Scotland's addiction to driving was exposed in the snow

Written by Tom Freeman on 13 March 2018 in Comment

The Beast from the East exposed our addiction to the motor car, no matter how dangerous the warnings

 

The Beast from the East in Edinburgh - credit kaysgeog

Cars buried in snow, upturned lorries and trains at a standstill. 

Periods of unusual and adverse weather give a transport minister a run for their money and the rest of us a keen awareness of how much we rely on getting around.

As the Beast from the East prowled, and the first ever red weather warning – a risk to life – was announced across central Scotland, Humza Yousaf warned Scots to stay at home.

 

“I'd urge people to follow police advice and to avoid travel,” he warned, adding that people could become stranded.

Scotland apparently ignored him. Two days later, Yousaf seemed dismayed to see traffic jams on live feeds of trunk roads.

“Can I reiterate, if you travel you’re putting yourself at risk and possibly in danger. Don’t take weather warnings lightly,” he pleaded.

Some apparently did. An eight-mile tailback on the M80 between Glasgow and Stirling spent up to 13 hours motionless as the Beast from the East pounced. Fifty vehicles were abandoned. 

Communities gathered together to shovel their roads free of snow - only to pile them on the pavements, leaving the infirm and disabled trapped in their houses and pedestrians forced to share the roads with traffic.

The fact people take to their cars despite warnings should not come as a surprise. 

On the same day as the MET office issued its first warnings, a Transport Scotland report was released which showed car traffic has increased by over five per cent in the last five years.

It also showed 2.9m motor vehicles were licensed in Scotland in 2016, the highest number ever.

This is during a period which has seen plenty of equivalents to a red weather warning. Traffic pollution has been recognised as the leading cause of air pollution in Scotland, poking a huge hole in the Scottish Government’s ambitions on climate change emissions. It is regularly above the legal limit.

Meanwhile, emerging evidence has linked directly diesel pollution with heart disease and thousands of deaths.

Warnings, it seems, do not trump reliance on the motor car. 

But there is another factor here, which is a lack of quality alternatives. In that same five-year period the number of bus passengers has fallen by 10 per cent.

In a Citizens’ Advice survey last week, around 60 per cent of Scots found their bus services infrequent, poor value for money and with confusing information on fares. 

Like many of Scotland’s MPs, I was stranded in London during the storm as links to Scotland were buried under snow. How the other half lives.

Thirty years of upgrades to London’s integrated transport system – to the tune of £30bn – really show. You can hop on and off buses, underground and overground trains 24 hours a day, using only your debit card’s contactless payments, which caps your daily spend at the price of a travelcard.

This seamless public transport idyll is under threat. Transport for London faces a £1bn deficit after losing central government funding. A TfL contact told me it meant the publicly-owned company was looking at reducing services on less busy lines.

But the secret of TfL’s success, he told me, has been politics and investment.

When transport is the only main policy responsibility of the London mayor, each has sought to make his impact on the only big infrastructure plaything available to them.

“It’s this idea that public transport is infrastructure, it is about having something there that supports the economy and allows it to flow, rather than a series of businesses in their own right,” he told me.

A far cry from what has become of the once integrated transport network in Glasgow, where private firm FirstBus recently increased fares for under-16s by 40 per cent and for the unemployed by 10 per cent.

Transport could become a major factor in Scotland’s economic transformation. An integrated public transport system like London’s would stimulate growth, serve disadvantaged communities and offer affordable alternatives to polluting traffic jams. 

But like setting off into a blizzard, it would require some bravery.

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