Movin’ on up
Baggsying the front seats upstairs on a double decker bus was as close as me and my pals ever really got to doing politics growing up. As bairns in schemes in the North East of Scotland we had little respect for the rules of civilised society generally, and often even less for those who enforced them, but the rules of baggsy were sacred. The person who sees a desirable opportunity and calls “baggsy!” before anyone else has the fundamental right to that opportunity under this clandestine, unspoken criminal code of honour.
That could mean anything, from baggsy the last bag of Monster Munch in the cupboard; to baggsy being the one who chaps the door rather than does the talking after you’ve put your ball through some old guy’s greenhouse; to baggsy the front upstairs seats on the Dundee bus, which were golddust to bairns of 9 or 10 in Forfar who didn’t get out much. The journey from Forfar to Dundee — about 20 minutes from centre to centre along a dual carriageway that splits the countryside like a varicose concrete vein— was an occasion, a chance to get away from the front door and see the big city, and we all wanted to have the best view for the ride.
Of course, we soon realised that Dundee is actually quite a small (although still brilliant) city in the grand scheme of things. It just seemed big to us coming from a wee town like Forfar. As we were turfed out of school and started to set about finding work, some of our old pals headed up to Aberdeen for the prospect of a good wage offshore, while most of us who weren’t trade-minded stayed put and sought work in Dundee where there were more opportunities. Those of us who never learned to drive due to having neither the money nor the inclination, such as myself, would then take that same bus journey every day.
As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s a much less glamorous trip at 18 or 19 years old each Monday-Friday for a 9–5 in a call centre at just shy of £5 per day, especially in the dead of winter when the cold made it take double the time. Often as not the bus would be delayed, or too full to take more passengers at peak times meaning wait for the next one, or the next one after that. Lots of people I knew learned to drive precisely because of that route being unreliable, in turn increasing traffic and making the route take longer for the rest of us as a result. Yet it was and still is a busy one, if not a cheap one, for people coming from towns close-by for work and a day/night out in the Big City.
I live in Glasgow now and have done for the last 8 years or so, which to me was like moving into the Jetsons to begin with. A subway?! Multiple train stations and loads of buses too?! What a concept. My delight at a public transport system that didn’t consist of depending on a single, troubled bus route for all connection to the outside world was childlike. It was the bus to Dundee all over again; both in the sense that it was magic to begin with, and with the inevitable realisation that actually, like too much public transport in Scotland and the wider UK, it isn’t really all that glamorous after all.
Transport remains the single-highest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland, with levels rising steadily since 1990. Cars account for around 40% of that, by far the biggest individual share, which in lots of ways is unsurprising. Public transport services are for the most part poorly connected in Scotland and have been hammered by various bouts of austerity and a pandemic to top it off; fares on both trains and buses are still really high and have been increasing steadily over the last 10 years under broadly privatised ownership and degenerative deregulation; and it’s still those in the margins who suffer the worst impacts of all of the above. Given these longstanding and deteriorating issues, and given we live in a country largely built by and for fossil fuels with those interests quite firmly at the heart of our physical and economic systems, that lots of people still see cars as their most convenient option is thus broadly understandable.
Despite this, 30% of the country don’t own a car at all — mostly those in the lowest income groups and communities. These are the communities most reliant on janky public transport and buses in particular; the communities most excluded from employment, leisure and opportunity by badly connected services; the people most impacted by rises in fares and cuts in routes; the people most at-risk of pollution-induced health impacts from busy roads as well as being at the sharpest end of climate impacts driven in part by fossil fuel-based transport overall. Transport poverty as a result of these factors is a very real and prevalent issue, compounding fuel and wider poverty and contributing to a cycle of isolation, deprivation and restricted opportunity that is ultimately built into ourcurrent transport system.
This inequality in transport is not a new thing, but it is critical and especially important to understand as we ramp up efforts to reduce transport emissions to combat the climate crisis as part of a wider, just transition. The “just” part is critical here: as discussions focus heavily on how to support the mass rollout of electric cars — which will play an important role for people who can afford them —, transitioning to electric cars as the primary transport emissions-reduction option for the general public carries a significant risk.
Beyond simply replacing issues of things like congestion with more cars, electric or otherwise, focussing on electric vehicles as a sole solution to the complex transport issue risks further entrenching those stubborn inequalities that have resulted from transport services and infrastructure designed largely with fossil fuels (and profit) in mind. In effect, we run the risk making transport inequalities greener, as lowest income groups and working class communities struggle to keep up with EV prices and potentially either face penalties for driving cheap petrol or diesel cars to avoid over-reliance on poor public transport, or continue to face the penalties that are tarmacced in to the current public transport system. In short, we risk missing out on the “just” bit of the transition.
