After Covid, will cars remain king or will greener forms of transport prevail in Scotland? – Alastair Dalton
Its thousands of figures over hundreds of pages provide a comprehensive picture of how we got about last year – before the pandemic struck.
But the intriguing question about the latest official Scottish Transport Statistics compendium is whether Covid will be a watershed in our travel habits and permanently alter the trends the document records.
Dare I say it, but the year covered by the 2019-20 edition conveniently ended at around the start of the first coronavirus lockdown and the sudden transport changes it triggered.
That will make the current year’s figures a revealing and likely dramatic comparison, because 11 months on, streets are still noticeably quieter, and trains, buses and airports remain virtually empty.
Laying that perhaps temporary jolt aside, the newly published document will have made depressing reading for ministers, campaigners and others striving for a greener, less car-dominated Scotland.
Its headlines were basically the same as pretty much every previous year since I started covering transport nearly two decades ago – more people travelling by car and plane, bus travel in chronic decline and agonisingly slow progress in boosting cycling rates.
The only largely positive news, those campaign groups would point to, is rail’s renaissance to all-time passenger records, albeit while still commanding only a small proportion of the travel market.
For those lucky enough to be in a household with a car – and nearly three in four of us are, with almost one in three having more than one car – there have been significant improvements to Scotland’s road network in recent years that will have further ingrained motoring’s predominance – from extensions to the M8, M80 and M77 motorways to the Aberdeen bypass and the Queensferry Crossing.
Our record 30 billion vehicle kilometres a year is likely to only increase thanks to more projects underway such a continuous dual carriageway being created between our seven cities when the multi-billion-pound A9 and A96 schemes are completed.
But while vehicle engines are becoming more efficient and less polluting, fewer than one in 50 is electric.
I’ve been cycling round Glasgow’s city limits for a novel form of lockdown-compliant exercise and the scale of housebuilding I’ve come across is breathtaking, the new homes complete with driveways that look like outdoor car showrooms with their gleaming new motors.
How to persuade their occupants, a fair few who are likely to have moved from more densely populated areas with more readily available public transport, to travel more sustainably when restrictions are eased?
The temptation must be huge to simply get into your car and drive straight to where you want to get to without inconvenience or complication.
There are positive signs, however. One of these new estates under construction is beside year-old Robroyston station on the north-eastern edge of Glasgow, from where an electric train can whisk you into the city centre in around ten minutes – up to half the driving time.
The transport statistics show other stations elsewhere in Scotland have mushroomed in popularity over the last decade, with Portlethen, south of Aberdeen, quadrupling its annual passengers to 60,000 and Edinburgh Park nearly doubling to 900,000.
So will the 2019-20 travel statistics be the last to show familiar trends, and which way will the graphs point after plummeting downwards in the year that’s nearing its end?