Politics - Environment

2007 - 2022

Switching To The Socio-Eco Lane

Rob Brown laments the SNP’s 12-year seduction of car drivers and spotlights a radical practical alternative.

Living in Kinross’s conservation area, just a five-minute stroll from the south shore of Loch Leven, is rather idyllic. A crisp late autumn walk might even be blessed by one of the most glorious wildlife spectacles on these islands – the thousands of pink-footed geese guided back here from Iceland or north-east Greenland each year by nature’s sat navs.
Alas, rounding off such a prefect day by dropping into The Boathouse for brunch or lunch also serves up a less tasty reminder of how almost impossible it has become to escape completely from Scotland’s insane car culture – even on a National Nature Reserve.

Every single time I perch with my mug of tea on the dinky pier outside, eager to savour its splendid vista up the loch, I find myself distracted by the incessant stream of vehicles tearing up and down the too near M90.

Even though there are plenty totally tranquil spots around this massive open expanse of water, I can’t help regularly cursing the rank hypocrisy of a Scottish Government whose ministers and spinmeisters would eagerly rack up any number of air miles to flaunt their environmental credentials and their Europhilia.

The stark truth is that the SNP has failed abysmally for 12 entire years to adopt the sort of radical socio-ecological policies widely implemented on the continent to produce dramatic shifts from private car to public transport use.

Even the body charged with ‘delivering the Scottish Government’s vision for transport’ is finding it ever tougher to put a positive spin on the Nats’ road performance. The latest set of statistics just released by Transport Scotland show that the total number of motor vehicles licensed in this country passed the 3m mark in 2017.

No fewer than 2.5m of those petrol and diesel-fuelled automobiles (83% of the total) are private cars, of which many households have a couple parked in their driveway or clogging up the public streets.

Combine all those new and used bangers with trucks and other commercial vehicles and together they clocked up a total of 30bn miles on our roads in 2017 – a three per cent increase on the previous year.

Confronted with these noxious figures by First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon’s nostrils flared, snapping back to the Greens’ impertinent leader that greenhouse gas emissions from road traffic are slightly lower than when he SNP took power in 2007.

What the FM omitted to mention was that this reduction stems purely from car manufacturers and oil companies being legally compelled to meet increasingly strict EU emission standards. Damage to the ozone layer could have been reduced far more dramatically had the SNP devised and implemented even one truly progressive transport policy during all its time in office.

Instead, over the past five years, the number of bus passengers has continued to fall – despite the Scottish Government’s £250m annual support for the bus industry. The FM was at pains to stress this subsidy in her tetchy responses to Patrick Harvie and seemed genuinely perplexed that it hasn’t changed every single one of our commuting habits.

Perhaps a wee part of the problem is that her predecessor plainly thought that buses were for losers. Even after receiving massive donations from Stagecoach supremo Sir Brian Souter, Alex Salmond wouldn’t have been seen dead stepping out victorious from a LibDem-style ‘Battle Bus’. Who can forget him emerging with presidential swagger from that helicopter when he achieved his first (wafer thin) election win?

It should have been instantly clear right then which way his political sat nav was pointing. But none of us could have forecast just how rapidly the Nats would race away from anything resembling an environmentally responsible and socially progressive transport policy.

The main reason there are so many cars tearing up and down the M90 is because one of Salmond’s first acts on forming a minority administration in 2007 was to scrap tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. Making the whole of Scotland toll-free was a key plank in his populist strategy to secure an outright majority in 2010.

Dualling the A9 from Perth to Inverness was pursued with the same speed, although Eck could reasonably claim that these thousands of tonnes of added tarmac would reduce fatalities on some of the most notorious stretches of road anywhere in Scotland, as well as consolidating the growing prosperity of the Highland capital.

Far less justifiable was his government’s failure to build upon the rail renaissance ushered in by the Lib-Lab coalition. Laying tracks out to Alloa, Larkhall and the suburbs of Edinburgh – closely followed by extending the new commuter line between Waverley and Bathgate all the way out to Airdrie – is a legacy of the last Scottish Executive.

Credit for reconnecting the Borders into the nation’s rail network must also be given to Jack McConnell as it was his administration which pushed through the Waverley Railway (2006) Act before exiting office. Because of the fragility of his first fledgling administration, Salmond was in no position to renege on that commitment if he had been so inclined. His successor currently stands accused of gross betrayal by Labour for refusing to back a direct rail link between Glasgow Airport and Central Station. Maybe Nicola (whose constituency is on Clydeside) heard the nearby rumble of Edinburgh’s trams when this proposal arrived on her desk at St. Andrew’s House?

