How do we avoid a post-lockdown traffic tsunami? - Alastair Dalton

Lockdown hasn’t been eased in Scotland, but you can tell some people are itching to get back into their cars when they are finally allowed to travel.

The normally busy Clyde Street in Glasgow city centre is among roads earmarked for wider pavements after lockdown. Picture: John Devlin.

Many will be fearful of coming into close contact with others on buses and trains.

It’s an unsurprising reaction, since the idea of being cocooned in your own sealed metal box will be an attractive option for those anxious to protect themselves at all costs.

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Others have expressed scepticism about the worth of more space for walkers and cyclists providing a feasible transport alternative.

The M8 in Glasgow city centre.

Road traffic has already started to increase, with Transport Scotland reporting on Wednesday a 20 per cent rise since the start of lockdown in March, even if most of it has been local trips.

Coupled with that is the falling cost of fuel, making motoring even cheaper compared to other forms of transport.

The RAC has said petrol is at its lowest price for four years, with scope for it to fall below £1 a litre because of tumbling oil prices.

However, if you didn’t previously commute by car, changing to that mode might turn out to be a very selfish choice because of all the knock-on effects.

They include extra congestion and emissions, and the heightened road safety risk of more vehicles on the road.

Transport secretary Michael Matheson last week warned MSPs of just such an outcome.

He said: “If people simply jump into their cars, we will have gridlock because the cities will not be able to cope.”

But how are we going to avoid that happening? We don’t yet have a pay-as-you-drive system like there is on public transport, such as higher peak-hour fares, so road traffic can’t yet be curbed that way.

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And I doubt whether even those motorists who have noticed the benefits of the much quieter roads - have you noticed the bird song? - will care two hoots that by driving more they will be contributing to the shattering of that calm.

What certainly must not happen is for any easing of the limited restrictions on traffic in urban areas, and any suspended parking charges should be re-imposed.

Many of us have adjusted to working from home - The Scotsman is produced from kitchen tables and spare rooms with no one in our offices - and it’s likely some people will continue to after restrictions have been eased, or at least for part of the week.

Strong encouragement for that from Mr Matheson and Nicola Sturgeon could have a significant positive impact on pollution and congestion.

Many people drive simply because it’s the easy option. If you’re paying for the car, why wouldn’t you use it?

But that’s not seeing the big picture, and the fact that if much of the recent increase in traffic is for short trips, many of them could have been made on foot or by bike - especially during the prolonged good weather and with less busy roads.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to re-balance the way we get around.

Two decades of devolved government have achieved virtually nothing in shifting people out of their cars.

If we come out of this unique transport hiatus without capitalising on the chance to steer urban Scotland away from its car dependence, it will be to the country’s lasting shame.

And if we end up in a worse situation, with record traffic levels and all the negatives that would ensue, such a dire situation could prove even more difficult to address.

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