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Why has Scottish public transport recovery lagged behind the rest of Great Britain?

Published 08 July 2021 by Transform Scotland

Transform Scotland has today published a new paper, ‘A Just Recovery for Transport?’, which reflects on pandemic trends in transport, and the differing impacts that this has had on private and public transport use. The paper follows an initial report, ‘Just Recovery’, which was published in June 2020.

The paper makes four key findings:

  • Finding 1: There have been different mobility outcomes for private compared to public transport users
  • Finding 2: Scottish public transport recovery has lagged behind the GB average
  • Finding 3: We have observed better outcomes for public transport users when decisions about service levels are taken locally
  • Finding 4: Negative government messaging about public transport users may have been negatively biased by unrepresentative monitoring of Scottish transport users’ attitudes

In its final section, the paper argues that finance-led pressures to reduce the Scottish Government’s support to public transport by increasing fares or by continuing to suppress service frequencies would be counterproductive in terms of the sector’s immediate and medium-term recovery:

“The support from Scottish public finances that has been required for the maintenance of public transport services during the pandemic, while substantial, is no different in principle from the heavy support to other essential sectors such as health and education. The transition back to normality is likely to be extended for rail, bus, and ferry operations, not only because of the strong evidence that recovery of ridership levels after extended disruption is not a quick process and because of possible long-term changes in working patterns, but also because any capacity limitations that remain in place for public health reasons will continue to inflate the cost base of public transport while constraining its revenue growth. Finance-led pressures to reduce the Scottish Government’s support to public transport by increasing fares or by continuing to suppress service frequencies are likely to be counterproductive in terms of the sector’s immediate and medium-term recovery.

“Beyond that, such a policy would inevitably perpetuate unacceptable injustice and transport poverty for a significant proportion of the Scottish population and be fundamentally at odds with both the Scottish Government’s equalities objectives and the urgency of its climate change objectives. These overarching imperatives cannot be met if the route to recovery for those reliant on public transport remains inferior to that available to car users.”