The SNP’s apparent allergy to light rail schemes cannot stem entirely from the astronomical cost of that capital folly – especially since most of the financial burden for completing the troubled tram project was transferred to the City of Edinburgh.

Because the Barnett Formula recognises geography and demography – Scotland makes up a third of the British landmass but has only 8.3% of the UK population – state expenditure on transport has always been considerably higher per capita north of the Border. In 2013 the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated that it was 56% more.

But what was really revealing in that IFS report was its breakdown of the figures. Spending on Scotland’s railways was only 43% above that south of the Border. The amount per capita poured into our trunk road system was 73 per cent higher.

An even better way to embarrass eco-conscious members and supporters of the SNP Government is to compare their feeble efforts with what some of their counterparts on the continent have managed to do in order to shift trends in the opposite direction – from private cars toward public transport.

In 2013, Tallin introduced totally fare-free services on its municipal buses, trams and trolleys. All registered resident need do to avail of unlimited trips around the Estonian capital is to purchase a “green card” for €2.

And the radical thinking begun in the Baltics is catching on across western Europe: more than two dozen French cities have since made their municipal buses fare-free.
The latest and largest to adopt that approach, back in the autumn of last year, was the historic port city of Dunkirk in northern France. Its hop-on-hop-off buses are precisely that – no rummaging for coins, cards or special passes required.

To put this in perspective, Dunkirk has a population of around 200,000 – roughly 50,000 more than Dundee. But when it comes to how its citizens commute to work or get to city centre shops and entertainment, Dundee is much less like Dunkirk than like Detroit. ‘Yes City’ is just as much of a Motown.

On both sides of the Atlantic, let’s face it, cars are crude status symbols and a source of social segregation. Automobiles don’t just create autonomy but atomisation. Consequently, curbing private car usage isn’t only an important way of tackling climate change, it’s also about promoting social cohesion.

One reason many Americans genuinely find it impossible to swap their autos for mass transit is what they call “the last mile problem” – the often arduous trek up and down stairs and escalators or between bus stops and trains stations to your final destination.

Our FM prefers the term “active travel”, which sounds like a whippy way to improve public health. Especially when you’re gliding by in your chauffeur-driven government car to St. Andrew’s House, while the taxpayers who paid for your luxurious transportation are trudging through rain, sleet or snow from St. Andrew’s bus station.

Surely not having to stump up any fare would massively diminish any such discomfort and persuade far more of us to leave our cars in the garage or take them for one last drive down to the local scrapyard?

So, let’s try out free-fares on some of Scotland’s buses and train services. And, to pay for this bold experiment, let’s follow the example of Dunkirk, which levels a public transport tax (the versement transport) on companies with a dozen or more employees.

Far more progressive than finance minister Derek Mackay encouraging cash-strapped local authorities to slap parking fees on even the lowest earners. The big problem with that policy – adopted in a panic in order to get Green support for his recent budget – is that it’s all stick and no carrot.

Doing away with bus fares, as more than two dozen French cities have done, would be a very juicy carrot to dangle before commuters – and the electorate.

It might not be cheap to increase service frequency on the busiest routes, or to expand the fleet of buses. But, in the words of Dunkirk’s progressive mayor Patrice Vergriete: “You can’t put a price on mobility and social justice.”

Comments (28)

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  1. Adrian Shaw says:

    In London there is the ‘oyster’ card that cover all major public transport providers and offers substantial discounts . Why not in Scotland? it would simplify and support public transport usage. You could even , to continue the fishy metaphor, call it the ‘Sturgeon’card.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Lol. Sounds a bit fishy to me!

  2. Peter Shepheard says:

    Perhaps you enjoy the rant – and I am all for reducing the effects of car use. BUT. In Scotland we have FREE use of bus transport for the over 65s. Fife has reduced train fares for Fifer’s travelling within Fife. Electric car charge points are sufficient is Scotland to allow driving from the central belt to London, from the Fife to Orkney. Scotland has increased solar and wind powered generation to a far greater level than UK generally. Let us encourage these developments – the sooner we all move away from burning fossil fuels the better.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Rant? I’d call it a provocative polemic which chimes with what many supporters of Scottish independence – and not just in the Greens – believe. You should read the chapter in 3rd and 4th editions of Christopher Harvie’s book No God and Precious Few Women. And he is the only intellectual to have ever sat on the Holyrood benches – for the SNP. My piece wasn’t about the current Scottish Government’s environmental record in general, solely transport, but I think I made a reasoned argument as to why that is socially as well as ecologically crucial.

