Alison Johnstone Back to

Scottish ministers are failing to deliver on transport

17 June, 2019 - 00:00

On Wednesday, the Environment Secretary updated parliament on Scotland’s latest emissions reduction progress. There hasn’t been enough; the target set in law for 2017 has been missed.


The blame lies chiefly with greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Instead of making progress, we’re actually going backwards. Emissions from cars, lorries, boats and planes are going up, fewer people than ever are using buses, and just one-in-a-hundred journeys are being made by bike or on foot. The target to reach by the end of this year is for ten times that. This is all extremely worrying.


So, you’d have thought the Minister would have come prepared to answer questions on that exact topic. You’d have thought wrong. That, she said, was the Transport Secretary’s job. The ‘vigorous debate’ around how the Transport Bill might help cut climate emissions ‘is not something (she) would be directly involved in’.  She said that while she has frequent conversations with her colleague ‘at the end of the day, he will make the decisions he considers to be the right ones to make’.  If only they were the right ones.


The next day MSPs had the chance to change the law governing speed limits, so that the default limit for all residential areas would become 20mph, with 30mph roads allowed by exception to that. It would be a simple change to make and experts are united in agreement that it would save lives. But the SNP, led by its Transport Secretary, whipped its MSPs to back the Tories and Lib Dems to defeat the Bill at the first hurdle, based on the flimsiest of arguments.


It was obviously disappointing to campaigners, Greens, and especially my colleague Mark Ruskell and his team, who worked tirelessly to bring the Bill this far and make the issue of safer streets a political priority. He deserves great credit for that.  And be assured, we will regroup, rebuild, and carry on the fight.


But the decision is a stark reminder that the scale of that challenge - and the reason for that, sadly, is the hugely disproportionate influence that those who can only be considered dinosaurs have on our transport policy. 


This was a modest proposal; perhaps the most basic step to rebalance who has power on our roads. If this is met with such hostility, borne mostly of self-interest, then what chance is there for more radical, decisive steps such as introducing presumed liability? A similar story, with different protagonists, is of course also playing out over plans to give councils powers to introduce workplace parking levies. That again is a rudimentary step to change transport behaviour, though in that case it is naked political opportunism getting in the way of rational policy-making as much as prehistoric attitudes.


It would be easy just to say this is politics. It’s just how it is, let’s get on with it. But this really matters, chiefly, in the case of 20mph for saving lives, but also in a wider sense, because if we don’t make a real impact soon on transport emissions, we will fail on our climate ambitions, and that will condemn the next generation around the world to face the terrible consequences of climate breakdown.


There are people across the political divide who get this. SNP MSP John Mason dissented on the 20mph committee report. His council colleagues in Glasgow backed the Bill unanimously. Likewise Labour councillors in our two biggest cities want to have parking levy powers while their MSPs fight against them. Sadly, in both cases, it is the reactionary voices who are being allowed to dominate the debate.


In such circumstances, the role of a citizens’ climate assembly, advocated by Extinction Rebellion activists, could have a key role in breaking the impasse. It certainly needs a new approach; a new way of looking at the problem, which acknowledges that what we’re doing isn’t working and therefore reframes the challenge.  Nothing should be off the table – certainly not the £6Bn of current roadbuilding programmes the Government seems unwilling to budge on.  But it must also start from thinking about how we meet people’s needs differently, without locking in endlessly more demand for travel.


The Transport Secretary will have another chance to show some initiative on Tuesday when he updates the chamber on the impending failure of his active travel target. He certainly needs to up his game on investment in infrastructure. There’s been an increase, but it’s not enough – still just crumbs from the overall roads budget. It also needs to be sustained over many years. But it also needs a clear statement of political priorities, one that puts people’s needs for walking and cycling first in how we design our neighbourhoods and in how we regulate and enforce their safety and wellbeing.


This article first appeared in the National, on Friday 14th June.