Friday, 15 December 2006

Free public transport for all

This is a copy of an article I sent to the South Edinburgh Echo

31, 7, 37, 47, 3, 8, 29 no it’s not my lottery numbers, it’s the buses I get into the city from my end of the Inch.
I hate taking my car into town, its just a nasty, irritating, frustrating experience -driving up Minto Street, along South Clerk Street [past my constituency office] and then onto the Bridges – and just don’t get me started on ‘the joys of parking’!
Of course when you add up all our journeys and the cumulative effect of traffic pollution and congestion, the cost to the Scottish economy of all these hours of gridlock morning and evening is horrendous. Across Scotland the environmental damage from these poisonous gas emissions is enormous. All the experts warn we simply can’t go on like this.

It is time for a radical solution. And the Scottish Socialist Party believe we have found one - free public transport for everyone. Free bus travel, free train travel and free ferry travel.
Think of the likely impact in tackling traffic congestion for a start. There would be a very real incentive to leave your car at home. It would dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.
It would also assist those excluded from participation in everyday travel activities which the better off can afford and it would benefit the wider economy by freeing everyone from the daily grind of traffic gridlock and mindless commuting. Added to that it would significantly reduce road accidents as the number of cars on our roads would be halved.

Many will rightly argue that it is the direction we are moving in anyway. The Scottish Executive’s free public transport scheme for senior citizens has been such a success it is soon to be rolled out further. More and more people are using public transport as the decline of the past twenty five years has been halted and passenger numbers soar.
In Hasselt in Belgium, a city the same size as Edinburgh, the authorities faced much the same problems as here with traffic congestion and pollution. They adopted a free fares policy and the result was that the region saw a dramatic fall in traffic volumes and pollution levels.

There is no doubt in my mind that if we make public transport the most attractive option people will take it. In the early 1980’s Ken Livingstone’s GLC implemented a far reaching public transport policy in London which slashed fares and opened up thousands of new bus routes. The initiative saw the numbers using public transport increase 870%.

Think how much easier journeys in Edinburgh South would become. Consider how do you get to work at the Western General hospital or at BAe on Ferry Road or the Gyle at the moment in your car?

Certainly making public transport free would mean we would need more buses, trains and trams to cope with the demand. That for me is a given and must obviously be added to the cost.
So what about the cost? Most transport experts and academics suggest it would cost about £1bn if you add the current income which would be lost and the cost of extra investment in new buses, trains etc. But against that must be offset the cost of doing nothing, the benefits to the wider economy and of course the quality of life for travelers and also the cost to the NHS of road traffic accidents and deaths.
In the week Tony Blair announces there is anywhere between £25bn and £75bn available for a hugely unpopular second generation of Trident weapons then surely no one is going to argue there I no money around!

I believe the months leading up to the Holyrood elections afford us the opportunity to debate the issues of congestion and pollution in full and debate the likeliest solutions. To me offering free public transport to everyone is the most imaginative and attractive solution and the one most likely to succeed.

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