      1. Rob Brown says:

        * that’s the final chapter in Harvie’s book, in
        which he can’t disguise his disillusionment with the SNP on this front

        1. Rob Brown says:

          The correct title is, of course, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes although Chris did concede that the first two editions could be rightly branded No Gods and Precious Few Woman – a gender bias he sought to correct in later editions, thankfully.

  3. K J Harvey says:

    If only it was that simple, car ownership is for better or worse an economic essential, as an employer in Edinburgh with a business which operates 24/7 we now employ many people who due to house price more than anything else choose to live in Winchburgh,Rosyth,Tranent, Livingston etc. Add in the demands of bringing up a family and caring for relatives and just living, shopping,leisure,cubs,brownies,swim lessons, golf, socialising , a car or two is the only way to squeeze all this activity into a busy life.
    Rob please reflect for a moment that you clearly write from a fairly well off position, whilst it is easy to tut tut about people getting on with life I can assure you the struggle to keep going only with the current stae of public transport would simply not work.
    Further to this in Edinburgh the war against motorists is I predict reaching tipping point , the comfortably off in leafy Stockbridge or Kinross are telling others how to live their life in such a superior middle class way change is not going to come before everyone shares the pain and not just the poorest and leass articulate about transport choices, think on !

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Mr Harvey, you are presumptuous in thinking I am now – or have siesta been – financially privileged. Let me tell you, the price of a property in Kinross can be considerably lower than all the places close to Edinburgh you reel off.
      I realise the practical reasons why so many people own and operate a car. I just think it’s a pretty serious situation when there are 2.5m registered cars in Scotland – a country with just 3.5m people aged between 16 and 64. I recognise there are no simple solutions but, if we don’t try to follow what the French and the Estonians are doing, we’re on the road to hell – socially as well as ecologically.

      1. Rob Brown says:

        *always not siesta! You’ll be thinking I’ve got a luxury apartment on the continent all day where I snooze away my hazy, lazy afternoons!

    2. milgram says:

      I can’t wait for The War On Motorists(TM) to break out in Edinburgh; it’s far past time that non-drivers get to start shooting back in self defence. Plus, you all are sitting ducks in those twice-daily mile+ jams on every arterial route.
      I propose a short skirmish of maybe three weeks, so pedestrians can equal up the casualty figures, nothing unreasonable of course, only 10 years worth of auto-caused fatalities rather than the whole 100+ years, I’m not a barbarian.
      Following that, a truce whereby car drivers agree to keep out of bus lanes and not park on pavements or double-yellow lines.

  4. Dougie Blackwood says:

    The writer’s name rings a bell. Is he the same guy that had a pop at Lesley Riddoch in an earlier post? Clearly he doesn’t like the SNP either with several snipes at Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

    In part he is right of course, we have too many cars and not enough use of public transport. Why is that? Is it because the SG fails to penalise car drivers or is it because, if you make a journey by bus, you are not entirely sure that you will get back when you want to. I went to something in University Avenue in Glasgow a while back. I took a train to Partick then a bus from there up Byers road and walked the rest. The thing I was visiting finished around 8pm and guess what, the bus service had stopped about 6:30 and I had to walk back to Partick; not too far for an old man but more than I wanted, a salutary lesson on the vagaries of our bus service.

    The bus routes here have been cherry picked and one reason for bad air quality on Hope St Glasgow is the solid line of buses trying to get up it while outside the city centre many areas have no service and if they do if frequently stops running early in the evening.

    There are good examples of well run public transport elsewhere in the world but the thing they have in common is that they are publicly run and funded. These places often have a single fare for any journey that is much less than those of us that pay have to stump up; the buses run frequently and most of the time; they are well used as it is economically sensible to use them. Here the privatised companies extract as much as they can from the passengers and still get a subsidy from the SG.

    What is the solution? Simple renationalise the bus service and follow the low fares good service example to get people out of their cars and back into public transport. Has the SNP government got the power and the resources to do that? Obviously not. Until that day comes we will continue with what we have.

