I must declare an interest here: I have a personal interest in public transport as, for medical reasons, I am not allowed to drive. It is also one of the reasons working from home as a freelancer is a particularly good fit for me. That is before we even mention my love for the German language. I live and work in Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland and have a total of six years’ translation experience. As a part of my undergraduate degree I spent a semester at the University of Hanover, and during my PhD I spent a research year at the Heinrich Heine Universität, Düsseldorf. While in Germany I was able to observe how much better public transport works there than here. It is perhaps because I am dependent on public transport that I am particularly interested in this subject as a translator, and also because of a recognition that roadbuilding in itself results in more car use. However, if we want to promote public transport, it will take a massive investment of not just financial, but also political capital into the project, and this over many years. The most important, and most difficult, step will be to persuade people to think of forms of transport other than the private car. We will have to do this anyway, if we want to stay on course to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (hereafter referred to as the Paris Agreement).
Measures to Reduce Car Use
Under the Paris Agreement, all the signatory countries, which includes the UK, are committed to keeping global warming emissions over the next century to well below 2%, and if possible, to just 1.5%. With CO2 emissions being one of the primary causes of global warming, it is worth noting that the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that cars and trucks accounts for nearly one fifth of all CO2 emissions in the US, of which the use of the private car is one of the primary causes. So, what can be done to turn this around? First, there are a few statistics to bear in mind:
A bus with as few as seven passengers is more fuel-efficient than the average single-occupant auto used for commuting
The fuel efficiency of a fully occupied train carriage is 15 times greater than that of the average commuter’s single-occupant car
Buses emit only 20% as much carbon monoxide per passenger mile as a single-occupant auto
This is all quite apart from the negative impact of more roadbuilding, which in turn takes its toll on the environment, but on the other hand the positive benefits (from a safety and noise point of view) of fewer cars on the streets, or anything else. It would therefore seem like a no-brainer that we invest more money in public transport, and hey presto, problem solved. However, it’s not as simple as that.
Firstly, it is unacceptable that private bus companies perform public service functions. First Aberdeen is a prime example of how NOT to run a service for the benefit of the public, and if you want to convert the car owner to bus use, then forget it! And understandably so. I could write a book about its failings; suffice to say that some of its fleet are nearly twenty years out of date. It is almost physically painful to see the smoke that some of these machines belch out.
Secondly, there is the practically non-existent rail network. The damage started with Lord Beeching in the 1960s, who, in the name of progress, decided that a third of the country’s rail system needed to be ripped up because it wasn’t profitable. One such line was the Royal Deeside Line. At the time of its closure, the trip from Aberdeen city centre to Peterculter at its most westerly point took just 18 minutes. Today, the same trip, in the rush hour, by bus, on a congested main road takes nearly an hour! Even today, on longer journeys, prices are likely to be so prohibitively expensive that no-one could reasonably criticise anyone for making a long-distance journey in the comfort of a car instead of forking out the cost of a train fare. (It beggars belief that a return flight from Aberdeen to Hanover is about £80 cheaper than a return train journey from Aberdeen to Bristol).
So, what to do? It goes without saying that massive investment in all forms of public transport is required. Bus and rail networks are perhaps the most important in getting people away from the use of the private car. However, if we are serious about getting cars off the road, we need to make the bus and the train not only more attractive but also more affordable.
We also need to look at cycling and walking. Cycle paths are protected in Germany, as they are in most European countries. It would be unthinkable for a bike to use the same dedicated lane as the city’s buses in Germany, yet this is Aberdeen City Council’s idea of how cyclists should get around in the city centre! Don’t you feel the health benefits as you breathe in all that bus exhaust, fellow cyclists? I think not! We need pedestrianisation of city centres on a major scale as part of a plan to make walking more attractive.
But if you want to get any benefits from walking or cycling, you need to address dangers from traffic, which can only be done by reducing traffic usage on the road, which de facto means private car usage, but also moving freight from HGVs onto trains. There’s a massive amount we could do, but it takes money and a change of mindset by everyone – politicians, the public, the press, everyone – to make it a reality. For example, as for March 2020, all public transport in Luxembourg is free of charge for everyone – nationals and tourists alike! Other European cities have launched similar initiatives, but Luxembourg is the first to do this on a national scale. To do that here would need massive investment backed up by political commitment to stay the course. But we must rise to these challenges, otherwise the planet will continue to fry.