The Scottish media has been dominated by one story in recent weeks: The Queensferry Crossing. Whilst undoubtedly an amazing engineering feat, the bridge represents a worrying trend in Scottish transport of increasing priority for private cars ahead of public transport.
Public transport spending still comes a distant second to private cars
Successive Scottish Budgets have seen investment prioritised in trunk roads and motorways, in turn promoting the use of private vehicles over public transport. Indeed, the 2017/18 Budget saw an increase in spending on roads of 18% compared to the previous year, whilst support for buses fell by 3%. This current trend of investment is in direct conflict with the Government's policy on sustainable transport and is stopping the Government meeting its own targets on issues such as congestion and a modal shift to sustainable modes of transport.
With these spending trends in mind, it is no surprise that bus patronage is undergoing a worrying decline - bus passenger numbers have fallen by 10% in the last five years alone. The Government's focus on private vehicles is of no benefit to the 31% of households who have no access to a car, many of whom are on lower incomes and are subsequently much more dependent on public transport as a means of commuting and travelling. The focus on private vehicles has also resulted in almost no progress in reducing carbon emissions from transport, with only a ~2% fall since 1990. With the new Climate Change Bill expected to come into force next year, the Government seriously needs to align its transport expenditure with its policy on sustainable transport to reduce carbon emissions.
Queensferry Crossing: Time for public transport to take priority
The Scottish Government justified the construction of the Queensferry Crossing because of concerns over the structural integrity of the Forth Road Bridge. As part of the decision to go ahead with the Queensferry Crossing, there was a specific commitment that the Forth Road Bridge would be used exclusively for public transport, as well as for walking and cycling.
It's clear that Edinburgh cannot take an increase in car traffic, so prioritising the public transport offer from north of the Forth into Edinburgh is vital to avoid more congestion and air pollution. With the Forth Road Bridge now being used as a public transport corridor, buses will be able to cross the Firth of Forth free from having to mix with single-occupant cars. However, it would be highly counterproductive if bus passengers were then simply held up in traffic jams on their journey into Edinburgh after crossing the bridge due to a lack of bus priority measures.
The 2009 Forth Replacement Crossing Public Transport Strategy - produced by Local Authorities, transport operators, government agencies and Regional Transport Partnerships - saw a number of specific commitments made to improve the public transport offering following the construction of the Queensferry Crossing. Among the commitments made when the Strategy was reviewed in 2012 were enhanced Park & Ride facilities; greater bus priority on key routes into Edinburgh; and improved public transport provision in Fife and Edinburgh. As we understand it, next to none of the commitments made in 2012 have yet been delivered. Whilst some of these projects are still within their expected delivery timescale, the lack of any real improvements for public transport between Edinburgh and Fife is a real concern, and is sadly indicative of a wider problem in Scottish transport.
Meanwhile, investment in rail infrastructure north of the Forth Bridge is desperately needed. It is widely acknowledged that journey times to destinations from Edinburgh to Fife, Perth and beyond are simply not competitive with car journey times due to decades of under-investment. The train journey time from Edinburgh to Perth is, staggeringly, slower than it was in 1895. Rectifying this historic failing by upgrading rail infrastructure north of the Central Belt should be the next priority for the Scottish Government's transport capital investment programme; reinstating a direct line between Perth and Edinburgh and dualling the Highland Main Line are but two examples of projects which should be given priority.
Now that the Queensferry Crossing is up and running, we need to see a balanced transport strategy that provides people with reliable, convenient and affordable public transport alternatives to the car. Simply building more road capacity further embeds car dependency in Scotland and will not allow the government meet its stated aim of modal shift from the car to public transport, nor to meet its climate change targets.