Society’s environmental conscience is waking up to the link between the way we are living and the natural disasters that are happening as a result of climate change. Times are changing. But how much do the Australian bush fires really play on people’s minds on a cold, dreich morning in Glasgow when they’re making the decision about whether to drive their car to work or to travel by bus?
Inciting a shift in behaviour that sees an increase in bus patronage is far from straightforward; merely recognising the link between personal vehicle use and a suffering planet doesn’t appear to be enough to change habits. People know that travelling by bus is greener, and yet the car is still king.
To help meet Glasgow’s Low Emissions Zone targets, we’ve just completed a major retrofitting programme to replace the exhausts on a mid-life fleet whilst investing over £30m in 150 new low-emission buses. We’ve also introduced two new all-electric buses and future-proofed our depot with 22 EV charging points – a move which allows us to now consider all-electric vehicles for future investments as the EV revolution ramps up.
We’ve estimated that some of the measures we have introduced – such as new vehicles fitted with start/stop technology, retrofitting older engines to make them Euro 6 standard and driver-monitoring measures – will save over 1.3 million litres of diesel a year (the equivalent of taking 834 average cars off the road) and will significantly improve the city’s air quality. But while these great investments will help further reduce our customers’ carbon footprint, they won’t necessarily encourage more people to hop onboard, and many are unlikely to even notice the difference between a newer vehicle and the one they got on last week. Their ambition is focused almost entirely on getting from point A to point B on time and as efficiently as possible.
More roads equals more traffic
With this in mind, we need to be looking at other ways to encourage people to opt for the bus over their car. We can make noticeable improvements to the service – like free wi-fi, more comfortable seating and USB charging points – which will help make bus travel a more attractive option. Whilst we’re unlikely to see the dramatic behavioural shift that our environment needs because bus travel simply isn’t a realistic enough option for many people, we can and should be doing everything we can to engage with those for whom bus travel is a viable alternative. Buses are like the veins of the city; when they’re clogged, you’ve got problems. And the way that our towns and cities are currently planned sees single-occupancy cars restrict the free flow of traffic that we need to deliver an accessible and attractive living city. How many times do we need to prove to ourselves that building more roads simply generates more traffic?
In my opinion, more roads are not the answer. We’ve been busy building hugely expensive multilane motorways for too long now – and time and time again they just fill up, causing travel chaos in the increasingly elongated peak hours every day. People end up commuting further or choosing to travel by car more often. We don’t want to switch from congestion that’s petrol or diesel fuelled to ‘clean’ congestion with electric cars either – that still isn’t making the best use of space.
More sensible thought around how we prioritise road space is absolutely where it needs to go. Pedestrians, cyclists and those travelling by bus must be put first. So, when there’s a queue of buses building up, with hundreds of people onboard, travelling into Glasgow in the rush-hour commute and there’s no bus lane to help divert the flow of traffic, we have got to say ‘enough is enough’. We need a call to action and for bus users to be asking their local MSP, ‘Why am I not being given enough priority?’
Reinventing town centres
As the world’s attention turns to Glasgow for the upcoming UN climate change summit, Cop26, it’s time we worked on a more radical plan. Our strategy needs to be two-fold. For our services to flourish, we need routes that people want to travel on. So, we must focus on saving our fragmenting town centres as online shopping takes over and our cinemas and pubs experience a decline in footfall. We need to agree on how we want to reinvent town centres to achieve a great community hub, so that mass transport can be predictable and frequent enough for us to be able to serve the population effectively. Town centres should become a place where people live again too, so we can stop building new housing estates strung out in the suburbs, with little to no thought about how accessible they really are, leaving them impenetrable by public transport.
We need clear city plans that help us to do this, and with that, we need better regional transport planning. This is critical. Intercity, intertown and intervillage regional plans need to be more joined up and formalised. It’s not an easy task, and it needs to be carried out between local authorities, reflecting each of their regional views, but it is essential if we’re serious about seeing a move to a more sustainable lifestyle.
No one of us can do it alone. But if we can save our town centres, prioritise space for people not objects and work together to connect different regions, then those travelling into work by themselves in a car, watching a smart new bus whizz past them as they sit in traffic, might finally start to rethink the mode of transport they chose that morning – even on a dreich day.
Andrew Jarvis is managing director at First Bus in Scotland