of coronavirus infection, but also the risk of continuing to suppress economic activity.

Over the past few weeks, there have been vociferous appeals from the construction, retail, hospitality and tourism industries for the lockdown to be relaxed — and this week’s reopening of all non-essential shops, in England only, shows the product of this lobbying.

However, as was clear from the transport operator representatives who gave evidence alongside Paul, Scottish public transport will only operate under the direct Scottish Government instruction to strictly enforce two-metre physical distancing. Meanwhile, the UK Department for Transport makes no such demands on aviation, merely calling for physical distancing “where possible”, and easyJet says that zero physical distancing will be fine on their planes. So what has the greater risks attached? Three hours on a flight to Portugal, or ten minutes on a bus to Portobello?

What has the greater risks attached? Three hours on a flight to Portugal, or ten minutes on a bus to Portobello?

Of course, public transport needs to be offering safe services, and ones that are perceived to be safe. But we also have to be very careful that we don’t risk fatally undermining confidence in public transport over the longer-term. So decisions will have to be taken soon about when is the ‘sweet spot’ for the greater reopening of public transport.

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. But where is the evidence that public transport is a major risk factor? [See note 1]

Let’s be clear that we’re not arguing for scrapping two-metre distancing at this time. If the best medical advice is that this is what is required then we should stick with this. But how can this advice be skipped for commercial aviation while it is strictly enforced on buses and trains (despite these services also, generally, being supplied by the private sector)?

There are also risks of omission. The efforts of Local Authorities in implementing physical distancing measures may have been halting and partial, but there have been active travel schemes implemented in weeks that would normally have been mired in years of prevarication. For its part, Sustrans is being asked to spend 60% of its normal annual budget over the course of a single quarter.

But what exactly is Transport Scotland contributing? Yes, it is managing the suppression of public transport use. And we have praised the more balanced messaging around public transport than that seen at Westminster (most notoriously, Grant Shapps’ “civic duty” to avoid public transport).

What is it doing to suppress car use? What demand management measures are being readied for implementation should there be a surge in car use post-lockdown? And, if not, what risk analysis has been applied here?

As we argued in our response to the STPR2 consultation, we’ve needed enhanced road traffic demand management for decades. But despite the threat of a spike in car use, we see no evidence of action here. Earlier this year, we had been told that the ‘Managed Motorways’ programme (bus priority on the Glasgow motorway network) would be progressed swiftly, but we’ve seen no progress. If Local Authorities can scramble to implement ‘Spaces for People’ schemes, why hasn’t Transport Scotland been able to bring similar urgency to the road space reallocation commitments made by Scottish Ministers in their Programme for Government?

“History tells us that such events pass. We must look beyond the crisis and consider what sort of transport system we want to build for the future, and we need to plan for that now.”

For all the worthy talk of ‘transport hierarchies’ in its policy documents, this will prove meaningless if Transport Scotland sits on its hands as car volumes rise again. The only concrete action we have seen is preparations for the re-opening of road construction sites.

As set out in our ‘Just Recovery’ report, it’s clear that car users are now blatantly disregarding Scottish Government lockdown ‘advice’ to stay at home. We know that there is some risk in the use of public transport. But where is the risk analysis of the implications of allowing for unfettered growth in car use?

As painful and disruptive as it has been, the Corona Crisis will pass, but we will still have the Climate Emergency to deal with, and public transport will be desperately needed for that. As Paul put it in his evidence, “History tells us that such events pass. We must look beyond the crisis and consider what sort of transport system we want to build for the future, and we need to plan for that now.”

That planning is urgently needed — but, at the moment, there is very little in the ‘Transport Transition Plan’ that gives us confidence that Transport Scotland is taking the urgent action required to ensure that Corona Recovery is one that is both just and green.

Colin Howden
Director, Transform Scotland


Note 1: 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.”