Public transport and the need for sustainability

I have spoken before that I have a declared interest in this area. This has come to light in the last couple of months in stark relief. As I am not entitled to drive for medical reasons, the Scottish Government is kind enough to pay for a bus pass for me to travel at no cost. It recently expired however, and there was a problem getting a replacement, meaning that my free travel was suspended for a month. It personally brought home to me what a scandal the pricing of public transport is in this country. This got me to thinking about how we can possibly persuade the public at large to use public transport, thus reducing car use and having some positive impact in the fight against climate change. I then started digging into archives of the last days of the trams in Aberdeen city. I have mentioned before what a scandal it was that the trams were abandoned in the name of ‘progress’. Trams were not deemed flexible enough to cope with transport demands, and so the diesel bus was introduced. The tracks were taken up, overhead power lines were taken down, all but two of the trams were placed on a massive bonfire despite huge public protests. (The last two survive as museum artefacts.) This must take the wooden spoon as one of the most short-sighted planning foul-ups imaginable, however with the right political will, the damage is not irreversible; it can be put right.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, when the lockdown was introduced, those of us dependent on public transport suffered the additional disruption caused by bus timetables being scaled back to a skeleton service; at some times of the day this meant waiting an hour for a bus. Even when it comes, the cost of travel (whether by bus or rail) is outrageous. First Group, owner of First Bus, one of the two local service providers, is losing money at an alarming rate[1]. Currently, Aberdeen City Council is in talks with the company over plans for a municipal buy-out. This is an idea whose time has come, or rather, whose time has returned. Bus deregulation in the 1980s has singularly failed. The idea behind it was to introduce competition thereby reducing fares and giving passengers more choice. In fact, five companies carry 70% of all passengers yet only 1% of services face any competition. Non-profitable lines have been cut and fares increased massively; we have ended up paying more for less. 

Trolleybus in Zurich, SwitzerlandSo the benefits of public ownership cannot be overstated. What is also required is massive investment in trolleybuses like this one in Zurich, Switzerland. They are in service in other cities all over the world, as so clearly illustrated at this Tbus News link: so what are we waiting for?  They have all the advantages of trams, and none of the disadvantages of either the tram or the diesel bus. They have the flexibility of the bus, but carry on on-board fuel, which not only means no CO2 production, but also no noise,  making the journey much more pleasant. What’s not to like? It all comes down to investment priorities. It is only with massive investment that people can be persuaded out of their cars. And who can blame them?

An alternative, or even an ambitious addition, would be to reintroduce a tram service. It could be argued that our streets are simply too narrow; certainly, the main thoroughfare in Aberdeen, Union Street, at 21 metres wide, does not leave a huge amount of room to play with. However, it all comes down to priorities. As can be seen in this picture here, the tram can get through even the narrowest of streets, such as this one in the centre of Freiburg. If we are serious about addressing climate change (which we desperately need to do) then a fundamental resetting of priorities and mindsets is required, and central to that is a complete rethink of mobility in our daily lives.


[1] This is Money (8 July 2020) reported First Group shares dropped 15% on the FTSE after its Annual Report showed losses rose by £98m to just short of £300m for the financial year 2019-2020

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