Archive for category Transport

The wrong kind of policy on the lines

tubepackedThe weekend before last, to my surprise, the Scottish Greens’ conference rejected a motion calling for free public transport. I don’t know why conference opposed it, but I know why I did, and why I spoke against. Here’s the motion:

We will make a phased introduction of free public transport as finance becomes available. Through both local and national schemes, we will make bus, train, tram, underground and foot-ferry services fare-free, with free bus services the first priority.

I had been pretty anxious about this vote. Everyone at a Green conference loves public transport, and everyone wants to see it displace car and plane travel in particular. But this approach would be thoroughly flawed, and would undermine the existing public transport network while missing opportunities to tackle inequalities.

The first and most obvious problem is the money. Fares on our current transport network bring in a substantial sum of money to contribute to its costs. In 2010-11, bus, train and ferry tickets in Scotland brought in around £750m. I was advised after the meeting that the most recent figures are actually over a billion pounds. That’s equivalent to around half Transport Scotland’s budget, and yes, I’m aware that a lot of that is wasted on vanity roads schemes like the additional Forth Crossing.

A billion pounds, though, is also four times the cost of building Glasgow Crossrail and reopening Edinburgh’s South Suburban railway. Every year. To call for the expansion of the public transport network, as we do, and then to make it all free? Apologies to the comrades, but that’s SSP economics, i.e. uncosted and un-thought-through handwaving. There’s no point even aiming for something if you can’t work out whether you could ever get there.

The second problem is usage. Imagine how busy our buses and trains would become if they were free for all. These networks are creaking already. The preamble to the motion talked about a town in Belgium (note, not an intercity network or one that covers vast rural areas) which saw a 1,300% increase in usage when it made public transport free. I pretty regularly take Scotland’s busiest rail journey: Edinburgh to Glasgow Queen Street. It’s regularly full to bursting, even with four trains an hour at the busiest times. I can’t even imagine what it would look like if it were thirteen times more full, especially without thirteen times the ticket revenue to support expansion. Sure, there are four routes between the two cities, and the others can be less busy, but even so, it just doesn’t add up. To make sufficient capacity for every person in Scotland to use trains, buses and ferries on a whim would cost billions more. Without that, the result would be a miserable and virtually unusable service, one that would cost almost incalculably more, and one where the better off would tend to retreat to their cars. And this plan would use vastly more energy and other resources: a nation constantly on the go on a whim, jammed into continuous trains and buses isn’t a vision of the green future I want to see.

I’m all for radical shifts in spending, mind. But if we want to spend more money on public transport, and I do, that wouldn’t be my preference. It wouldn’t even feature at any point before we have cracked resource depletion, energy costs, and social inequality. Why should we be making it cheaper to get a bus than it is to get on a bike? Counting shoe-leather, this would make a bus cheaper than walking: and those two ways of getting about, for those who can, should be the top priority. Let’s spend some of this same money on proper bike networks and support for much wider active travel.

Let’s also invest more in all forms of public transport instead. Buses get neglected: let’s re-regulate them, and work towards bringing them back in-house (trains too). Let’s subsidise those rural routes even further. Let’s gradually reopen rail lines (one of the modest transport success stories of devolution). Let’s expand the network, not make the current limited system unusable.

And yes, let’s cap fares or reduce them if we can. But before that we should be looking to waive fares for more people. We already have free travel for pensioners: let’s not give a subsidy to companies sending their employees to meetings or tourists heading to the Highlands. We could instead extend that free travel to those on benefits, those earning the minimum wage, those in education, carers – any number of groups for whom this would make a real difference. It’s not like the NHS or education – I don’t think infinite travel for work and leisure should be subsidised for the better off, whereas I do think everyone should be treated for free and educated for free irrespective of income. But imagine if those currently on the wrong end of austerity didn’t have to pay to get to job interviews or the job centre, if they could take their family away to somewhere nice with a beach for nothing of a weekend, or if they could visit friends elsewhere in the country with ease. It’d be transformative. I’d still be paying to go pitch my company’s wares to organisations in Glasgow, too: and rightly so.

