Buses, bikes and walking: Is Scotland ready to ditch the car?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 21 November 2018 in Inside Politics

Good progress in reducing emissions in the energy sector has been combined by a seeming inability to make similar reductions in transport

Cycle lane in Amsterdam - image credit: Holyrood

“Obviously, the lamppost will be moved. I don’t think anyone thinks it’s going to be left there.”

That was how Chris Hellawell, founder of the Edinburgh Tool Library, saw it. And that was one of the kinder reactions. For a while, it was probably the most controversial lamppost in Edinburgh.

Actually, the problem wasn’t the lamppost itself. The problem was that Edinburgh City Council had seemingly put it directly in the middle of a cycle path on Leith Walk, forcing cyclists to swerve around it and onto the pedestrian part of the pavement.

The social media reactions rolled in, and most of it was probably unfair. As council transport leader Lesley Hinds explained: “This cycleway is still under construction as part of the wider Leith programme public realm improvements and the path is currently for pedestrians only.

“For consistency and cost-effectiveness, all lighting columns, including the one in question, will be relocated to their new sites by our contractor in the New Year.

“The section of protected cycleway between Pilrig Street and McDonald Road, which will be finished with a distinctive red chip surface, is due to open to cyclists in spring 2017.”

The light has now been moved, with cyclists able to travel freely without risk of colliding with either cars or pedestrians, but it’s easy to see why it gathered so much attention. It seemed to be public policy towards active travel summed up in a single image. Expand the space available to cars on Leith Walk, but when you build a cycle path, stick a lamppost in the middle.

Actually, with one of the best bus systems in Scotland and free from some of the major, car-packed roads dominating other major cities, Edinburgh fares relatively well on green transport, particularly following the publication of a city-wide consultation on designing a cleaner and more accessible transport system. Complaints over the priority given to cycle networks are certainly not limited to the capital anyway, with a new report from Sustrans laying bare frustrations with Scotland’s cycling infrastructure. 

The report found that, of the of 2,657 miles that make up the National Cycle Network in Scotland, 57 per cent were rated as ‘very poor’, and with another two per cent considered ‘poor’. It found just two per cent of the route was ‘very good’, with another 39 per cent classified as ‘good’.

All of the routes classified as ‘very poor’ were on-road, with 56 per cent of the issues relating to concerns around traffic safety. Sustrans Scotland national director John Lauder said: “Scotland’s unique geography means that a large proportion of National Cycle Network routes here are based on rural roads.

“And whilst it is heartening to see that the majority of our off-road routes are good or very good, which reflects the investment by the Scottish Government, in particular over the past five years, and the commitment by our partners, we still face a big challenge where National Cycle Network routes are on public roads.”

He added: “Scottish Government investment of £6.9 million in the National Cycle Network has allowed us to upgrade and develop a number of key sections of route, including some of which have been identified as priorities within this report. However, there is still more which needs to be done.

“Our review of the network has given us a clear insight into what improvements need to be made and we are optimistic that between our plan and Scottish Government’s ambition, we have the direction and support to create a network in Scotland that works for everyone.”

These concerns over Scotland’s approach to active travel are echoed by sustainable transport campaigners Transform Scotland. As director Colin Howden told Holyrood: “Despite the budget for active travel increasing to £80 million in the 2018-19 Budget, we’re still decades behind other northern European countries in cycle investment.

“The Netherlands currently spends around £25 per head on cycling. To match the Dutch, we’d need to see the Scottish cycle budget rising to around £120 million per annum. However, the Dutch have been investing heavily in cycle infrastructure for forty years.

“We would do well to instead look at Norway, which is trying to catch up quickly, and is currently investing around £145 per head in a one-off investment stimulus, in a genuinely transformational programme of cycle investment.”

These calls have now found a target in the shape of the new Transport Bill, with Stage 1 currently working its way through parliament, Stage 2 expected in January or February and the Stage-3 vote anticipated in summer 2019. The bill would then be implemented around the end of 2019, or the start of 2020.

Some proposals have been welcomed, with plans to introduce a ban on pavement parking – with exemptions for certain streets – backed by both disability and pedestrian organisations. Meanwhile, the inclusion of plans for low emission zones in the bill – where they can be scrutinised and assessed in terms of how they impact on other areas of transport – has also been welcomed.

But there have also been concerns over the speed of implementation, with campaigners warning that the standard enforced – euro 4 standard for petrol and euro 6 for diesel cars – are not stringent enough to really push change, given that normal fleet turnover will lead the majority of vehicles complying with these standards anyway. If a euro 4 engine is pretty much any petrol car bought after 2005, then most cars would comply by the time the zones are enforced, regardless of government action.

Speaking to Holyrood, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson said: “What is the legislation adding that the natural turnover of fleet that we would expect to see will achieve anyway? If we look at other commitments and policies, for example, the commitment to phase out the need for fossil fuel vehicles by 2032 and various other local changes, we might well expect to see the rate of fleet turnover increase. So, in short, we are concerned that the provisions for low emission zones don’t do nearly enough and set out such long implementation periods that the legislation will achieve very little by the time it comes into play.

“Either we bring in an agreement in which we revise the emissions standards regularly – say, every three years – to increase them, or we bring forward the implementation period. It’s moving far too slowly. There are 2,500 premature deaths each year in Scotland because of air pollution, so if we are looking at another ten years before low emission zones are fully in place, that will mean another 25,000 premature deaths. It particularly impacts the very young and the elderly, so that’s children growing up in cities with polluted air, going to school in areas with illegal levels of toxic air. Our concern is improving air quality for vulnerable groups as quickly as we can.”

And while air pollution continues to exceed legal limits in areas across Scotland, the Scottish Government’s annual emissions reports regularly show that good progress in reducing CO2 in the energy sector has been combined by a seeming inability to make similar reductions in transport.

To green campaigners, the answer is pretty simple. Stop the ministerial obsession with car use and move to active travel and public transport.

In response, the Transport Bill contains measures to increase use of public transport, particularly through provisions for local authorities to run bus services where there is an unmet transport need.

But again, campaigners have urged the government to go further, amid warnings that only giving councils the power to take over services where private companies are unwilling to run them will just mean local authorities subsidising private operators.

As Thomson put it: “If there is a route where there is an unmet need, that probably means private operators have chosen not to run a service there because it doesn’t make a profit. So it will be vital for people on that route who need buses to get around, and it will be vital in reducing air pollution, but it might not make a profit, and that traps local authorities into continuing to subsidise private operators. It is also questionable how you assess that unmet need, and who decides.”

Instead, FoE Scotland is calling for local authorities to be granted the powers necessary to run their own bus companies.

Thomson said: “The clearest way for local authorities, and to allow spec-change improvement in public transport, is for all councils to be able to run services anywhere, along any route, competing with private operators. Where bus passenger numbers have fallen off a cliff – particularly in the west of Scotland – that goes alongside the routes being cut and people being stranded. Even in areas of high population, those two things go hand in hand. Councils need the ability to compete with private operators so they can run services which are busy, which will make a profit, so it can be reinvested to subsidise routes and upgrade the fleet.

“We’re not going to encourage people to move to walking and cycling and using public transport unless the bus network is massively improved – unless it is made affordable and accessible and the size of the network is increased. At the moment, lots of people can’t use buses to get to work or make whatever trips they need because there isn’t a stop near them. We need the buses to work for us in making that transition, and in increasing the efficiency of buses. A double decker bus can hold the equivalent of 75 private cars, but it’s essential the network is improved.”

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