Here below is an article I wrote on Free Public Transports for the Voice.
The Scottish Socialist Party’s National Council meets this weekend to consider proposals to establish a broad based free public transport coalition in Scotland aimed at making it a centrepiece of next years Holyrood election.
Progressive opinion is united as never before on the threat global warming poses to the peoples of the world. It is also agreed on the need for radical united action to deal with the danger and accepts we have to consider far reaching changes to our way of life if we are to defeat it.
We must find ways to generate electricity and power our various modes of transport without burning vast quantities of fossil fuels. The biggest producers of harmful emissions in the world today are coal, gas and oil fired power stations that spew out billions of tonnes of CO2 gases annually. The most pressing challenge then is to develop cleaner ways of generating electricity. Of course finding those solutions is not going to be easy, not when China opens a new coal fired power station every few months, and both Australia and the United States continue to defy demands for greenhouse gas reductions.
Recent set backs with ‘carbon capture’ technology make the prospect of making fossil fuel plants largely inert much less likely. It had been hoped that the Longannet power station in Fife would become the worlds first coal fired plant to store its CO2 underground - under the Forth estuary – but plans were dashed when it emerged the space required had been severely miscalculated and would need storage capacity ‘the size of a small US state’ to be viable. The focus is very much centred on the need to reduce consumption and to develop alternative sources of power from wind, tidal, solar, biomass and other ‘green’ technologies.
Whilst that debate is ongoing attention has shifted to reducing vehicle emissions. Transport is the 2nd largest producer of CO2 emissions and 90% of it comes from cars.
The Scottish Socialist Party has been examining the issue for some time. We are hugely impressed by the experience of the Belgian city of Hasselt, in Flanders. In 1997 the authorities there faced chronic congestion, poor air quality and pressure from the car lobby. But instead of building more roads they decided on a more radical approach. They abolished fares on their entire public transport system. Critics scoffed at them, said it was madness and forecast people would never leave their beloved cars just because the bus was free. Yet in the space of three years passenger numbers in Hasselt increased tenfold from 330,000 in 1996 to 3.7million. The new scheme led to lower pollution as air quality improved. Road accident rates fell, billions were saved on road building programmes and repairs.Social inclusion rates improved markedly. The Mayor of Hasselt Steve Stevaert was so impressed he famously concluded ‘We don’t need any more new roads, we need new thought highways.’
The SSP advocates replicating the remarkable success enjoyed in Hasselt on a nationwide basis by introducing free travel on all buses, trains, Glasgow’s underground system, Edinburgh’s trams and for foot passengers on our ferries. We believe this measure, never conducted on a national basis before, will provide a huge incentive for people to leave their cars at home and in doing so emulate the Hasselt success.
Implementing our proposal would require re-regulation of the buses and establishing a Scottish Bus Group to ensure the system was wholly integrated. Next we’d take our railway network into public ownership and legislate to abolish fares.
The cost of introducing free public transport throughout Scotland would be £1bn; £500m pa, the current income from fares, plus the cost of the new buses, trains and extra infrastructure needed to cope with the greatly increased demand. Of course £1billion is a lot of money. However, these costs would be greatly offset by several factors. The CBI in Scotland for example estimates congestion costs the economy £1.2bn a year. The NHS would save substantially from reduced levels of respiratory illnesses and road traffic accidents. Furthermore 850,000 low paid workers who pay between £50-£100 per month in bus and train fares would also clearly benefit. And this does not even quantify the improvements in the quality of life that follow these outcomes.
However even these financial advantages are outweighed by the climatic benefits to be gained by substantially reducing our CO2 levels. Sir Nicholas Stern chaired the Inter-Governmental Conference on Climate Change and in his conclusion he famously said that ‘The cost of doing nothing is the greatest of all.’
Last month’s Public and Commercial Services union conference in Brighton voted to endorse free public transport as a way of reducing global warming. I addressed the conference and outlined why the Scottish Socialist Party supports the measure as a way reducing CO2 emissions and persuading people to leave their cars at home.
A wide range of organisations now backs the free public transport initiative internationally. The endorsement of Britain’s biggest civil service union is a significant addition.