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25 October 1999

Who will part the driver from his car?

New Statesman Scotland - The new Scottish executive knows it must do something to prevent g

By Tom Brown

John Prescott, as we all know, has “two Jags”. Scotland’s Transport Minister, Sarah Boyack, is a bike enthusiast and is more likely to be seen in pedal-pushers and safety helmet than in the back of an official limo. Scotland’s First Minister, Donald Dewar, is now a notorious speedster, having been caught bucketing along Great Western Road in Glasgow in his second-hand Peugeot.

There was a time when these contrasts would have symbolised the difference in car use between London and Scotland. In the soft South-east, conspicuous over-reliance on the private vehicle in an already congested environment. In Scotland, a greener approach and a clear run even in the heart of a city where a man with his mind on running the country might absent-mindedly break the legal limit.

No longer. Transport in Scotland is as much of a political snarl-up as in the overcrowded south – but the Scottish government’s handling of it could have more immediate repercussions. The Scottish Minister for Transport and the Environment has barely revved-up her road-pricing policy to tackle central-belt congestion and pollution. But already she has been labelled “the driver’s enemy”, accused of “highway robbery” and advised “On yer bike, Boyack”.

Boyack and the Scottish executive have only themselves to blame for a badly launched, ham-fistedly handled programme and an apparent inability to understand the mind of the Scottish motorist. They seem to have forgotten that drivers are voters-on-wheels.

The amounts of time lost, fuel wasted and stress caused in the daily struggle in and out of Edinburgh and Glasgow are incalculable, and the same can often be said of Aberdeen and Dundee. Rush hour in dozens of towns such as Hamilton or Ayr can be just as bad as the centre of Glasgow if you happen to hit them at the wrong times of day.

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Until recently, Edinburgh and Glasgow had different approaches. Edinburgh’s – under David Begg, now special adviser to Prescott – was draconian from the start. Bus lanes, stringent parking restrictions and a ban on private cars on Princes Street were only part of it. The “blue meanies”, the privately hired traffic enforcers, issued 80,000 tickets and towed away more than 2,000 cars in their first six months.

The message went out: “Edinburgh hates cars.” Glasgow seemed to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, but has been forced down the same road as the capital.

The £31.5 million operation to shift the crumbling Kingston Bridge will cause chaos for the next two weekends (23/24 and 30/31 October). The bridge across the Clyde in the heart of Glasgow is being raised 1.5cm and shifted a mere 5cm to strengthen its support.

It will also draw attention to the build-up that is slowly strangling Glasgow. With 90,000 vehicle movements a day, it is Europe’s second busiest river crossing (after the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge carrying the M25). The slogan now is “Keep Glasgow Moving” with more single lanes, cycle tracks and bus- and taxi-only streets. Parking fines have been doubled from £20 to £40 and the council is increasing its force of traffic attendants from 78 to 105, with hand-held computers, radios and electric scooters and a target of issuing 30,000 more parking tickets every year.

For fear of offending Rangers or Celtic sensibilities, they could not be clad in blue or green uniforms but they hope for an in-between aquamarine. Edinburgh has its Blue Meanies, Glasgow now has its Sea Greenies . . . Across Scotland, it is clear that a radical alternative transport must mean persuading private drivers to leave their cars at home and switch to buses and trains.

And this is precisely where the Scottish government has run into trouble. It has put the cart before the horse – or, rather, the toll before the improvements in public transport.

Boyack’s announcement of electronic road-charging (£5 a journey has been mentioned), with spy cameras spotting toll-dodgers, caused predictable honks of outrage.

However, she blundered by saying the money raised could not be ear-marked for improvements in public transport. As a “green” – as in inexperienced – minister, she made the mistake of listening to her civil servants, instead of realising that it is government that is in the driving-seat.

Within 24 hours she performed a humiliating U-turn and now undertakes to plough the money raised from tolls back into improving public transport in a “virtuous circle”.

That has not stopped the opposition from arguing that road tolls will not cut road use. When the first experiment starts on the M8 outside Edinburgh, they predict – probably rightly – that motorists will switch to the old and inadequate A8, with appalling consequences for towns and villages.

The Scottish Transport Minister may now accept that the government has to carry the travelling public with it. But her preference for bike over car may explain why she fails to understand the motoring mentality. Drivers will not abandon their cars in the hope that public transport will get better. They will only do so after public transport has improved.

Only when drivers are certain that trains run frequently and on time, dovetailing with local bus services at all hours of the day, not only peak times, and bus services run through towns and cities without the need to change and wait in the rain, will they switch.

The much-maligned Begg knows how hard it is to part driver from car. An attempt to get 12,000 drivers to sell their vehicles and hire their cars through the Edinburgh City Car Club has flopped, with just 42 people signing up after £250,000 was spent on the scheme.

But he is only stating the obvious when he says: “You cannot continue to have more and more vehicles doing ever-increasing mileage, and shorter and shorter journeys, on a small island without reaching a point where it has an unacceptable impact on all our lives, car-users or not.”

What is equally certain is that anyone who tackles the car problem is heading for a political pile-up. If the Briton’s home is his castle, his car is his personal Panzer-wagen, virility symbol and freedom-giver.

Threatening the car culture is a sure-fire vote loser. The opposition will have a joy-ride if Scotland’s motorists become the first in Britain to pay-per-drive.

We all know it makes sense. But who will be first to give up the car? You? Me? Why me, why not the fellow in the next lane? As always on the roads, it’s the other drivers who are at fault.

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