COP26 climate change summit: Scotland's cities need to make car travel less convenient to help reduce carbon emissions – Gary West, First Bus

We use reusable water bottles, recycle religiously, and buy eco-conscious brands. We bring our own carrier bags and choose local produce over exotic offerings when we shop in a supermarket… and then we drive home in our cars.

It’s a generalisation, sure, but there is undeniably an element of many people’s ‘climate awakenings’ that leaves behind one important change that could deliver a hugely positive impact: taking public transport.

Today’s climate emergency is urgent and we’re fighting many battles to turn the tide. We’ve worked hard at First Bus to discover how fast can we charge an electric bus to full power when it’s not in service – and how many we can charge at once.

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We’ve made tech breakthroughs to deliver the world’s first hydrogen-powered double-decker, and we’ve committed to having a carbon-neutral fleet by 2035. But the efforts of these engineers, scientists, and technicians to achieve these great feats are sadly just a drop in the ocean if we can’t get Scots to change their travel habits.

After Glasgow welcomed world leaders to Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, the talks continue with an entire day set to be dedicated to discussing public transport, and our city’s efforts will be put under a global microscope. One thing we expect will resonate loudly is that while change in the industry is essential, a change in the public’s behaviour is even more so.

Every bus journey has the potential to take dozens of cars off the roads, clearing our cities of both congestion and pollution. Yet, within city centres and on busy routes, cars still surround buses, sat still in traffic, with their empty seats, all heading in the same direction.

The sad truth of the matter is that while we all know that taking the bus is greener, this knowledge alone is not enough to get people out of their cars and onto a bus. Taking the car is still simply more convenient.

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So where does the responsibility lie in getting everyone, quite literally, on board?

In recent years, the government has made funding available to support us in improving our infrastructure and onboard customer experiences. This has proven vital in getting us to where we need to be in order to meet our net-zero targets.

But what we require now is a more robust approach in tackling the shift from private to public transport. We need to make it less easy or convenient to travel by car in and around our city centres.

It won’t be an approach that is met with great enthusiasm by the public on first appearance, but the reality is that private transport is still far too accessible within Scotland. We are a nation stuck in our daily routines, reluctant to consider the minimal amount of planning required to swap private transport for an eco-friendly bus.

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The ease of private transport has led to damaging and archaic views about bus travel. For too long now, buses have been stereotyped as dirty, run-down and unreliable.

There’s an element of snobbery to it, too. While often unspoken, there’s an opinion held by many that bus is a lesser mode of transport, only to be adopted if you cannot afford a car – or even the train.

These wildly inaccurate perspectives add yet another horizon to reach in the march towards encouraging people to choose the bus over travelling in their cars.

The recent introduction of free travel for those aged 22 and under in Scotland is a solid step in the right direction. We know that Generation Z are fully engaged around issues relating to climate change and sustainability so the move to transition them to seeing bus travel as ‘the norm’ will go a long way in finally eradicating those existing prejudices for the next generations to come.

However, that shift will take years and is too long to wait in today’s climate crisis – we need change now.

It’s time we took lessons from cities like London and New York. There, celebrities, politicians and multi-millionaires all take public transport without a second thought. That’s because, within these cities, public transport is non-negotiable.

It’s the go-to option for fast, efficient, and more environmentally-friendly travel. And whilst it’s not impossible to drive in these cities, there are measures in place which make it far less appealing, such as limited and expensive parking and slow traffic due to public transport taking priority on roads.

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Using public transport has never been easier with smart phones at our fingertips. We can track buses in real time, plan journeys in cities we’ve never visited before, pre-order tickets, and use contactless methods of payment.

With fewer and fewer excuses remaining for why not to use public transport, it’s perhaps time for a lesson in tough love to incite behavioural change, for the protection of the planet.

Glasgow is already leading the way in introducing low-emission zones in the city. And very soon it will have the UK’s largest electric vehicle charging station too, as we transform our Caledonia depot with state-of-the-art technology to support our growing electric fleet and future-proof transport for the city.

But Glasgow’s next move needs to be a bold one, involving every single one of us, if we’re to clean up our city’s air and emissions and lead the way for others to follow.

So, when you’re next sipping from your green bottle, carefully making sure your waste is divided properly for recycling, or enjoying a punnet of locally grown strawberries, ask yourself this: “Could I forgo my next car journey, and take the bus instead?”

You might find that you actually end up with more time on your hands as our drivers will watch the roads for you, leaving you to shop, email, or catch up on the day’s news while you get from A to B.

Gary West is engineering director at First Bus Scotland and a chartered environmentalist

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