    1. Wullie says:

      The SNP exists to get Scotland its independence not to hammer the motoring public, hammering the motorist is not a vote-winner & will never get Scotland its independence, simples!

      1. Rob Brown says:

        Where did I suggest, Wullie, that the SNP should “hammer” motorists – or anyone else? I merely proposed that they put their money where their mouth is and offer a real incentive to swap cars for public transport – just as so many of our continental cousins are doing.

    2. Rob Brown says:

      Ah, that auld argument again: jist haud yer wheesh and wait ‘til Independence Day when it’ll a’ be awricht. Sadly, my cinsiderable knowledge of Irish history and current affairs – gained from living and reporting from Ireland over a number of years – does not allow me to share your naive optimism. Also, correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t remember reading about Dunkirk and two dozen other French cities declaring UDI before they managed to introduce fare-free public transport. The fact is the SNP has had an ample financial resources to effect real radical change in all the spheres devolved to Scotland – probably more than they’d have at their disposal in the first few decades of independence if we listen to Andrew Wilson – but they chose instead to try to be all things to all Scotsmen and Scotswomen. The consequences of that are increasingly apparent not just in transport but in many other crucial spheres of Scottish life. As for your attempt to critically pigeonhole me at the start of your comment, all anyone need do to know what I’ve written previously is press the purple box at the bottom to access the archive of all my Bella articles and my responses to comments – including what you wrongly categorise as a pop at Lesley Riddich. In case you’re too busy waiting for an over-priced bus or train to dig into the the files, let me repeat: I worked happily with Lesley on the Sunday Herald and have found her recent films fairky interesting and inspiring. I am also pleased she has added her eloquent voice to the independence cause – to which I was committed long before her. But I do think she waxes simplistic about Scandinavia at times. It would take too much space here to outline why I think that. Perhaps I’ll be able to do that in another piece – if you can stand that, Dougie?!

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        The SNP are far too timid in what they do and they try and fail to please everybody. There are a number of things they should be tackling with the powers they have but have been afraid of scaring the horses. One of these things is public transport but there are several other things that need to be done first.

        The Liberals led on the early effort at land reform and the SNP should have made a real job of it. Yes they have set up a land commission but what has it done? Registration and the sorting of land ownership is essential and should be underway now but isn’t.

        All parties have shied away from replacing the council tax that is long past it’s sell by date. Graeme McCormick has been touting a land tax (let’s not argue about the name) that can do the job and, he would argue, can be a solution to many more of our financial concerns. Nothing has been done so far.

        If you listen to Labour and the Tories the SNP should abolish poverty and provide houses for everybody in the next few weeks then complain at whatever efforts they do make.

        Yes, the world is going to hell in a handcart as far as both global warming and plastic pollution is concerned but we, in Scotland, can make very little difference to the big picture. That doesn’t mean that we should do nothing, indeed Scotland is one of the leading lights is carbon reduction. We will move to electric vehicles and power them from renewable sources and that is a more realistic option than making everyone wait for a non-existent bus.

        1. Rob Brown says:

          Pleased we’re on the same page about the SNP’s timidity, Dougie. Just to re-emphasise: I don’t see a shift from cars to public transport in this small country as a magical remedy for climate change. As the mayor of Dunkirk said, it’s about mobility and social justice. The SNP might not have the power to eradicate poverty but, even under devolution, they’ve had considerable power and resources at their disposal to make life a lot better for the less affluent. But they blew it and the poor have paid – and are continuing to pay – for their lack of true radical vision.

  5. Mark Bevis says:

    There are free bus services in some English cities. Southampton has a regular free shuttle service from the train station to the ferry terminal which passes through the shopping centre, so is well used. No oyster cards, just hop on and off. Also Manchester has a circular minibus service that circulates the urban centre. These run alongside regular paying services that do longer routes.

    So it can be done. It is lack of political will, or too much love-in with neo-liberalism that is the problem.

