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‘Now is the time to invest for the long-term future of our public transport networks’

Published 24 June 2021 by Transform Scotland

In our ‘Transport Recovery – Rebuilding Public Transport Patronage’ report published on 25 June 2020, we examined the impact of the pandemic on public transport and the routes to recovery – focussing in particular on measures needed to enable a ‘green and healthy’ recovery. Twelve months on, report author Paul Tetlaw reflects on what has transpired since.

In her foreword, Christine McGlasson, Managing Director of Xplore Dundee, outlined an optimistic view of the future where roads were not jammed with traffic, congestion was a thing of the past and the air in our towns and cities was cleaner and healthier. That was a view that I echoed as essential if we are to create a sustainable transport system that benefits all sections of society.  Christine urged us to be bold and ambitious and make the right decisions to put Scotland at the forefront of a move to a better transport system – taking a golden opportunity  from a global crisis.

I highlighted the 30% of Scottish households without access to a car, a figure much higher in larger cities. I also stressed  the much greater impact of the virus on those suffering from obesity and associated diseases and those with breathing difficulties resulting from poor air quality. The report also stressed the failings of government in relation to Covid-19 and transport, in particular, the demonisation of public transport by members of the UK Government and the prioritisation of drive-through testing and vaccination centres by Scottish and UK Governments when it is now understood that local walk-in facilities are the key to getting to all of the population.  Aligned to these failings we highlighted the reluctance — or sheer lack of will on the part of government — to help the population at large understand the true risks associated with our current transport priorities. Key aspects include the 30,000 people annually killed or seriously injured on the UK roads and the similar number who die prematurely from poor air quality. Inactive lifestyles similarly take a huge toll on public health and result in many billions of pounds of additional expenditure for the health service in treating the consequences of such lifestyles.

So twelve months on, what is the picture in transport terms? Have we captured the benefits of lockdown and the huge reduction in road traffic that we experienced and are we now moving towards a more sustainable and healthier transport system?  Sadly the most recent statistics published in early June by Transport Scotland paint a depressing picture which shows significant falls in all forms of public transport and active travel while car journeys are now at 95% of their pre-pandemic levels.  Clearly, the potential benefits of greatly reduced road traffic levels have not been realised.

To its credit the Scottish Government has provided financial support to public transport to allow key workers to travel and local authorities have introduced ‘Spaces for People’ measures on a temporary basis. However, there is now an urgent need to introduce changes to our transport system to create a greener, healthier and more efficient one for society at large and to tackle the many downsides of our existing system and its current priorities. Critically, we must make the right investment choices now and for the long-term future. The National Infrastructure Commission in its May 2021 report stated that governments need to look beyond short-term projections to guide post-Covid infrastructure decisions. It highlighted the fact that public surveys and initial responses as the UK edges out of Covid restrictions are not a reliable guide to shifts in mass behaviour over the longer term. And what is undeniably true is that mass behaviour in transport use is fashioned by government policies and spending priorities. So we now urgently need a set of policies that encourage the preferred shifts in behaviour.

Before setting out what is required, it is worth stressing the consequences of our current transport policies and priorities. Climate change is driven by carbon emissions, and there has been no real progress in reducing these in the transport sector, where road traffic is the dominant cause. Our town and city centres urgently need a recovery strategy. Here, less car traffic and greater use of public transport and active travel are the proven way forward and a far more efficient way of moving people. Poor local air quality and inactive lifestyles lead to many premature deaths and huge additional cost to the NHS. So it should be clear that a radical shift will benefit climate emissions, public health, transport efficiency and overall government finances.

Now is the time to invest for the long-term future of our public transport networks. Bus is and will remain the major mode of land-based public transport – and bus priority measures are urgently required on all city and urban transport routes.

Now is the time to invest for the long-term future of our public transport networks. Bus is and will remain the major mode of land-based public transport – and bus priority measures are urgently required on all city and urban transport routes. This, coupled with investment to develop a modern, low-carbon bus fleet will make bus a much more attractive option for more people.

Light rail is a proven way of attracting motorists from their cars and the existing systems in Edinburgh and Glasgow should be further developed. Beyond that Dundee and Aberdeen both have populations large enough to justify light rail developments when compared to continental European cities.

Heavy rail is the backbone of the public transport system connecting all corners of Scotland and the seven cities. The existing government commitment to make rail quicker than the car between the cities is not going to be delivered with the current focus on a multi-billion pound road-building programme. The rail electrification proposals are welcome but not enough on their own to deliver major modal shift from the car to the train: more capacity is also required. The objective should be to connect all communities with a population greater than 10,000 to the rail network.

The ferry network is a vital link to the more remote parts of Scotland and should be connected to land-based public transport via easy and convenient interchanges and decarbonisation of the fleet must be pursued to meet climate change targets.

Coupled with the above investment priorities there is an urgent need to reform ticketing to enable smooth and simple transfer between modes as a core element of an integrated public transport network.

Whilst active travel is not the focus of this review it is clear that major investment is required to develop safe and segregated networks in all town, city and urban areas and that these should interchange with public transport network.

None of the above is radical, indeed it is the norm in many European countries and others around the world. If Scotland is to take its place on the world stage as a modern, forward thinking and attractive country there is a pressing need to focus transport investment in the sustainable modes described above and not in a continued major road building programme.

However, that alone is not sufficient to create the societal shifts that are required and road traffic reduction and modal shift must be pursued by demand management measures such as reallocation of road space and road pricing. Further, there is an urgent need to address land use planning to ensure that no more car- dependent housing, shopping and business developments are constructed and to develop ways to retrofit existing such developments to provide effective public transport and active travel routes.