'I still have the scars on my back from my radical ambitions': Sarah Boyack reflects on being devolution's first transport minister - Alastair Dalton
It was an exciting new political era – the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament after 300 years – and with it, bold plans to tackle transport's biggest problem.
The first transport minister under devolution, Sarah Boyack, took us back to that time, two decades ago, in the latest of a series of online election hustings I’ve been invited to chair by sustainable transport campaigners Transform Scotland.
The Labour politician, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, set out to achieve what each of her successors have also vainly strived for – drivers switching to public transport to reduce congestion, emissions and casualties – and improve health.
For Ms Boyack, that included congestion charging, workplace parking levies and re-regulation of the buses.
However, road tolls were effectively booted into touch when Edinburgh’s plans were decisively rejected in a city referendum, workplace parking charges were dropped from legislation because of widespread opposition, and the bus plans were never implemented.
In attempting to curb car use head-on, Ms Boyack experienced one of the most turbulent stints in the role of transport minister – and 20 years on, she said it had had a lasting impact.
"I still have the scars on my back from my radical ambitions in 1999,” she admitted.
"When you tell people they can’t use their cars and you don’t have an alternative for them, you just get a rebellion on your hands.
"If I was allowed to go back in time, there are a lot of things I would have done differently.”
Ms Boyack was also candid about her mistakes in attempting to increase local authority powers over privately-run bus operators, wishing she had made them “actually useable”.
She told the hustings event last Friday: "What I put in place was a 300-page document for how local authorities could work with bus companies – and it was just too complicated and nobody ever used it.”
On the face of it, little progress has been made on the issues with which Ms Boyack tried to get to grips in the 20 years since she was in office.
Traffic and car ownership are at record levels, while bus use is in sharp decline in parts of the country, partly because of cars clogging the streets.
However, workplace parking levies are now on the statute book – ironically, despite Labour opposition – although no council has yet to take up the powers.
While there has been a growth in train passengers, they still account for a small minority of travellers, and rail also requires significant public subsidy.
Bus and rail fares have increased by some 25-80 per cent over the last decade but there has been little change in the cost of motoring, which has lagged below average wage increases and the overall cost of living, according the Royal Automobile Club Foundation.
Covid pandemic travel restrictions aside, perhaps not enough of us are yet sufficiently inconvenienced by traffic jams and poor air quality for any groundswell of popular opinion to develop for another determined attempt at change.
So long as drivers think it’s cheaper and easier for them to continue to use their car for every journey, it will take the political bravery with which Ms Boyack set out for any hope of change.
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