    What also should be looked at is not banning cars per say, but banning private ownership of cars. 90% of the time cars are sat in garages, drives, on pavements and roadsides doing nowt. So as we switch to electrification of the car and even autonomous driving vehicles, the concept of just hire-to-drive should be brought in. So instead of acres of tarmac wasted as carparks, most can be removed and a few used as carpools, from which people just text/phone/app hire a car for the journey they do, then leave it in a similar carpool (or even leave it to selfdrive to the nearest carpool). You don’t own a car, you just use the next car that becomes available. Thus, the car becomes just another branch of public transport in a positive way, and we’d need much less of them.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Spot on, Mark. Doubtless there are countless other ways to get us off the road to hell. And you’re right about the SNP leadership’s sleekit embrace of neoliberalism. Just a pity so many of their followers – and apologists – are too glaikit to see where that is leading to.

    2. Colin Mackay says:

      The concept of hire to drive does exist. It’s called Co-wheels and you can get it in various cities, definitely in Glasgow. It works very well, if it was a bit cheaper I would happily use it all the time but the way my work is(lots of rural trips at unspecified times) makes it not quite financially viable so I still own my banger of a vehicle. I have 3 or 4 of the co-wheels parked within a mile or so of me in the Southside of Glasgow, including a van.

  6. Kevin Brown says:

    An excellent article. Thank you for writing it and I concur with it entirely.

    As the planet experiences climate breakdown in real time and before our very eyes, how is it not obvious that we have to curb automobile use as a first order of business? Another important point you make (although you didn’t express it quite like this) is that cars are always all about ‘me’ (‘my ride’, ‘my wheels’, my ‘style’ — my ego); while a properly functioning public transport system is about ‘we’: all of us and the common good. If we can not now manage a paradigm shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’ in light of the horrendous, and incontrovertible, climate breakdown science that is being published on a daily basis — well then! It’s all over.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Thank you, Kevin. You’re correct to amplify the point about cars and the commonweal.

    2. Colin Mackay says:

      Couldn’t agree more with this and the main article. Cycling can have a huge role to play in our cities though. Anyone been to the obvious hugely successful examples in nearby countries will testify to this. It is a very social way of traveling too. The SNP have failed so badly with transport that I think it became second nature for Scots to assume this was normal. Car use is utterly out of control a nd they are doing absolutely nothing to change this. A disgrace.

  7. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Just as an aside, and something to think about.

    I live in Helensburgh; it is one and a quarter miles up a hill that is 100 metres in height from the nearest bus stop fom my house and the same from Helensburgh central railway station. Most of the parking spaces in the town centre are for periods up to an hour and are mostly full all of the time. Outside the major cities this situation is replicated in most towns (maybe without the hill) and in smaller places they are lucky if they have any regular public transport at all.

    What is the solution? Is the Scottish government to provide many hundreds of new bus routes or are we to either walk or use local taxis to access public transport.

  8. William Ross says:


    I find your writing entertaining and thought- provoking. Even though I work in the dark side ( upstream oil and gas) can I encourage you to keep up the good work? And, oh, by the way, be sure to keep on taking pot-shots at Lesley Riddoch! No harm in annoying the Bella regulars either!


    1. Rob Brown says:

      Thank you, William, for your kind compliment. I shall carry on!

  9. Indyman says:

    I’m not disagreeing with your main thrust here, far from it but how could people who live in small rural/highland communities and who cannot afford new electric vehicles manage without their cars? No railways for miles and nowhere near enough potential passengers to attract a bus route? This sounds like a recipe for Highland Clearances Mk 2 unless this issue is addressed.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Don’t panic! I wasn’t advocating a prohibition on cars across the country. I am saying let’s make public transport in Scotland as attractive as possible so the balance between private car and public transport usage will shift swiftly and significantly towards the latter – for social as well as ecological reasons. The focus initially should probably be on the most congested urban areas but I’d hope we could also devise imaginative ways to also shift the balance to rural areas in time.

      1. David Allan says:

        Those of us old enough to remember when provincial towns north and south of the central belt had Factories employing local men and women who in many cases were able to walk from home to their place of work.

        These towns in my case in Ayrshire – Ayr Kilmarnock and Irvine are now home not to factories but commuters. Commuters many of them shift workers with jobs through necessity many miles from home. Car travel using M77 /M74 is the only option.

        Until an Industrial strategy of some kind incentivises inward investment to locations outwith central belt where new employers can recruit locally. Nothing dramatic will change as presently public transport is often only an option only if you work in a city centre!

        Reducing or subsidising Rail /Bus fares ( an indirect form of taxation ) would at least provide greater disposible income for those who have no choice but to commute. Many on low salaried jobs.

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