Expanding the network, supporting active travel, and ending fares for those for whom it would make a real difference: that would fuse our social justice and sustainability objectives. Pipedreams about free transport are superficially appealing, but would in practice push the wrong way on both those objectives.

Labour’s chance to seize on a radical Holyrood agenda

April Cumming is Vice-Chair of the left-wing think tank the Scottish Fabians. Here she writes for Better Nation about the opportunity for Labour to seize on a progressive agenda and change the way transport works in Scotland.

The Danish Parliament has its own fleet of staff bikes

The Danish Parliament has its own fleet of staff bikes

I cycled to my office this morning.  There’s nothing remarkable in this fact, thousands of workers across the country also prefer to take the bike where it is possible rather than its more cumbersome road-fellow.  What is remarkable, however, is the number of times on a weekly basis this activity brings me close to an unpleasant and untimely demise.  It’s not that I’m an unsafe cyclist; I indicate, I use the correct lanes, and I keep a safe distance from the frequently indifferent or incensed cab drivers, vans and buses.  The issue, I believe, is that those who prefer ‘active travel’ as a means of navigating Edinburgh’s streets are still perceived as an awkward inconvenience rather than a road user of equal status.  This is reflected in the lack of any real infrastructure to facilitate safe cycling in the city.  Without the provision of a network of well-maintained cycle routes, cyclist will continue to exist as second class citizens on the roads of our nation’s capital.

But why is it that as a country that invests so heavily in roads and large scale public sector infrastructure projects we continue to fall behind our more pro-active European neighbours in investing in relatively inexpensive but hugely effective active travel networks?  We appear to be besotted by the idea of the extravagant glamour project, for example HS2 and the Forth Bridge Replacement project; these are the status builds that mark the era of an ambitious government.  However, ambitious projects do not always a wise investment make, and in this time of stretched budgets we must look at expenditure choices that cover a wide range of policy objectives.  Active travel infrastructure in Scotland is not only a necessary facility for allowing citizens of all backgrounds to transport themselves and their families on short to mid-range journeys.  It is a vital mechanism for reducing our carbon emissions and vastly improving the health and wellbeing of our nation.  Effective town planning can vastly improve the living standards of urban residents, bringing diverse communities closer and acting as a social leveller; this is no less the case with active travel infrastructure as with housing and public spaces.  As a resident of Leith the capacity for good transport networks to create a more coherent flow between city centres and respective limbs of Edinburgh is not lost on me.  However, this does not simply mean catering to the needs of drivers above all others.  Short trips need to be made by alternative means, for the good of every Edinburgh resident and to achieve the long-term goal of an improved, accessible and human-friendly city.  Only central policy that pushes local authorities into action can ensure this is achieved, with adequate budgets put in place now to start that long-term modal shift.  Spend the money now and reap the rewards in future.  For a government whose focus has long been on endorsing a model of preventative spend this should not be rocket science.  As a case in point, a study in Copenhagen showed that when the health benefits, time saved and reduction in congestion and car crashes are taken into account, society makes a net profit of 1.22 Danish kroner (around 13p) for every kilometre cycled by one of its citizens.

This is a process that starts with good policy at the centre, and encourages local government to bring forward plans for action that meets the needs and characteristics of specific localities.  The case for active transport networks was argued vociferously in the transport and infrastructure committee and through the forum of the cycling CPG, with bodies like Sustrans and Spokes highlighting that a more hands-on approach was necessary. But to this point the rhetoric of successive governments with regard to building the infrastructure and vigorously promoting healthy and active travel options has fallen far short of the actions taken.

