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Clear and consistent advice required for rebuilding public transport patronage

Published 14 July 2020 by Matt McDonald

Large parts of society are reopening — including the tourism, hospitality, and leisure sectors — as lockdown is gradually lifted in Scotland. This will drive the increased use of public transport, as has been accepted this week by Scottish transport minister Michael Matheson

Yet as reported by Transport Focus in their UK-wide review, there needs to be ‘clarity of messaging’ for public transport users. Disseminating accurate and concise information to potential passengers will be crucial to making sure that transport’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic does not lead to increased car use and air pollution in Scotland. However, there is an apparent disjunct between the government (which seems to accept that public transport use will now recover, including for leisure and tourism trips), those public transport operators who are now encouraging people back (with appropriate safety measures in place), and those that are continuing to emphasise that the use of their services is only for ‘essential journeys’.

Advice from the Edinburgh Trams website (which is more difficult to find) advises that you do not travel unless your journey is essential.

Advice from Stagecoach on ‘Travelling safely in Scotland’ clearly advises people only to travel if the journey is necessary.

We welcomed the confirmation from the transport minister that the lifting of the 5-mile travel limit included the use of public transport. It was also pleasing to see the continued emphasis that walking and cycling should remain the priority for local and short journeys. However, the messaging around what type of journeys public transport should be used for remains unclear and has evidently not been communicated properly to public transport operators or the public. 

For example, the ScotRail website warns that only essential journeys are permitted on their trains, and a similar sentiment is echoed by some bus and light rail operators (see below). However, other operators (including Calmac, Lothian Buses, McGill’s, and Xplore Dundee) are not messaging about avoiding their services (or, if this advice is included on their websites, it is far from prominent). While there may be differences between using various forms of public transport during the current phase of the recovery (for example, whether you are asked to wait indoors), it is at best confusing that some public transport remains for essential journeys only, while others can be used by anyone, for any journey, as frequently as desired.

A pop-up that opens when you load up the ScotRail website clearly discourages travel.

This image from the EasyJet website is clearly encouraging people to fly.

So how can we expect the travelling public to plan those journeys of distances beyond the scope of walking and cycling without providing clear and consistent guidance on whether public transport should be used? 

Perhaps the greatest contrast comes when comparing advice from the aviation industry to public transport operators. The EasyJet website invites visitors to ‘Fly with confidence’, which is a stark contrast to public transport users being told only to travel when it is absolutely necessary. As Paul Tetlaw has put it (see below): Why is it safer to travel by plane without physical distancing to a beach on the continent, than to travel to beaches on the Scottish coast by trains that are adhering to physical distancing?

In our recent report, ‘Transport recovery: Rebuilding public transport patronage’, we noted that: 

“During the recovery period there will be a vital role for governments to work with operators to support the networks and rebuild patronage.”

It is clear that much greater effort is required by Scottish Government and Transport Scotland in providing the consistency of message required to rebuild public transport patronage. We need to see urgent action here to ensure that public trust is restored in our public transport network.