Driving cars in Scotland is to be 'disincentivised' but panic buying of fuel shows we rely on them too much – Alastair Dalton

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This week’s extraordinary fuel-buying panic has highlighted a stark truth – we rely on our cars too much.

Many thousands of drivers will have made a mad dash for the pumps with no thought about whether they could get about by other means if they actually ran dry.

It’s a convenience thing – the car is the easy option, immediately on hand to take you where you want to go.

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For some, it will also be the only way they know how to travel, regardless of whether other options exist – such as by foot, bike, bus or train.

Traffic on Scotland's roads reached an all-time high before the Covid pandemic (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Traffic on Scotland's roads reached an all-time high before the Covid pandemic (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Traffic on Scotland's roads reached an all-time high before the Covid pandemic (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

But the Scottish government has signalled that will have to radically change, and within the space of nine years.

In a “world-leading” move to meet climate change targets, ministers have said road traffic will have to fall by an ambitious 20 per cent by 2030.

That’s despite it reaching an all-time high before the Covid pandemic, with total vehicle mileage approaching 30 billion a year.

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The challenge was reinforced by a new Transport Scotland-commissioned report which ministers said underlined that “transformational” behavioural change was needed to achieve their net-zero carbon goal.

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The report by consultants Element Energy also said that simply switching to electric cars would not be enough, and measures such as road-user charging must be introduced to “mitigate” the increased demand for such vehicles because their fuel cost is falling compared to petrol and diesel equivalents.

We won’t know what measures transport minister Graeme Dey intends to take to achieve that until “later this year”.

Sounds like that’ll be a Cop26 announcement.

Mr Dey said raising the age for free bus travel from 16 to 22 in January will help, along with hundreds of millions of pounds on both bus-priority measures and extra walking, cycling and wheeling initiatives.

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But it looks to me that will be needed just to stop those forms of travel falling even further behind.

The latest Transport Scotland figures, for early September, showed while car journeys were unchanged on the same period in 2019, some types of bus journeys were down 35 per cent and walking had reduced by 40 per cent, although cycling was up 10 per cent.

It’s generally accepted by political leaders and policy experts that far more radical measures are needed to curb car use – after all, the spending Mr Dey pointed to is effectively more of the same, which has had virtually no impact since devolution two decades ago.

Arguably, for 20 years we’ve been putting off the inevitable, just that now it’s the climate emergency rather than congestion that’s the catalyst.

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However, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that while Mr Dey acknowledged the need to “disincentivise” car use, his opening gambit on publication of the report was to appear to try to shift the focus to the UK government.

He said the “most direct levers” – fuel duty and vehicle excise duty – were reserved to Westminster, so “the UK government must play its part and use all the levers and powers it has to support us in this endeavour”.

But it would be pretty lame if Scotland fails to achieve the traffic cut target it set itself by 2030 – if it’s not independent by then – and blames those in power in London.

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