Glasgow’s Urban Transport Revolution
Whisper it, but a transportation revolution is underway in Glasgow. If all goes to plan, the city will be completely transformed on a scale not seen since the 60s, when the tram lines were ripped out and the M8 was ploughed through the city centre.
The revolution of the 1960s predicted a glittering future of smooth empty motorways, and began an era of ever-increasing car use, gridlock, and air pollution. But today the UK needs to reduce car-miles travelled by 20% by 2030 to be on course for net zero. Because urban car trips are the easiest to replace with public transport or active travel, Glasgow’s share is a 30% reduction. A transportation counter-revolution has become essential.
Radically reducing carbon emissions demands a complete overhaul of our street design. Existing road layouts have led to steady increases in traffic, which have in turn slowed down buses by 20% since the year 2000 and discouraged active travel, feeding a vicious cycle of car dependency. The overhaul has to be rapid and thorough enough to not only halt but reverse the trend towards car use.
Public transport improvement is high on the agenda. The council would prefer to take ownership of the buses but, lacking the funds, instead proposes to regulate them as franchises. This should allow a unified ticketing system with “tap and cap”, where passengers tap a contactless card on each bus, and are never charged for more than a day ticket in total. Unfortunately and bafflingly, council officers claim it will take seven years to implement the change.
Grander in scale is the proposal for a Greater Clyde Metro. The Metro proposal calls for Glasgow’s suburban railways to be converted to electrified light rail with high frequencies. Glasgow has the UK’s most dense suburban rail network outwith London, but low frequencies of 2 trains per hour make it painful to use. Compare that to the subway, where a 4-8 minute frequency means there is no need to check a timetable before travelling.
The Metro also includes multiple extensions and reopening’s including an ambitious line from Paisley via Glasgow Airport to Renfrew and beyond. Such a light rail system can include “street running” sections, essentially a tram, in dense urban areas.
It remains to be seen how the Metro will be funded, given the politics of the hard-right government at Westminster. But as it is essential to the climate targets in both international treaties and national statute, we can expect to see movement on it eventually. The Clyde Metro has been made a top priority by Transport Scotland, a status previously awarded to the new forth road bridge among others.
Already funded, thanks to the SNP-Green agreement at Holyrood, are dramatic improvements to “active travel”: walking, wheeling, and cycling.
Both the Highway Code and Transport Scotland have set out a transport hierarchy that orders transport modes from most to least important. Pedestrians and wheelers (wheelchairs and prams), then cyclists, then public transport, then taxis, and last of all the private car.
Glasgow intends to overhaul the city’s streets to match this hierarchy.
George Square will be given an upgraded layout all on one level, with new gardens and an events space. A large part of the city centre will prioritise pedestrians. Meanwhile a systematic review of the entire city called “liveable neighbourhoods” is being conducted. This has produced some radical proposals already, including making west end Sauchiehall and Argyle streets one-way for cars creating space for wider pavements, on-street dining, and safe cycle lanes.
There are also ambitious plans for a city-wide cycle network by 2030. Cities such as London and Paris have been building these networks for years, and the result everywhere is a dramatic increase in cycling. The aim is not infrastructure for sportspeople, but for the rest of us. A network that is safe for everyone, even – especially – a 12 year old taking themselves to school or evening activities. Completely mundane in the Netherlands, and what a boon it would be to busy parents here.
Because active travel infrastructure is much cheaper to maintain than car infrastructure, we can have some hope that those commitments will survive the new austerity.
There is much to be hopeful for in Glasgow’s urbanist revolution. The test now will be whether it can be delivered at a pace that matches the urgency of climate change.