Electric vehicles are good but making cities walkable is better

Many believe Scotland can be a leader in sustainable travel, whether that be for short journeys or longer trips. Electric buses, plans for more public transport networks and greener private vehicles are all in the pipeline.

Picture: Shutterstock
Picture: Shutterstock

But are we going fast enough – or even in the right direction? What more could we do, and what other options have we got to cut down transport pollution and emissions?

Colin Howden, director of campaign group Transform Scotland, says far too much infrastructure spending still goes on more traffic lanes for car drivers.

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“Unfortunately, most of the Scottish Government’s capital expenditure is still directed into road building. We think the government spent about £4 billion in the past decade on new roads and plans to spend another £7bn in the next decade.

“Transport Scotland would say it has spent a lot of money on public transport. It spends about £1bn a year on railways, but almost all of it is keeping the existing railways going. Comparatively little new spend has gone on rail infrastructure or other new sustainable transport infrastructure. The balance of capital expenditure has been on new roads.”

Howden says some schemes, such as a light railway network in Glasgow, have been talked about but not delivered, and he won’t be convinced “until we see the actual money going into sustainable transport on the ground, rather than aspirations”.

He adds: “We can’t just go on the government saying they are going to save the planet tomorrow, they need to be saving it now. Unfortunately, the decisions they have made are to invest in unsustainable rather than sustainable transport.”

He has been pleased with a move towards active travel, highlighted in the government deal between the SNP and the Greens. He describes it as a real “step change in investment in walking and cycling”, adding: “We need that. People won’t cycle if the roads are unsafe – I am a very experienced cyclist, but cycling around Edinburgh is at times unjustifiable.”

Howden would also like to see long-distance freight journeys (over 250 miles) move from HGVs on the road to rail, adding: “Look at the shortages at the moment. If a lot more longer distance hauls were on rail rather than lorry, you would need fewer drivers.”

On air travel, Howden believes some short-haul flights are unnecessary, such as Edinburgh-London, and more could be done to encourage travellers on to rail services. “We need to get rid of the majority of flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London,” he says.

He suggests the public sector could stop staff taking flights, while increasing taxation on aviation and subsidising the railways to make it more attractive to the general public. “If you need to travel to London and air travel is much cheaper, we need to change the prices.”

Howden has some optimism with “decent progress towards electric buses”, but is adamant that more investment in public transport infrastructure is also needed.

That view is echoed by Gavin Thomson, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, who believes private car use must be reduced and more people encouraged onto publicly-owned and free public transport. He says: “Transport is about one-third of Scotland’s greenhousegas emissions and that hasn’t changed a huge amount in the last 30 years.” Of those emissions,39 per cent come from private cars, he says.

“We need to move as many journeys away from fossil fuel private car use as possible. The ones that really require a car, we want to move to electric vehicles. But all those other journeys need to move to cleaner public transport, walking, cycling, wheeling, scootering.

“ Many fossil fuel car journeys are pretty short, one or two miles or less, so in an urban area it should be really easy to walk and cycle, but at the moment we are not there.”

Thomson says free public transport could be paid for from general taxation to reduce emissions and improve communities. “We should think of it as key to public life… not just because of its centrality in reducing emissions but because quality public transport is key to reducing inequality.

“People on lower incomes are much more likely to use the bus than people in other income brackets, and when we have a deregulated bus network, like in the west of Scotland, it is pretty pricey and some people cannot afford that, so they might not take the bus for wherever they were going to go. Sometimes that’s missing healthcare appointments, or just not going into town. If we make a bus network more comprehensive and more affordable, we increase access to everything.”

He has been impressed with plans for cycle networks announced recently by councils in Glasgow and Edinburgh, not just to reduce emissions but also for strengthening the economy. “Scotland’s cities compete with other cities in northern Europe for tourism, investment and employers, and when they compare our main cities to others, we’re far behind things like liveable cities and active travel.”

Central to any transformation into a more sustainable transport network is political will, and that is something Thomson says can only happen if our elected representatives step up to the plate. “Discussion around sustainable transportation is often focused on technology but the politics of it is where we need to make braver steps – it is politicians saying, ‘This is really important, we need to do this so there is a liveable planet and town or city’.”

One low-carbon technology which has come to the fore is the use of hydrogen as a fuel, and a fleet of hydrogen buses was launched in Aberdeen at the start of the year. Thomson, however, argues the use of the gas can be a “fig leaf” as it is often produced from oil.

“What happens, particularly in the north-east where the importance of oil and oil companies is so great, hydrogen becomes a politicised fuel that sounds apparently clean, renewable and futuristic. But actually it is a way for oil companies to continue extracting fossil fuel and saying, ‘It is OK because we will make some hydrogen’.”

But electric buses do get the big thumbs-up from Howden and Thomson, who highlights the developments at bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis in Falkirk, whose electric vehicles are on the road in the UK and abroad.

“Alexander Dennis is an important part of a fair transition to a zero-emissions transport system where skilled jobs can be created locally and also move us to cleaner technologies.”

Whatever changes are made, Thomson says the onus is on the infrastructure to be good enough to get people to stop using their cars. “Councils have a responsibility to make a journey by electric bus, walking or cycling the most inviting, safest, cheapest and most pleasant.”

Electric vehicles driving ahead

In December 2020, there were more than 26,000 licensed vehicles in Scotland classed as ultra-low emission vehicles or ULEVs, the majority either a pure battery or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders states that in the 12 months to May 2021, pure battery EVs, plug-in hybrids and range extender vehicles made up 10.1 per cent of all car sales in Scotland. In December 2020, sales of these vehicles reached 18.5 per cent of new car registrations, with pure battery electric vehicles contributing 13.3 per cent.

ChargePlace Scotland, the national network of publicly available electric vehicle charging points, claims it now has almost 2,100 publicly available chargers.

But concerns remain about the cost of electric vehicles, with only half of the vehicles being in private hands, against nine in ten of all cars. The average cost is about £44,000, though some come in nearer £18,000. As more are produced, however, it is anticipated the cost will drop significantly.

“Range anxiety” is also falling, as many cars are now able to travel more than 200 miles between charges.

Think ‘avoid, shift, improve’ in the push to make travel greener

Colin Howden is an advocate of the Avoid, Shift, Improve approach to sustainability first developed in Germany in the 1990s.

He says: “Avoid is about what are the measures to get people to avoid travelling – things like video conferencing, home working … some trips definitely don’t need to be taken. Shift is getting people to walk or cycle for short journeys, or use public transport, and shifting freight to rail. Improve is [things like] positioning a car fleet from fossil fuel to electric.

“It’s very much in that order … look at whether there are options to avoid travel, then whether you can change and then if [travel] is necessary, what are the efficiencies.”