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Prospects for sustainable transport in 2021: we’ve got to win this time around

Published 21 September 2021 by Transform Scotland

Transform Scotland’s director Colin Howden discusses the prospects for sustainable transport in light of this summer’s collaboration agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens, and the subsequent Programme for Government.

It’s amazing what hosting an international climate summit can do for one’s array of transport commitments. Yes, for the first time since late 1990s, I think it’d be fair to say that there’s now a set of policy commitments in place that is beginning to resemble a coherent sustainable transport policy set. However, we’re going to have to keep a close watch. The proof is in the pudding, and that 1990s pudding turned rancid very quickly.

So let’s have a look at this new recipe.

Traffic reduction

Last December saw the Scottish Ministers announce a commitment to reduce national traffic levels by 20% by 2030 as part of the ‘Climate Change Plan update’. This is great, and should be strongly supported. ‘Reducing the need to travel’ has always been at the vanguard of the sustainable transport position. It’s the ‘Avoid’ in the ‘Avoid-Shift-Improve’ framework which should guide our priorities.

The traffic reduction target represented a very significant change of course from the Scottish Ministers. For the previous decade, we had been told that electric vehicles would bring about the climate cuts required. This had been a convenient position to take as it relied upon EU legislation to drive cuts in the emissions from the domestic vehicle fleet, and enabled inaction elsewhere. But while decarbonising cars is a necessary component of any climate strategy for transport — the car is after all the largest single component of emissions — replacing the power source in cars does not in itself deliver sustainable transport (for a multiplicity of reasons which I won’t go into here).

But this traffic target will be very challenging to achieve, and we wait to see the Scottish Government’s plans in this area. A Ministerial Statement is scheduled for Thursday this week which we expect to cover this topic, and stakeholder engagement is expected to commence next week.

As a veteran of the successful 1990s campaigns for the Road Traffic Reduction Acts, I sincerely hope that this Scottish Government commitment comes to rather more than that which resulted from the Westminster Acts. Unfortunately, these were quickly and quietly forgotten by both the UK Government and Local Authorities, and transport policy was never really re-drawn around the need for substantially less traffic on the roads. So it will be vital to see whether the Scottish Ministers’ new plans provide more substance. I’m not persuaded that the plans will be credible unless they contain firm commitment to new road traffic management measures, that Local Authorities are financially incentivised to lead action locally, and that the Scottish Government itself takes action on this at a national level. The Greens’ deal with the Scottish Government made a welcome inroad here, with a commitment to an “analysis of options”. That’s not a firm commitment, but it’s certainly a change in direction for the SNP, a party whose early actions in power included decisions to abolish both bridge tolls and hospital parking charges.

Walking and cycling

August’s collaboration agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party contained a number of very welcome commitments on sustainable transport. Perhaps the single most satisfying was the pledge that 10% of all transport spending be devoted to active travel. This meets a campaign demand that had been pushed by ourselves and a number of other organisations since 2008 in Scotland, with this demand having been initially brought to prominence in a campaign by the UK Association of Directors of Public Health in combination with Sustrans.

It’s only with investment such as this will we see these most sustainable modes of transport fulfil their role in the transport mix. Last week I attended a report launch by Living Street Scotland which illustrated the decline in walking as a mode of transport, and its active neglect in transport circles despite its continuance as the second most common mode of transport. Living Streets are calling for a doubling of the mode share for walking from 22% to 40%; change of this scale would require massive change in transport priorities and investment.

The last year has also made cycling substantially more prominent in the transport debate, and it is heartening that Edinburgh and Glasgow councils in particular have decided to retain much of the segregated cycle infrastructure introduced in the early months of the pandemic through the ‘Spaces for People’ programme. The new funding settlement, of at least £320 million per year, will allow infrastructure such as this to become widespread.

Buses

August’s deal didn’t bring forward any new substantial commitments for buses. However, this appears to be because some quite impressive new pledges had already recently been made and are still awaiting fruition.

The Greens had previously obtained a commitment from the Scottish Ministers that free bus travel be extended to the under-22s, and this is due to be introduced from January next year.

Prior to that, the 2019 Programme for Government made a commitment for £500 million to be invested in bus priority measures and, alongside this, for the introduction of bus priority on the Glasgow motorway network (the ‘Managed Motorways’ programme). After a slow start, the Bus Partnership Fund is now starting to fund Local Authorities in implementation of new bus lanes. However, we’re still waiting for action from Transport Scotland on Managed Motorways; it’s remarkable that the Scottish Ministers have allowed Transport Scotland substantial new resources for new road-building but have allowed their agency to stall for two years in managing traffic on its existing asset base. Local Authorities have taken action in this period, for example through the ‘Spaces for People’ programmes. So why has Transport Scotland been allowed to take no action on the assets that it manages?

However, perhaps the most impressive bus commitment was that unveiled in the SNP’s 2021 Holyrood manifesto, which said it would “remove the majority of fossil fuel buses from public transport in Scotland by 2023.” We have been advocating for a large-scale move to electric buses for some time and so the ambition of this commitment is very welcome. It has taken many in the bus industry by surprise, and questions remain over whether this is indeed deliverable in this short timescale, but we at least can’t fault the Scottish Ministers for their ambition here.

