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The National

How to improve Scotland’s public transport system

Get Glasgow Moving’s Ellie Harrison writes in The National on how to improve Scotland’s public transport system.

The SNP conference has acknowledged that transport is the greatest contributor to climate change, but it has failed to recommend the most obvious solution – better buses.

The motion passed today will do nothing to meet two key aims of the Scottish Government’s new National Transport Strategy: to “reduce inequalities” and “cut car miles by 20% by 2030”. Public investment in electric vehicle infrastructure will only intensify inequalities, as it predominantly benefits the wealthiest who can afford new cars. It also does nothing to take cars off the road, which is what is now most urgent – to improve the nation’s health, reduce congestion and slash our overall energy demand.

What we need instead is massive investment in improving our public transport networks, particularly our buses. To really “reduce inequalities” and meet climate targets, we must urgently deliver a public transport system that is just so good, that everyone can get where they need to go as quickly, reliably and affordably as possible, without needing to own a car.

It’s not rocket science to deliver either. The best place to look for inspiration is Switzerland – a relatively small country with some equally challenging terrain, Scotland could learn a lot. In the 1980s when the UK was wilfully destroying its bus network by deregulating buses everywhere (except London and Northern Ireland) – opening the door to the rip-off bus fares and unreliable and poorly-coordinated services we have now, Switzerland was doing the opposite.

They enshrined in law the human right to public transport and set national minimum service standards. Even the smallest village would be guaranteed a bus service once an hour, from 6am to midnight, 7 days a week. Frequencies increase with settlement size, and bus routes and timetables are planned to connect seamlessly at nearby railway stations, pulling up alongside the platform with a cool three-minute wait until your train departs to take you into the nearest town or city. This makes public transport easier and quicker than driving – and the default option for everyone to get around. And it’s relatively simple for the Swiss to deliver because each regional public transport authority owns and controls its own network.

One of the key reasons we can’t deliver this here is because the Scottish Government has so far completely failed to undo the damage caused by Thatcher’s policy of bus deregulation, after more than 20 years of devolution. It has also overlooked and chronically underfunded the seven Regional Transport Partnerships (RTPs) which should be charged with delivering this sort of system on-the-ground, in favour of channelling vast sums through its road-obsessed centralised agency Transport Scotland.

The Switzerland example shows what’s possible in even the most rural areas. But for massive city regions like Glasgow, inspiration can be found much closer to home. Because London’s bus network was exempt from deregulation they have always had a world-class, fully-integrated public transport system – but they also spend 20 times more per person on it which shows how much the Scottish Government must up its game. The spending is well worth it because it’s the only realistic way to meet climate targets, it will create many good quality green jobs, and it will benefit the poorest most. A fare on a publicly-controlled bus in London is just £1.55, and you can “hop” to as many other buses as you need within an hour for that price.

Meanwhile Glaswegians – the majority of whom don’t have access to cars – must fork out at least £2.50 for a single on privatised First Bus. And then fork out yet more if they need to change to Stagecoach or McGill’s.

The new SNP-Green Programme for Government promises a “Fair Fares Review”. Surely I’ve just done that for them, and concluded: it’s not fair. We don’t need another review – we just need to regulate fares across the nation, so everyone knows a single in rural Aberdeenshire will be the same as one in the heart of Edinburgh (where fares on publicly-owned Lothian Buses are just £1.80). We have a massive task ahead to sort out the mess our public transport is in, and we cannot afford to waste more time when the solutions are already in front of us.

Glasgow must follow Manchester’s example. In March this year they made history – becoming the first UK city region to commit to re-regulating its buses since 1986. Over the next four years Transport for Greater Manchester will roll out a fully-integrated system across bus, trams, trains and active travel. They’ll finally be able to cap fares and deliver one simple affordable ticket for use across all transport modes (something London has had since 2003 with its Oystercard).

This is all being done with the new “franchising” power created for England’s city regions in the Bus Services Act 2017. The same power will soon become available in Scotland under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, and must now be backed with funding and support so it can be fully-utilised by our RTPs – along with the new power (which Get Glasgow Moving fought for and won) that allows each region to set-up and run its own publicly-owned bus company to offer the same great service as Edinburgh’s Lothian Buses.

But here again the Scottish Government is going in the wrong direction. During Covid they introduced an ill-conceived “Bus Partnership Fund” which aims to force local authorities into so-called “Bus Service Improvement Partnerships” (BSIPs) with private bus companies. We have had these so-called “partnerships” in Scotland for 20 years and they have continually failed to deliver, because the private operators still hold all the power and can cut routes and set fares as they please.

Signing up to BSIPs will lock us into this broken privatised system for years to come – and this is time we cannot afford to lose in this most crucial of decades for the climate. BSIPs will also do nothing to tackle poverty, which requires connecting up all communities with a world-class service and slashing fares.

The situation in Scotland is so serious that in July even the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty & Human Rights, Philip Alston, took time to intervene. From his office at New York University, he chose to focus in on us because he said “privatisation and deregulation of the bus industry has provided a 35-year master class in how not to run a bus service.”

Alston’s shows that “It provides bad value for the public, does not work for far too many people, and has had severe impacts on people’s lives and human rights.” His advice is that “partnerships are… a tried-and-failed approach that should be retired in favour of actual regulation of public transport.”

The Scottish Government would do well to heed it.