Alf Young: Fresh drive needed to get us out of cars

As the Forth Road Bridge approaches its 50th anniversary, we remain 'in thrall' to the car. Picture: Ian Rutherford
As the Forth Road Bridge approaches its 50th anniversary, we remain 'in thrall' to the car. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ONE of the many celebrations being lined up for Scotland’s referendum year is a 50th birthday party for the Forth Road Bridge. A ten-day festival is promised when that particular big day arrives, in September 2014.

And it looks as if the old lady is already preparing to welcome the fireworks and the flotillas.

Some sustained work with the hairdryer has, we learned this week, left her brittle tresses in rather better shape than anyone had dared hope not so long ago. Latest inspection of the 590mm diameter spun cables, from which the bridge deck is suspended, suggests corrosion in the 10,618 high tensile wires in each cable is being retarded.

The bridge-master described the results as “encouraging”. Green Party MSP Alison Johnstone claimed they removed the central justification the Scottish Government had made “for blowing over £1 billion on a new bridge”. But that younger model, the Forth Replacement Crossing, is already emerging upriver and will be making her presence fully felt by the time the party gets under way.

So, it’s rather late to reconsider the rationale for the new bridge. But it’s not too late to ask a much bigger question: is mainstream devolved politics in Scotland so in thrall to the car that it is incapable of delivering a more sustainable, affordable and convenient public transport infrastructure that would actually start weaning more motorists out from behind the wheel?

The hard evidence is not encouraging. Scottish Household Survey data from the beginning of devolution in 1999 to the latest 2011 numbers shows scant willingness among Scots to leave the car keys at home. Just under three out of four of us, when asked if we had travelled anywhere the previous day, say yes. Of those who had, back in 1999, 65.4 per cent had gone by car. By 2011 that dominant percentage was still 63 per cent. The next most popular choice is walking (19.5 per cent in 1999; 22.1 per cent in 2011). Going by bus limps in with a 9.4 per cent share in 1999 and had fallen to 9.1 per cent 12 years later. Rail, which is gobbling up £741 million of this year’s £1.88bn Scottish transport budget, managed to attract just 
1.4 per cent of travellers in 1999 and had only got to 2 per cent by 2011. Simply getting on your bike isn’t that far behind the best ScotRail can offer us, a 1.1 per cent share rising to 1.3 per cent over the same timeframe.

About a quarter of all Scots who are travelling are commuting to and from work. And a separate data series for them, derived from the Labour Force Survey(LFS), broadly confirms the same picture. In 2000, 67 per cent of the 6,000 LFS Scottish sample went to work by car or van. By 2011, that had risen to 68 per cent. Bus use had fallen from 13 per cent in 2000 to 12 per cent 11 years later. Rail’s share flatlined at 4 per cent and cycling’s at 2 per cent.

On the latest figures, 30.1 per cent of Scots households have no car. Some 44.5 per cent have one car, another 21 per cent two and a further 4.4 per cent three or more. That means seven out of ten Scottish households have one or more cars. And it seems that for all that successive Holyrood administrations have done to expand concessionary travel schemes for the young, the disabled and the elderly, for all the new rail lines being opened and the new cycle ways being rolled out, the everyday travel choices we make have barely budged.

For the vast majority of Scots, the car remains the mode of choice when travelling even comparatively short distances. In September 2000, there were extensive forecourt protests and blockades of oil terminals when the price of petrol and diesel hit 80p a litre. In the past couple of weeks, as the average price of fuel has climbed from a little over 130p a litre towards 140p, there’s been barely a squeak – even from tabloid headline writers.

Had the latest hike been down to the Chancellor raising duties again, then there would have been howls of protest. But when it’s market forces, motorists now just grin and bear it, it seems. We accuse power companies of profiteering when our gas and electricity bills keep on rising, but it seems we are determined to keep our cars on the road at almost any price.

I’m not sure why, in this era of profit-seeking bus and train operating companies, we still talk about public transport. But embracing the “public” transport alternatives can be challenging. Last year, my older son Ewan and I made a week-long journey round Scotland to explore 15 community initiatives trying to reshape their own lives. All the way from Dunbar to Knoydart, criss-crossing the country, trying to capture what had inspired us and some of the lessons we’d learnt in a wee book we called The New Road.

Our hectic schedule meant visiting up to three communities in a day. But we were determined to do as much of the journey as we could by bus and train, by subway and ferry. For the most part, we managed it. But some links were only possible because our editor, Carol, drove us there. You try getting from Dunbar to Twechar at lunchtime on a Saturday any other way. Or from Renton to Comrie by train and bus in less than four hours.

Unemployed youngsters in Twechar need two buses to get to the nearest job centre in Kirkintilloch just five miles away. And timetables aren’t always what they seem. When, at one point in our journey, we got off the train at Kyle and crossed the Skye Bridge to Broadford on a Stagecoach mini bus, the driver told us another bus would be along from Portree in a few minutes to take us to our next destination, Armadale on the Sleat peninsula.

It didn’t arrive. Like the bemused French hikers we were sharing the bus stop with, it meant waiting for more than a hour in the beating midday sun for the next one. It seems on school days, some island bus services are simply diverted to the travel needs of pupils.

Scotland’s national transport strategy predates the arrival of the first SNP minority administration at Holyrood in May 2007. It was put in place by the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2006. It has plenty to say about embracing a much greener, more sustainable approach to how we all move around. Its survival right through to 2013 suggests a wide political consensus behind it.

But the hard facts of the travel choices we actually make suggest that consensus is failing to deliver meaningful behavioural change. Even on the latest survey evidence, car use remains stubbornly high. And on nearly two out of every three car journeys made, only the driver is in the car. Some valiant efforts are being made to encourage car sharing, more park and ride, greater use of car clubs, better cycle ways and countless other initiatives.

But their impact this far is marginal. Politicians need to back up their rhetoric about sustainability with some serious action on the convenience of “public” transport alternatives and what they cost if, like the majority of the travelling public, you aren’t young enough or old enough to take advantage of the concessions on offer.