Railways

The 2019 Programme for Government also consolidated a commitment to decarbonise Scotland’s railway by 2035. While we had argued that this really needs to be done by 2030 in order to meet the deadlines for rolling stock replacement, even the 2035 target will remain challenging.

The Greens’ deal talks of £5 billion investment in rail. However, this remains rather vague. We have concerns in this area because in recent years Scottish Ministers have had the nasty habit of conflating revenue expenditure on the railway with capital expenditure, and then misleadingly comparing this with the very large and very real capital expenditure on new road capacity.

Our inter-city rail network north of the Central Belt remains hopelessly under-invested. The Ministerial promises of 40-minute cuts in journey times to Inverness now seem a distant memory while billions are thrown at the A9 which parallels the Highland Main Line. And the £200m City Deal cash which was promised for journey time improvements to the Aberdeen-Edinburgh line seem to have been lost in the rail industry’s vortex of dither and delay. We can only hope that the Greens have managed to get some clarity and substance from the Scottish Ministers on their rail investment plans. For our part, we will be making our views known on the investment priorites for rolling stock and track infrastructure that will be needed to deliver a genuinely decarbonised railway.

Roads

We were pleased to see Cabinet Secretary Michael Matheson announce at our ‘Moving the Vote’ event back in April that “the days of big road development projects are coming to an end”. The Greens’ deal with the Scottish Government consolidated this commitment, and the decision to substantially scale back the £3bn A96 project demonstrates a significant reduction in the scale of the Scottish Government’s vast road-building programme. Our ‘Roads to Ruin’ report, which we published last month, found that £4bn has been spent on new roads over the past decade, and a further £7bn is due to be spent on ongoing and future projects. The A9 dualling project — another £3bn that isn’t going into sustainable transport — remains in place and, in doing so, means that the Scottish Government’s capital investment program remains grossly skewed towards high carbon infrastructure. But in paper terms at least, the new policy commitment in the August deal does represent a significant shift.

Transport prices

All of the above is focused on capital expenditure. Better infrastructure will be essential for delivering much higher use of sustainable transport. But at least for the motorised transport modes, the price incentives that people face are at least as important. Unfortunately transport prices have been favouring the move from public transport to cars for decades, with motoring becoming ever cheaper in real terms and public transport becoming substantially more costly compared to the cost of living. (For the evidence here, I never tire of pointing people to the chart which the motoring organisation RAC Foundation updates on an ongoing basis.)

RAC Foundation ‘Transport price index’, available at https://www.racfoundation.org/data/cost-of-transport-index

Government intervention here has generally made things worse, and indeed continues to do so. While the UK Government has frozen fuel duty for more than a decade, which has led to a real terms decrease in the price of motoring, it has pursued a remorseless course of increasing rail fares above inflation every year.

In this area, the Scottish Government’s plans remain so far obscure. The deal with the Greens makes commitment to a ‘Fair Fares Review’, and we await details of this review. However, with the commitment for free bus travel for the under-22s, the Government has indicated that it is prepared to intervene on price in order to drive modal shift towards sustainable transport.

It also set a precedent when introducing the Road Equivalent Tariff for ferry services, which takes as its founding principle that public transport use should be no more expensive than an equivalent road journey. So why not apply the same principles for bus and rail travel? This would be a logical place to start the Review, but it remains to be seen whether the Scottish Government will be prepared to consider this.

Of course, none of this would be cheap, but it is probably is the single most important measure in transforming the prospects for sustainable transport.

Closing comments

This is a quick overview of what I see as the main challenges in delivering a sustainable transport programme. There are clearly other issues that a longer review could illustrate. For example, can the government get its ferry vessel replacement programme back on track? Will STPR2’s promised £3 billion on Glasgow light rail come to any more than the £3 billion on Glasgow heavy rail promised in STPR1 (a commitment which was entirely reneged upon)? And will the new commitments towards 20mph traffic speeds be enforced this time (as this will remain an essential component in any push to deliver significantly higher levels of walking and cycling)?

And what will be the reaction from the forces of, well, reaction? It’s fair to say that the Aberdeen Press & Journal hasn’t taken well to the idea that the A96 doesn’t need to be dualled in full. No doubt in their next edition they’ll be telling the world that more action needs to be taken on reducing climate emissions. But they and many others continue their historical blindness when it comes to transport, which is of course the largest single source of emissions, and the one where difficult choices such as this are necessary if we are to start hitting our climate targets. If that cash is being spent on new roads rather than on sustainable transport then this prospect becomes ever more remote.

But the P&J is not alone in its reactionary opposition to climate action. There remain vast and many vested interests out there determined to continue their fight for cheaper flying and driving and more government spending on roads and aviation. Go back to the aftermath of Labour’s late 1990s’ ‘integrated transport’ initiatives, and you’ll find the road haulage industry’s fuel protests, the Daily Mail-led campaigns against road pricing, and a resultant new roads programme put in place gigantically larger than that seen previously. We can fully expect these forces of reaction to use the same playbook this time around, so we wait to see whether this generation of politicians have rather more gumption than the last in fighting this.

Climate change was well-known at that time, but active decisions were taken by politicians of many colours to ignore the health of the planet and instead pursue climate-destroying transport policies. The result is that transport is now the largest source of emissions, and the sector where there has been no improvement for 30 years. It is imperative that, unlike the failure of the 1990s, we win this time.