Politicians on a road to nowhere with trams as car use keeps growing

Politicians on a road to nowhere with trams as car use keeps growing

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 1, March, 2019

THE CAR IS BACK, and it is not going to go away. That was the clear message this week’s latest figures for transport use in Scotland revealed – and our politicians had better take note of this particular route of travel.

The statistics are both fascinating and life-affirming at the same time. Fascinating because they give us all some real evidence of what is happening as we go to work, enjoy our leisure time and decide what travel options suit each of us best.

True, you won’t find many people talking about the statistics of bus, rail or car travel down the pub, at the gym or in the supermarket aisle – but you will find people discussing their latest experience, often a gripe, about their most recent journey. It’s as natural as chatting about the weather. This is what makes the travel stats life-affirming, they reveal the rational travel choices people are making despite being told what to do.

Although being told repeatedly to use public transport, car and van usage is up 2.4 per cent year-on-year to 2018 (7.2 per cent over the previous five years) and now represents 67.7 per cent of commuters. Also rising is rail travel up 3.8 per cent  and 7.4 per cent over five years – but the big loser is bus travel, down 1.5 per cent over the year but falling 7.6 per cent over five years. While cycle journeys increased 0.7 per cent year-on-year they have fallen over the last five years by 6.7 per cent.

What this reveals to me is that, as a political issue, transport is quite different from health and education. My experience is that most people, even professionals in other fields, will often defer to the presumed better knowledge of doctors and nurses or educationalists and teachers – but will hold and express very strong opinions about the particular modes of travel they use. Their own experiences count for a great deal and even if these clash with what they are told by transport specialists (whom our politicians listen to) the fact members of the public have skin in the game gives them the confidence to speak up and make their own choices.

Why does this matter? It makes a difference because when it comes to transport there is a visible disconnect between politicians who take decisions on our behalf and the voters who want something else. 

The latest example of this is the looming decision due on 14 March on the tram extension in Edinburgh. With its original planned tram network famously cut back due to large cost overruns the SNP/Labour administration now hopes to extend the line down through Leith and into Newhaven despite complaining about austere budget cuts by central government.

Edinburgh is rightly proud of its award-winning comprehensive bus service but to make the tram system grow the Council will have to raid Lothian Buses’ passengers and revenue to finance the project. It will take £8m a year in dividends to pay for trams when the profit of the council-owned buses was only £7m in 2017. The proposals also takes nearly 8m bus passengers a year from future numbers to make a tram “revenue gain” to pay back loans for the tram project. The risk will all be with the Council, with the Scottish Government having no financial involvement.

Meanwhile Edinburgh’s roads are a national disgrace, the council is introducing Sunday parking charges and wants to levy the workplace parking charge. Other capital projects for schools and leisure amenities are also crying out for support. 

This example is typical of how politicians populate a different world when it comes to transport. Communities want better facilities (and indeed better roads) and are prepared to use their cars, which give them far greater flexibility about where they work, shop and play – rather than use public transport. Trams are not, and never have been a priority.

The problem remains, in Scotland the car is regularly seen by politicians as both an environmental enemy and a handy source of tax revenue. If like myself you have driven around much of continental Europe you will know the Scottish road network is by comparison sub-standard. Roads in other countries that are motorway standard are lucky to be dual carriageway in Scotland, while dual carriageways will be single lane. Scottish road surfaces are, frankly, appalling with potholes and cracks officially at record levels.

The reason for this is that over many decades our road infrastructure has often lacked investment at national and local level – and when cutbacks have come the roads repair and maintenance budget is an easy hit. This is primarily because our politicians have not given our roads the same priority as it has been given, say, in France or Germany, where they are seen as vital to economic growth. This reflects the political disconnect where many of our politicians see a need to control our car usage and the impact it has on our environment and see no reason to improve the driving experience and driving times.  

For politicians at every level, Westminster, Holyrood and local councils – cars are a revenue stream – be it fuel excise duty and VAT, on-street and now workplace car parking, speed cameras and other regulations that bring easy fines. Yet still we love our cars and refuse to let them go. That does not mean we don’t care for the environment. When politicians told us to change to diesel we listened and huge numbers made the switch – only to now be told it was the wrong thing to do and are being penalised for it if still using diesel cars. 

The promotion of hybrid and fully electric cars is the ‘new diesel’ for national politicians, even though they have yet to work out how to generate all the electricity it will require. Ironically, what this latest ‘switch’ will ensure is that the car will not be going away, but will become more environmentally friendly, resulting in more car journeys against the claims of trams, trains and buses. Politicians must waken up to this and start improving our road network to accommodate the continued growth of car ownership and journeys that the latest statistics only confirm. 

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