Roseanna Cunningham said there was a “real issue” around the “ability and desire” of people to use public transport, and stressed it was unclear what the long-term changes to human behaviour would be as a result of the contagion.
Addressing a virtual meeting of Holyrood’s environment, climate change, and land reform committee, she said that while there were welcome aspects of the shifts in the way people are travelling - such as an upturn in walking and cycling - the “willingness” on the part of the public to use the likes of trains and buses was a “real issue.”
Gillian Martin, the committee’s convener, asked if there was a danger in “banking” the emission reductions during the lockdown period, when in fact there was a “danger” of more people using cars and flights as the restrictions ease.
“We might not have made the gains people suggest just because we’ve been in lockdown,” she warned.
Ms Cunningham replied: “No, and that’s where real analysis of what’s happening is really important - it’s quite hard be analysing when you’re in the middle of managing it. To a certain extent, there is a challenge for us all there, and I’m guessing every single government is struggling with that same challenge.
“The transport issue, because it covers so many different aspects of our lives, is a real struggle. If people are not happy about going on to a train carriage or a busy bus, they’re probably not going on to a busy flight either.
“I genuinely don’t know what the answer to some of this will be. There are areas of human behaviour where we can’t be certain how they’ll look in six months, a year, or two years’ time.”
She added: “It’s extremely difficult in some areas to assess that behaviour change. We will want to build on those changs that we think are good and helpful, but there are other changes which we will want to rapidly find a way around.”
According to a Cycling Scotland monitoring scheme, the lockdown has prompted an upsurge in the number of Scots taking to two wheels.
An analysis of automatic cycle counters installed at 60 locations found that in some places, the number of cyclists had more than doubled.
Indeed, the most recent analysis of travel trends by Transport Scotland, which covered the first week in June, found that cycling journeys were up by 30 per cent.
However, the biggest increase among all modes of transport was car journeys, with the figure up by 35 per cent.
Ms Cunningham pointed to growing anticipation among car salesmen and car manufacturers that there was a “big pent up demand” for motor vehicles.
“Managing that is going to be quite difficult,” she said.
Ms Cunningham also said the pandemic had highlighted an increased use of single-use items among people, a trend she said had undermined the Scottish Government’s progress.
“One of my real concerns is the rapid return to single use items and their regrettably careless disposal,” she went on.
“There are some real issues there, where we were making really good headway and building in some fantastic behaviour changes, which to a greater or lesser extent, has now been pushed into reverse.”
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