In January the Scottish Government published a "refresh" of the National Transport Strategy for Scotland. The big announcement was that the process had been more helpful in asking big questions than answering them. Minister for Transport and Islands Derek Mackay had concluded that a more fundamental review of the strategy was needed and commended "a fuller, collaborative review of the NTS to the next Scottish Government".
Cynics in the industry observe that a strategy review which simply promises another review kicks difficult transport choices into touch until after the May 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. However, the refresh also revealed evidence of a need for a change in strategy. The implicit suggestion in the minister's foreword that better progress is needed on the government's core goals of prosperity, fairness and participation could offer promise.
The review of what has actually been achieved in the last 10 years reflects the weaknesses of the 2006 strategy. This set out policy goals for improving journey times, reducing emissions and improving quality, accessibility and affordability of travel, but it was not clear how delivery programmes related to these goals. It is therefore no surprise that, despite the strategy's programmes such as new roads and railways having been carried out over the last decade, the policy goals have not been achieved.
Statistics published in the strategy show walking and bus use lower than 10 years ago and car use up. "A lost decade" was how transport campaign group Transform Scotland summarised the review. Rail use has increased strongly, and cycling is also slightly higher than a decade ago, but these changes are not easily related to the impact of transport policy, but instead to wider effects.
There is no published monitoring of whether strategy outcomes are being achieved for journey times, quality, accessibility or affordably, but a number of proxy measures are shown in the review. Falling average road speeds are used as a proxy for increasing average road journey times which have been experienced. Changes in public transport journey times are not described, despite their stated importance to policy.
Considerable attention is given in the statistics to the fall in total emissions from transport, including a discussion of why transport emissions have fallen more slowly than those of other sectors of the economy. Other than a suggested link between policy and outcomes for the UK government's plug-in grant scheme, it is not clear what, if any, effect the government believes its transport programmes have achieved over the last 10 years.
The strategy describes much activity. It is clear that the transport sector is keeping many Scots occupied, but less clear whether the pursuits have resulted in transport benefits or disbenefits. Particular emphasis is placed on the benefits of construction activity: "The part that investing in transport infrastructure has played in mitigating some of the worst effects of the recession should not be underestimated," says the review.
The review describes how the context for transport has changed as part of new approaches to economic policy, climate change and community participation. It identifies how transport is tackling what it calls "the three key shifting challenges of tackling inequality while increasing sustainable economic growth; making the transition to a low-carbon economy; and making the most of scarce public resources".
However, commenting on these new commitments, walking charity Living Streets observed that policy statements needed to be backed up with funding and action to make local access more equitable. Where large sums are being invested in pursuit of these goals, such as the national concessionary travel scheme, the evidence in Transport Scotland's own research is much less
clear about benefits for equality and reduced carbon consumption than the bald statements in the strategy.
This disconnection between aims and action is illustrated in the discussion of priorities by mode of travel. Placing walking at the top of a transport hierarchy looks good in a diagram. However, the television and radio debates about the launch of the new strategy failed to clarify what improvements people could expect. The net decline in active travel has severe social and economic consequences, but the strategy talks about the benefits of more active travel rather than practical steps to achieve it.
Despite the apparent failure to deliver on the high level outcomes, perhaps the most surprising conclusion of the new strategy is "business as usual". Few would disagree that the objectives are the correct ones. However, these goals have not been achieved over the last 10 years so it is a brave assumption that continuing with the same strategy will deliver positive changes in the future.
However, there is recognition of the need for change in the chapter about establishing clearer roles and responsibilities. A greater focus on partnership working is a helpful recalibration of the strategy direction, but that is as far as it goes. Rather than reflecting reality as expressed in the daily proceedings of the parliament and council chambers, the strategy bravely states: "Relationships between the Scottish Government and its partners in RTPs, local authorities and third sector are now based on trust and mutual respect", and "the challenge of scarce public resources means that this partnership working is more important than ever and must transcend existing roles and responsibilities."
Even if these statements are taken at face value, there is still the major omission that the government is not claiming it has built trust and mutual respect with the transport industry which provides the road and rail services on which people depend. Instead the development of partnerships with industry is still work in progress – "we are now forging new partnerships with bus operators and authorities to deliver smart and integrated ticketing, tackle congestion and use our existing road space to give bus the priority it needs".
It is hard to be optimistic that this new framework for partnership will be any more successful than the partnerships with industry over the last decade, without some recognition of the reasons why bus and freight quality partnerships have failed. To make progress with partnerships a new strategy is needed that recognises the realities of finance, procurement, performance and need. Working through the details of co-production and partnership even for basic assets and needs like car parks and revenue can seem endless. If freight deliveries, bus lanes and car parking have been the frontier of partnerships over the last decade, things are now much more complex.
The explosion in the collaborative economy, for example through ride-sharing app Uber, challenges commonly held assumptions about the limits of public transport and creates new demands on streets. The role of transport authorities in facilitating sharing of streets is crucial, yet the new strategy offers no route to partnership or terms of engagement. Debates in town halls are currently more about raising more revenue than smart integrated transport, so there is little appetite for these challenges.
The strategy suggests that Scotland's new legislation, including the Community Empowerment Act, can help to offer a more participative approach. The promise of more action on local social priorities is certainly promising, but the partnerships did not support delivery over the last 10 years because
the organisations involved were unclear about their roles. They failed due to a lack of will to work jointly.
Perhaps the minister recognised that transport changes were so fundamental to life in Scotland that
they required a clear democratic mandate for change. If so, then 2016 could be an interesting year for Scotland. It is hard to imagine how the Scottish Government's aspirations for an effective transport strategy can be developed after an election if each political party avoids mentioning them prior to the vote.
In the meantime we have another strategy announcing future strategies and sub-strategies within these. If the January 2016 refresh proves to be significant it will be as a result of the minister's conclusion "that we should reconsider the NTS more fully through the lens of prosperity, fairness and participation". However, that is for a future document to explain.
Reference: Transport Times, March 2016 Issue