We live in a time where household budgets are being stretched and the cost of maintaining and running a car has become gradually less affordable.  At the same time a growing number of issues relating to health inequalities are yet to be tackled, and the infrastructure of our major urban hubs has been left in dire need of repair.  Most importantly, for the second year running we have failed to meet our emissions reduction targets.  The Scottish Government has set laudable and challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050.  The need for a more resilient and accessible active transport network, linked in with our local public transport routes, has become glaringly obvious and yet we are still to see the kind of focused attention on bringing forward a workable and practical plan that we see in other pioneering countries like Denmark.  This is a country whose government has tapped into the psyche of cyclists, has understood the specific needs and problems faced by travellers and has reacted with innovative technologies that not only assist but promote active travel.  Trains have entire carriages that may be adapted to accommodate cyclists.  Points of cultural interest have stations where bikes may be left and public transport hubs have facilities to hire bicycles to explore the city further or get to work.  There are even resting curbs specifically designed for cyclists at traffic junctions.   One third of journeys are made by bicycle, while car usage is falling. A quarter of two-children families own a cargo-style bike to get around the busy streets, encouraged to use the 346km (215 miles) of segregated cycle lanes, maintained by the relatively low budget of €10 million (£8 million) per year.

Current central and local government policy advocates investment in active travel (walking and cycling) over the private car, due to the multiple benefits it brings to society. The Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CA PS) has a vision that “by 2020, 10% of all journeys taken in Scotland will be by bike.”  However, to date only 1% of journeys could be classified as “active” and Scotland’s current transport funding decisions, which largely prioritise major schemes such as the Forth road bridge, promote delivery mechanisms that fail to make the most of our capacity to lead on small-scale, local active travel initiatives.

I believe that in the absence of real progress the onus is on opposition parties, namely Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens, to come forward with a logical and achievable pathway to real, sustainable change.  This means looking at the models adopted elsewhere and realising that this is an investment worth making.

As a regular attendee of events run by the think tank Nordic Horizons, I am a great advocate of looking to examples of best practice from other shores that may help us to bring forward policy suggestions based on evidence; such an approach allows more ambitious, innovative planning.  There are other cities in the Nordic region that have succeeded in not only creating the necessary infrastructure for modal shift but also lauding the practise of active travel and giving it an immense sense of social worth.  The communal aspect of walking and cycling is seen as something of real cultural value; it is a leveller that provides the individual with the ability to transport themselves and their family across the urban space, regardless of wealth or class background. As such it is not only a practical necessity but also serves as part of the fabric of that nation’s social makeup.  Recognising the need to challenge imbedded cultural attitudes to active travel and promote a shift away from our national vehicular fettish will be part in forcing the hand of central government.  Key to this is emphasising the benefit changes to our infrastructure will have on policy objectives across the board: reducing obesity, achieving carbon reduction targets, promoting social integration, opening up our city centres, making roads safer, and more generally enhancing our personal and collective well-being.  We stand to gain so much and yet have achieved so little.

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More trains, better trains, better-owned trains, not faster trains

The Scottish Government’s me-too announcement of another high-speed plan for the Edinburgh to Glasgow link may sound promising, but it’s really a total red herring. Getting up to 140mph on a roughly 50 mile journey is not exactly efficient, the cost will be enormous, and it wouldn’t be operational for at least twelve years. What’s more, the opportunities to make a clearer difference elsewhere in Scotland’s slowlyrecovering rail network are plentiful. Ministers should be considering reopening the Buchan line, for example, or getting moving on Aberdeen Crossrail. Reopening the Edinburgh South Sub to passenger travel is still an extraordinarily cheap option, neglected since 1999.

The Glasgow-Edinburgh route is one of the lines I use most, and, all other things being equal, shaving some time off the journey would obviously not be an intrinsically bad thing: however, it’d be an awful lot more use for me if Scotrail put on a few trains after the current 11.30pm closedown. Even just two more would make a difference: say a 12.30am and a 2.30am. I was at a gig in Glasgow on Sunday night and a whole crowd had to leave before the encores, which is absurd.

Glasgow’s got much better music year-round, but conversely Edinburgh has five weeks in the summer when it should be a magnet for Glaswegian fans of the performing arts. A special Festival-only train back at a minute past midnight and a half-past midnight one on Friday and Saturday nights simply isn’t good enough. Plenty of Fringe events don’t even start until midnight.

The same applies to other routes, too. More trains at a wider range of times. Better trains (power, wifi). Those are the less sexy things that could cheaply improve our network. There’ll be no ribbon to cut, no sense of oneupmanship with Westminster.

