By Suzi Murning, Campaigns Officer at The Poverty Alliance
The enormous gravity of the climate emergency pulls all of society’s big issues, like poverty, inequality, and public health, into its orbit. A conversation about tackling these big issues must do so with reference to tackling the climate crisis, and vice versa, because the solutions to one are the solutions to the other. There truly can be no social justice without climate justice, and vice versa.
What does that conversation look like in Scotland? Scotland has ambitious targets to address the climate emergency, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asserted that tackling poverty is our ‘national mission’. Yet, there are simple policy solutions which could have a significant impact on both of these issues simultaneously, but which nonetheless are being ignored by the Scottish Government.
While extending free bus travel to all young people in Scotland from age five to twenty-one is a welcome move, it does not nearly go far enough. Like an increasing number of organisations in Scotland, the Poverty Alliance believe that all bus travel in Scotland should be free for everyone, starting with those who need it most, like people on low-income benefits and all young people under twenty-five.
Transport outstrips all other sectors as the largest source of net emissions in Scotland, accounting for almost thirty-six percent of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, of which thirty-nine percent came from private car use, more than any other mode.
So, any attempt to meet our climate change goals must involve bold action to reduce private car use and drastically increase the number of journeys taken by public transport. It must also be recognised that over seventy percent of public transport journeys are made by bus, and that buses are an especially vital form of travel for those living in low-income areas.
Despite this, Scotland continues to see a long-term decline in bus usage. Over the last five years, the number of bus journeys made has fallen by almost twelve percent, while the same number of people drove every day in 2019 as they did ten years ago.
The lack of forward-thinking, ambitious action on public transport not only significantly affects our ability to meet our climate change targets, but it also hampering our progress on solving poverty.
In 2019 Transport Scotland found that bus fares in Scotland had increased by almost eighteen percent in the preceding five years. Recent research conducted by the Poverty Alliance for Transport Scotland showed that, for families and individuals living in the grip of poverty, taking the bus is often simply unaffordable. As people living on low incomes across Scotland have told us, the unaffordability of bus travel can mean making heart-breaking choices between paying an essential bill or visiting a loved one in hospital, between buying food or buying a bus ticket to a job interview. That people are forced to make these impossible choices is an injustice.
The Scottish Youth Parliament found that young people would be more likely to use the bus if fares were less expensive. Extending free bus travel to all young people under 25 would accelerate the normalisation of bus use, in place of cars, now and into the future. It would mean many who are in low-income employment or have caring responsibilities would no longer see car ownership as a cheaper option than taking the bus.
By making bus travel free to use for all, starting with those on low-income benefits and young people under twenty-five, we would make a huge step towards a creating a transport system that ensures our emissions are seriously reduced. In the process, we will improve air quality (which is much worse in areas with high levels of poverty), widen access to green spaces to improve health and well-being, and ensure no one is locked out of opportunities to thrive and take part in society.
With COP26 absorbing our national attention and strengthening our resolve to take the necessary action to avoid climate chaos, there is no better time for the Scottish Government to commit vital investment for our transport system, by extending free bus travel to everyone in Scotland, starting with those who need it most.