This pandemic has given us time to reflect on the world that once was – the transport successes we’ve seen in recent years, as well as ambitious strategies and policies which have been met with limited action. As we look back, one thing is clear: the fewer controlling minds involved, the more likely we are to make progress.
The Queensferry Crossing, the M80, the M74 and the reinstatement or extension of rail lines were all achieved with a national effort – not through councils being able to find the time and resource needed to prioritise transport. Whilst it’s great that authorities can decide where they spend their money, the reality is that they’re strapped for cash and have many pressing priorities.
It’s not easy to persuade councillors and numerous officers across the country, who have too much on their plate, to focus on the action needed. Our current system, whereby the government hands councils money to deliver certain services, just isn’t working and it’s making it very difficult to deliver meaningful change at a time when we need it most – and when we have the public on side after experiencing how pleasant their local areas can be, free from congestion.
The prism of Covid risks taking our attention away from achieving the oversight we need. Covid has undoubtedly dominated the global agenda in recent months, but there is scope to use it as an opportunity to pivot our approach to transport infrastructure and strategy.
We’ve got to get the zeitgeist right: we need to worry about protecting the population from this virus, but we can’t turn our backs on seriously rethinking the way we live in our towns and cities. We must work towards a greener future, or we risk coming back to decimated town centres and congested streets, with all the pollution, social inequality and negative economic impact that comes with that.
There’s no denying that First Bus had its best punctuality and reliability ever during lockdown; traffic levels were so low and very predictable. But already, we’re seeing a significant increase in cars on the roads with some hotspots hitting pre-Covid congestion levels.
When one thing so many of us professed not to have missed during lockdown was the daily commute, it seems absurd not to strike while we have the chance to finally build a bus network which will take people out of their cars and onto public transport.
Imagine ridding ourselves of that wasted hour, sat in traffic among other frustrated commuters. Or banishing the feeling of injustice and stress as you find yourself half an hour late because you left home five minutes later than usual, to a distant memory.
Despite none of us wanting to go back to congested roads and polluted streets, here we are, reverting to type, with a core reason being that, for some, there remains no viable alternative.
To achieve the change we need, we require bigger picture thinking, greater attention to the job in hand and a single, collective approach. No one wants to be inconvenienced. No one wants to pay more. But progress doesn’t come free – or at all if it’s about keeping the nimbies happy.
When Ken Livingstone brought in the congestion charge in central London, he was met with outrage. And yet, everyone’s seen the good it’s done, and people saw something in his leadership – a second term in office was the reward for his vision.
Transport planning needs to be put back into the heart of what we do. Our policies, strategies and green travel plans will sit on the shelves and gather dust unless we bring into force a mind to make them happen. Long-term decisions made by government, such as investing in the trains, should be coupled with a plan for buses, coaches and trams. It’s important that we look at the full picture of transport planning to achieve a network that’s efficient, good value, connected and meets demand.
As the Scottish Government is currently recasting its strategic transport vision, we find that buses still barely get a mention. First Bus in Glasgow has more passenger journeys than ScotRail, but our bus network in the city is not considered strategic. It’s a strange world we live in when the long-distance, white-collar commuters matter more than the blue-collar citizens needing to get from A to B locally.
Of course, in terms of passenger distance, trains do come out on top. But we must consider volume, and buses carry about four times the amount of people. Bus travel needs to be at the top of Transport Scotland’s strategic plan and we need a national vision to benefit the future of these most-relied-upon routes and their connecting links.
Commuters travel across many local authorities, daily, to get to work – so why do we restrict transport planning for buses largely to within council boundaries? Planning within these boundaries might work for education, social care and bin collections – but these physical limitations shouldn’t have anything to do with transport.
Regional partnerships or groupings for transport planning, like the emerging Forth Valley Partnership, seem a more sensible way to move forward, particularly in conjunction with the City Region Deal focus.
When it comes to transport planning, many hands can make light work if we’re referring to Scots as a whole, each making a small decision to change for the greater good. But to help that happen, we need one mind, or one body, to look at the bigger picture and keep the wheels turning.
Andrew Jarvis is managing director of First Bus in Scotland