If the SNP want something more impressive like that, it’s time to do what 75% of the public want (a number which is enough to get them to change policy on NATO, after all, and I suspect most people use the railways more than they use Trident), do what even some Tories have told me in private should be done: bring the system permanently back into public ownership when they have the chance to do so in 2014.

The alternative is for SNP Ministers to renew the existing franchise in the referendum year. Do they really want to tell the Scottish people that they wish to retain every last mistake of Westminster?

What if Scottish Ministers were as ambitious as the Welsh?

When the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament were set up, there was a substantial gap in their powers in Scotland’s favour. The Welsh administration couldn’t pass primary legislation before last March’s referendum, and even the Assembly name was second-tier, akin to the second-tier devolution Scotland voted for in 1979.

And yet there are issues where this notionally weaker body has forged ahead of the Scottish Government. In 2000 a Lab/Lib Dem coalition banned GM crops, but two years later a Scottish Executive of the same colour ignored a vote at Lib Dem conference and went ahead with plantings.

Today sees the now Labour-only Welsh Government take another step ahead of Scotland with what looks potentially like a massive switch in transport policy in favour of walking and cycling, just as Scottish Ministers plan to head in the opposite direction by spending billions on duplicate road capacity.

As a supporter of independence I’d like to see Scottish Ministers flexing every muscle they have to improve this country using the powers devolved already: that’s the best way to demonstrate the need for the full powers of an independent nation. So why are Welsh Ministers better at doing that than Scottish ones?

To fly Ryanair is to dance with the devil

On the face of it, the news today that Ryanair are cutting air links from Edinburgh is bad news. Less holiday destinations for Scots and less business opportunities from afar.

However, digging a little deeper into the story, and one sees that there is little to be sad about. Ryanair trying to grind BAA down to keep its low cost deal for flights out of Edinburgh. Yes, the budget airline provides high footfall but is it worth the price? Shouldn’t BAA strive for quality not quantity?

We all know that Ryanair prices are suspiciously cheap, the feeling you get on their website is not unlike browsing around Primark, but we batter down our consciences in favour of taking advantage of that £5 flight here or £9 flight there, thinking that you’re beating the system. That had certainly always been my experience until a couple of weeks ago when I finally learned exactly how Ryanair could keep some flight prices so low.

The issue started with a boarding pass which had to be printed 4 hours before take-off or a £60 fine would be levied (it used to be 2 hours before take-off and a £40 fine but I guess Michael O’Leary saw some money to be made in making changes). It transpired that I missed the 4 hours by 56 measly seconds but, sure enough, Ryanair’s robust internal procedures meant there was no way around avoiding the £60 charge. Wallop, less kronor for me to spend on my holidays. Bummer.

Now, thankfully, I can absorb such hits into my monthly budgets relatively easily as (1) I have a good job and (2) I’m generally a total skinflint. However, I wasn’t the only one at the desk where such charges had to be paid.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the hulking Polish chap beside me, crying his eyes out at a charge that he had to pay with money that he clearly couldn’t afford. I sneaked a peak and it was a £360 bill he was faced with, for what I do not know. The oddly affable chap behind the Ryanair desk said, quietly (and suitably sadly) that this was nothing, we should have seen the family that was here the day before and another one the day before that. I can do the Maths, 2 parents and 3 kids with no boarding passes adds up to £300 out of the holiday budget. Is that really a way to run a business?

So even if these routes did go ahead at Edinburgh, I’d hope to be resolute in my decision from a fortnight ago to boycott them. It’s no more scratchcards, no more sleep-deprived pilots, no more queuing like animals to get on the flight, no more blaring self-congratulatory tannoy bulletins, no more landing 50 miles from the City I’m looking to visit and no more air attendants with a sadness deep in the eyes. Ryanair has joined the likes of Tesco and Amazon on my ‘I will not buy there no matter how cheap it is’ because, as tempting as the deals are with this airline, I will no longer be able to shake away the image of a tall Polish guy or a distraught family paying over the odds to subsidise my ticket.

Edinburgh could do with more international air links, and I hope BAA holds firm to attract quality airlines to provide new destinations for Scotland’s Capital, but I’ll be hoping the livery of any such planes won’t be daubed in garish blue and yellow and be part of a morally dubious business model.