Nicola Sturgeon’s failure to champion road tolls and other car-use curbs could come back to haunt her – Alastair Dalton

As soon as I saw Nicola Sturgeon was to make a major speech that covered the environment at the venerable Brookings Institution in Washington DC, I thought of one of its former senior fellows and his work on road congestion.

I was privileged to have met Anthony Downs, who died last year aged 90, several times as a friend of his son, and knew of his work for the policy body which included books such as Stuck in Traffic and Still Stuck in Traffic.

He recognised the unpopularity of road tolls, concluding in 2004 that peak-hour congestion was “almost certain to get worse during at least the next few decades, mainly because of rising populations and wealth. For the time being, the only relief for traffic-plagued commuters is a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle with a well-equipped stereo system, a hands-free telephone, and a daily commute with someone they like."

However, for Scotland, in a world faced with a climate emergency little realised back then, that’s not an option.

Edinburgh is among councils which have been considering congestion charges (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

To meet its challenging emission reduction targets, the Scottish Government wants to cut traffic by 20 per cent within eight years.

That’s a hugely tall order when our car travel has risen inexorably since devolution and before.

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Ministers have proposed a raft of “soft” measures such as improvements to walking and cycling, and better broadband speeds, to encourage less automobile use.

But experts believe curbs on cars will also be required for the target to be achieved. Why would motorists voluntarily drive less when hardly any have for years?

A Transport Scotland consultation in January suggested a change in the public mood on road tolls, referring to a Social Market Foundation study last year that found more people supported than opposed road pricing as a concept, with a majority agreeing it would reduce congestion and pollution.

However, I wonder if the First Minister signed off that document, because I’ve detected her being curiously reluctant to champion restrictions on driving – when political bravery is needed to tackle one of the major sources of Scotland’s emissions.

In her speech in Washington on Monday, she acknowledged that achieving Scotland’s emission-reduction targets would involve “some genuinely difficult decisions”, involving “significant behaviour change” such as “cutting overall car use”.

But what will the past SNP transport leaders on Edinburgh and Glasgow city councils, who have voiced the need for vehicle curbs, have thought of Ms Sturgeon’s timid approach when challenged last month by the Tories? It’s as if attacking drivers, seen as a sacred cow by some right-wing media, is a no-go area for some politicians.

Asked by Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross at First Minister’s Questions in the run-up to the council elections whether she supported plans to charge motorists to drive into the two cities, Ms Sturgeon initially responded by saying those who “require to use our roads” should be “supported” through good road maintenance and reducing motoring costs – and batted the issue of charging for local authorities to decide.

Pressed further, Ms Sturgeon said, “I do not support road tolls” and “people continue to need their cars”.

If we get to 2030 with little progress towards the 20 per cent target, will Mr Downs have been proved right?

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