Alastair Dalton: The vested interest blocking cuts to air pollution

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Everyone wants to cut congestion and pollution in Scotland’s cities, but winning popular support for action could still prove to be difficult, writes Alastair Dalton.

Yesterday, the Glasgow Connectivity Commission, established by Glasgow City Council, urged a major re-prioritising of roads for people, cycles and buses over cars. The report highlighted that a road lane could accommodate up to 12,000 bus passengers, or 10,000 pedestrians or cyclists an hour, but only 1,100 people in cars.

Buses are far more efficient than cars, but the latter are still Scotland's most popular form of transport (Picture: Robert Perry)

Buses are far more efficient than cars, but the latter are still Scotland's most popular form of transport (Picture: Robert Perry)

In Edinburgh, the capital is also developing plans that could lead to a significant shift in city centre road space away from cars. City council transport convener Lesley Macinnes spoke on Tuesday of an “appetite for radical change” for which the time was “ripe”.

She was among politicians and transport officials taking part in the first of a series of roundtable discussions on the subject organised by the Urban Mobility Partnership, a new UK body set up by bus, train and tram operator Stagecoach and car rental firm Enterprise. There was no dissent at the meeting in Edinburgh, which I chaired, about the problem of urban congestion. As Financial Times technology correspondent Tim Bradshaw observed at the weekend, gridlock is the great leveller of the 21st century, affecting rich and poor alike.

However, tackling it in a way that makes any difference is likely to involve draconian measures. The last attempt at significant change ended in failure when Edinburgh’s plans for congestion charging were decisively rejected in a local referendum in 2005. There will need to be popular support for any changes Edinburgh and Glasgow seek when the car is still by far Scotland’s favourite mode of transport. Measures are likely to boil down to limiting access to city centres by cars and vans. However, as Enterprise Scotland director Diane Mulholland reminded Tuesday’s forum, they are still the biggest purchase some people make. That makes for a pretty important vested interest.

Consultant George Hazel, who was Edinburgh’s chief transport official in the 1990s, said the key was persuading drivers that switching to another form of transport was good for cities as well as their pockets. There were also concerns from Stagecoach Scotland managing director Robert Andrew, who asked where bus stops would be moved to if more city centre streets were pedestrianised. He said services operated better as cross-city routes rather than terminating in city centres and returning. To improve such flows, Glasgow City Council has proposed re-introducing buses to the Argyle Street shopping precinct for the first time in 40 years to remove the current detour.

But the biggest warning signal came from Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce chief executive Liz McAreavey, who said further pedestrianisation in the city centre would be a “big step” which must be done carefully.

In Glasgow, the Connectivity Commission report does not explicitly mention the need for gaining support for change. Its authors said it was for the city council to consult, and the commissioners included Glasgow Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stuart Patrick and Anne Ledgerwood, general manager of the St Enoch Shopping Centre, which has its own car park. Getting everybody on board will make for a smoother ride, even if some prove to be reluctant passengers.