More than any of these, however, we risk missing out on a massive opportunity. At this formative moment, where we’re being forced to reimagine how we do transport in a major way to combat the climate crisis, we have a unique chance to redress those inequalities head-on and create a public – and publicly owned – transport system that makes even those who can afford it think twice about taking the car. We have a chance to create a better public transport service that connects communities currently excluded and bearing the burden of fare and connectivity issues; to alleviate poverty stressors, as well as traffic and pollution, and create new employment and leisure opportunities and economic benefit in the process. We have a chance to recognise that those communities most disadvantaged in a society built by and for fossil fuels can benefit massively from the need to clean up our act, while also building something affordable and convenient enough for everyone to give it a shot. All of this is before we even get to green space in cities or safer streets and neighbourhoods.
However we decide to fund it, we absolutely need to bring down road transport emissions. Doing so will take a host of different solutions — there is no silver bullet, after all — all of which will take a substantial amount of funding and the right policy incentives to implement effectively. But for a truly just transition, there are few better investments for me than public transport. Money allocated by the Scottish Government for electrifying buses is thus as good a start as any, as are concessions won by the Greens on free bus travel for young people and the news that ScotRail is to come into national ownership from 2022 (extend that to the buses too as Commonwealth highlight, then we’re really moving).
But we do need more than just cleaner buses or a change in management, although both are very much welcome. Ensuring people make the switch and continue to choose public transport will take more abundant and better connected services; a reversal of bus route closures in addition to a tonne of new electric buses and routes as well; improved rail services and prices (with better conditions for all transport workers who are a critical and central part of any just transition) and active travel infrastructure to reduce car miles in the way the Scottish Government has committed to, in the way that a fair transition ultimately requires. We don’t even really need a tonne of new infrastructure or a high speed tram that can get you from Inverclyde to Invergordon in two shakes of a petrol pump, nice as that would be. Just a markedly improved set of services that operate in the public and planetary interest, with expansive routes and affordable fares that make enough people want to leave the car, and that don’t penalise the working classes and those already in poverty in a hundred different ways. Who knows, we could even fund it by progressively taxing those wealthiest groups and companies who are responsible for the fat end of transport emissions in the first place.
Of course, I completely appreciate that the challenge of tackling emissions with a good, effective public transport system isn’t necessarily as simple as “if you build it, they will come”. But if you don’t build it, they never will, and we can never seize the wider social and economic opportunities that expanding that system presents for challenging those massive transport inequalities of the past. For those who can afford it, and for various fleets and services, electric and plenty of other types of vehicles will be important; for a truly just transition that tackles stark transport inequalities and seizes those opportunities, a clean, expansive, connected and affordable public transport system needs to play just as big a — if not an even bigger — role going forward.
To reiterate: none of this is to say that we won’t need electric cars, or that the everyday car owner needs to be sent to scrap for crimes against humanity. We’ll need evething from foldaway bikes to hydrogen haulage to make this work and different things will work for different people in different regions. Nor is any of this to say that working class people should have to sacrifice aspirations of convenience, connectivity or affordability either. It is simply to say that the most convenient option doesn’t need to be the car, and the aspiration doesn’t need to exclusively be personal ownership within the confines of car-centric infrastructure, if we employ a bit of ambition to get this more collective project right. If we want to bring down the emissions and redress the inequalities caused by a society built by and for fossil fuels, we need to think beyond cars on roads that those inequalities are cemented into.
I’ve been privileged in recent years to get to visit some incredible towns and cities around Europe, at various work events and on wee breaks, and the dunt that a good public transport system can give you really is something. I’m not even one of those public transport nerds who has been able to name every carriage and engine from the West highland Line since age 5 (sorry public transport nerds) or a massive nationalise-absolutely-everything socialist. I’m just someone who was materially disadvantaged in time, money and opportunity as a result of poor public transport, as hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland still are today — especially women, people with disabilities and people of colour across the working classes.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. Transport doesn’t have to be the source of injustice or exclusion. Scotland might never be a Sweden or a Czech Republic or a Netherlands or a Denmark or a Singapore, and nor should we really aspire to be. We are very different countries. We should aspire to be a much better Scotland, with a clean and expansive transport system that is genuinely impressive, that takes the different needs of different regions and people here into account, and that’s ultimately about more than just getting around. We should aspire to a public transport network that breaks down some of those socioeconomic barriers and inequalities; that brings down our emissions as we ultimately have to; and creates better opportunities for disconnected communities in the process.
The road to a just, equitable and even prosperous transition to combat the climate crisis will have lots of electric vehicles and bikes on it too. Maybe even a few hydrogen lorries and buses. But at the heart of it, I think we need to build that around better public transport. A public transport system that connects people. A public transport that makes most of us think twice about jumping in cars altogether. A public transport system that makes us want to baggsy a seat.