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Green agenda setback as bus journeys fall

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More cars on the roads, while bus travel is down (pic: Terry Murden)

The Scottish government’s “green agenda” has suffered a blow after new figures reveal a slump in public transport over the past five years and a rise in the use of private cars.

Attempts to persuade more people to switch to buses appear to be failing, according to the Scottish Transport Statistics report released today.

It shows that the number of journeys being made by public transport in Scotland was falling before the pandemic – from 517 million in 2018 to 502 million in 2019.

The statistics show that there were 366 million bus journeys in 2019, accounting for 73% of all public transport journeys. Bus journeys fell by 3% between 2018 and 2019 and are down 12% over the past 5 years.

In comparison, there were 96.4 million passenger journeys on ScotRail services in 2019/20, an increase of 4% compared with 5 years ago, but 1.4% less than 2018/19.

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Rail passenger numbers are reported on the basis of financial years, so the fall in 2019/20 may be explained by the impact of the pandemic on travel demand at the end of that financial year.

Over the same period, motor traffic has continued to increase. The number of motor vehicles registered in Scotland (3 million) is at an all-time high and the distance driven by motor vehicles on roads increased by 8% over the past five years to reach 48.7 billion vehicle kilometres in 2019.

Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: “Looking back at 2019 travel trends, I’m pleased to see more than two thirds of passengers reporting that they are very or fairly satisfied with public transport services – the first rise in five years, and a reflection of our record investment in public transport.

“These statistics are not reflective of the significant changes made in how we travel as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There have been mass shifts to home working, reductions in commuter journeys and some notable increases in cycling. Across a wide range of areas, we’re working to lock-in some of the positive changes as part of Scotland’s green recovery.

“This said, I recognise that we’ve still got some way to go in transitioning away from private vehicles and towards more sustainable public transport. This is why we’ve committed through our updated Climate Change Plan to reduce car kilometres travelled by 20% by 2030 – helping to put us on the road to net zero emissions by 2045.

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“To support this, we’ve committed to long term investment of over £500 million in bus priority infrastructure, coupled with an further package of over £500 million to support active travel infrastructure and behavioural change projects over the next five years.

“The Scottish Government is working to provide a sustainable, inclusive, safe and accessible transport system, helping deliver a healthier, fairer and more prosperous Scotland for communities, businesses and visitors. Looking to the future, our second National Transport Strategy sets out a compelling vision for our transport system that seeks to protect our climate and improve lives over the next twenty years.”

Scottish Labour said the Scottish Government established targets to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030. Labour has said that a Public Transport Recovery Plan will be crucial to reducing car use and achieving the SNP government’s public transport and climate goals. 

Its transport spokesperson, Colin Smyth said: “These figures make a mockery of the SNP’s promises to promote public transport and reduce car use. It is clear that things were moving in the wrong direction long before Covid hit, and the pandemic will only make this worse.  

“If we are really to build back better, this must include a real public transport recovery plan. Scotland’s public transport system has been left to decline for far too long under the SNP, and reversing this must be a priority if we are serious about tackling climate change and growing our economy.”  

Scottish Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Carole Ford said:   “If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency we need to tackle Scotland’s stubbornly high transport emissions.

“We want to put recovery first, and to do so we must include a radical shake up of the inefficient and polluting transport system.

“The pandemic has resulted in government paying the bills of the bus companies. So now is the time for government to use the money it puts into bus services to allow communities to set the pattern of services.

“ScotRail’s passenger numbers falling pre-pandemic is also evidence that passengers were sick to the back teeth of the delays and cancellations.

“The next contract needs to deliver for them so more people leave their cars at home and take the train instead, boosted by the opening of new lines and stations.”

Other findings presented in the publication:

  • There were 28.9 million air passengers at Scottish airports in 2019, a decrease of 2%, and 20% over 5 years.
  • There were 10.4 million passengers on ferry services in 2019, with 8.7 million passengers on routes entirely within Scotland. Ferry passenger numbers increased by 8% over 5 years.
  • Bus passengers experienced a 9% increase in fare prices (over and above general inflation) between 2015 and 2019.

The publication can be accessed online at: https://www.transport.gov.scot/our-approach/statistics#42763

Throughout the pandemic, Transport Scotland has published weekly reports on transport trends across all main modes, which are available on the Transport Scotland website. Data which covers the pandemic will be published in future iterations of Scottish Transport Statistics.



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