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Associate Feature: A road well travelled

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Associate Feature: A road well travelled

When Valerie Davidson is considering the strategy of Strathclyde’s transport network, she puts herself in the position of people using her services on a daily basis.

“Transport is an investment, it’s an investment in people’s lives,” she says. “People think transport is buses or it’s trams. It’s not – it’s actually about people. But it’s about getting people from A to B where they need to be.”

Davidson is head of Strathclyde Partnership Transport (SPT), Strathclyde’s transport body, covering 2.2 million people in the west of Scotland in 12 different local authorities.
A former accountant, she is aware of not only the human but the economic cost to both the individual and the state when transport goes wrong.

“How do we calculate [the cost] when Mrs McLaughie can’t get to a hospital because the bus isn’t there – and she misses an appointment?” she says.

“Apart from anything else, that’s a waste. We can’t calculate that, but we know it happens. So that’s the value of transport.”

One of seven Regional Transport Partnerships (RTPs) in the country, SPT owns and operates transport services – including the Glasgow Subway and a number of strategic bus stations in the region – as well as being a transport planning organisation.

Not all RTPs, however, do the same, with many smaller entities taking a far more low-key role.
Davidson wants to see a more joined-up approach, with more powers passed over to Scotland’s RTPs.

Existing legislation under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 gave new powers for RTPs and local authorities. Notably, it allows local transport authorities to run their own bus services, franchise bus services in their areas, or enter into a Bus Service Improvement Partnership with bus operators in their areas. It is expected that these new powers will be given effect through secondary legislation by the end of the year.

However, Davidson believes there are a range of additional responsibilities that could be given to transport partnerships to help them take a more direct role in transforming public transport.

“We need to start talking about transport in a completely different way,” says Davidson, who was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Public Transport Award at the Scottish Transport Awards in June after two years in the chief executive role at SPT. 

“You build a school, you build a hospital, and then somebody says, ‘Oh, how are we going to get people to it? We need to be thinking about transport as the investment first, to get people to that area, not as an afterthought.”

Of all of the RTPs, SPT is the largest and the most varied in terms of the powers and the services it provides.

Even SPT, however, has problems with integration.

In Scotland’s cities, multiple different bus operators run different routes, while the subway in Glasgow and the tram network in Edinburgh are separately owned and operated.

Meanwhile, although SPT operates bus stations at key hubs including Buchanan Street in Glasgow and in Partick, in Edinburgh the main bus station is run by the City of Edinburgh Council.

“It is only when public transport starts not to be there that it becomes important,” she says. 
“I spend half my life responding to correspondence about ‘why doesn’t bus A connect with bus B and why doesn’t the bus connect to the train station?’. And my response back to them is: ‘I can’t tell a bus operator what to do and how to run the timetables.’

“There is something about that whole integration piece that I think RTPs potentially could play a really important role. It’s not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but there are regional bodies there so we should be using them effectively. 

“We need to be using them better and giving them the right powers to be able to do that. SPT as an RTP needs to be able to deliver and have that voice over the whole integration.”

SPT is keeping a close eye on not only the experience of Transport for London, which runs the Tube as well as bus services across the UK capital, but changes to the delivery of transport in Manchester and Liverpool. It is also keen to learn from European cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, where an overarching transport body uses the private sector to deliver integrated services.

Davidson points to calls from the Urban Transport Group and Centre for Cities for all cities to have an integrated transport network.

“They’ve also said that we need to start looking at integrated transport and groups to allow integration over the roads too – and that’s when you will start to see the value,” she says.

“We need to value transport and recognise its contribution to health care and contribution to education.”

However, she does not suggest moving to an entirely publicly-run system.

“There is very much a place for private sector; I’m not suggesting an all-state model,” she says. “It needs to be the right powers and funding to ensure that there is a properly integrated system, and private sector operators have a really important role to play in that.”

SPT is working with operators on a project to transform the current Glasgow ZoneCard into a smart card format which would allow people to use multiple modes of transport in one day. Davidson hopes this could be in use by the end of this year or the beginning of next.

”We’re edging towards it. But we’re not there yet,” she says, pointing to the necessity to engage multiple private sector operators. “The crunch will come when we start to look at the ticket price in due course.”

For consumers, an integrated transport card seems like an obvious and fair answer to the problem of travelling across a city with multiple transport options.

During climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow two years ago, all delegates were given a card which allowed them access to a smart card system allowing them to travel for free across the entire city – sparking calls for a similar system to be rolled out for all. This was only made possible by the smart card being funded in full by the UK Government.

The current Glasgow ZoneCard does not cover services such as First Glasgow and Stagecoach night bus services.

“The technology is not the problem; the technology works,” says Davidson. “We do have some integrated tickets, but they can be expensive because those tickets are competing with commercial operators’ individual tickets. 

“When you’re looking at trying to bring together a group of operators for an integrated ticket, they all want their share, it comes down to commercialisation. I’m not saying commercialisation is wrong, but we have to look at the affordability of the whole thing.”

She points to changes in consumer transport needs since RTPs were first created in 2005 – not least since the Covid pandemic and the resulting changes to people’s commuting patterns amid an increase in home working. 

“Now we have to be looking at how do we get to be the best transport network that we can be?” she says.

“And that is to look at if the powers are in the right place and ultimately, the resources needed to deliver that. 

“It’s not all about building new things. Sometimes it’s about just delivering services. Services don’t always require new shiny things.”

She adds: “This isn’t a power grab, that’s not what this is about. This is about having the conversation with decision-makers.”

This article is sponsored by Strathclyde Partnership Transport (SPT)

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