You get what you pay for – 20 years of devolved transport policy

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe has been publishing twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  This is the latest in the series and covers 20 years of devolved transport policy. Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs.

Introducing a debate on the Transport (Scotland) Bill in September 2000, Sarah Boyack MSP, then Minister for Transport and Environment, highlighted that there was a:

…growing recognition over the past few years that congestion and a lack of genuine transport choices are harming our economy, our environment, our health and our way of life, that the deregulation policies of the previous Conservative Government resulted in fragmentation, which cost us dear, and that we need to restore a balance to our transport policies in the interest of all our communities.

Almost 20 year later, the same issues were raised during a similar debate on the most recent Transport (Scotland) Bill.  Why has so little progress been made in tackling our key transport challenges?  This blog looks at some of the factors underlying changes in how we travel, including transport policy, the cost of personal transport and transport investment.

Transport policy

The Scottish Government’s transport policy has been remarkably consistent throughout the life of the Scottish Parliament.  The first attempt to establish a coherent plan for the development of Scotland’s transport system was in the 2004 White Paper Scotland’s Transport Future, which set out a vision of:

An accessible Scotland with safe, integrated and reliable transport that supports economic growth, provides opportunities for all and is easy to use; a transport system that meets everyone’s needs, respects our environment and contributes to health; services recognised internationally for quality, technology and innovation, and for effective and well-maintained networks; a culture where fewer short journeys are made by car, where we favour public transport, walking and cycling because they are safe and sustainable, where transport providers and planners respond to the changing needs of businesses, communities and users, and where one ticket will get you anywhere.

This vision was carried through into the first National Transport Strategy, which was published in 2006 and again in the “refreshed version”, published in 2016.  The consultation draft of the new National Transport Strategy, published in July 2019, includes a very similar, but shorter, vision:

We will have a sustainable, inclusive and accessible transport system, helping to deliver a healthier, fairer and more prosperous Scotland for communities, businesses and visitors.

How has travel changed since 1999?

So how has travel in Scotland changed since 1999?  Key changes include:

Scotland’s roads are safer:

  • the number of people killed in road traffic collisions fell by 53%, from 310 in 1999 to 146 in 2017
  • the number of people seriously injured in road traffic collisions fell by 58%, from 3765 in 1999 to 1589 in 2017.

Scotland’s roads are more crowded: 

  • the number of motor vehicles registered in Scotland increased by 39%, from 2.131m in 1999 to 2.962m in 2017
  • the distance travelled by motor vehicles in Scotland increased by 20%, from 39.8 billion km in 1999 to 47.9 billion km in 2017.

Bus patronage is down:

  • the number of local bus passengers fell by 14.7%, from 455m in 1999-2000 to 388m in 2017-18.

Rail patronage is up:

  • the number of ScotRail passengers increased by 58%, rising from 61.72m in 1999-2000 to 97.78m in 2017-18.

Travel by bike, as a proportion of total distance travelled, is effectively unchanged:

  • total distance cycled has increased by 22%, rising from 238m kilometres in 1999 to 290m kilometres in 2017. However, given the increase in total distance travelled, travel by bike accounts for the same proportion of total distance travelled in 2017 as it did in 1999 (0.6%).

The proportion of trips made on foot is down:

  • Changes in the way walking statistics are collected, which happened in 2006 and again in 2012, mean that trends since 1999 cannot be identified. However, the proportion of trips longer than 0.25 miles (or five minutes) made on foot fell from 19.5% in 1999 to 13.6% in 2006.  The proportion of all trips that are made on foot has been on a further downward trend since 2012.

 The environmental impact of transport has grown in significance:

  • transport greenhouse gas emissions (excluding international aviation and shipping) fell by 11%, from 14.2 MtCO2e in 1999 to 12.6 MtCO2e in 2016. However, total Scottish greenhouse gas emissions fell by 46% during that period, with transport now the largest source of Scottish greenhouse gas emissions. Transport emissions stopped falling in 2013 and have increased annually since then.

Factors behind these changes

Cost and travel time are generally regarded as the two most important factors in how people choose to travel.  The impact that changes in these factors have had on travel choices since 1999 are briefly examined below.

The cost of personal travel: Since 1999, there have been clear trends in the cost of different modes of travel.  As set out in the chart below:

SPICe_Blog_2019_20th anniversary_transport costs_UK retail prices index

This shows that, relative to the Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation (the measure used to calculate increases in rail fares that are regulated by the UK and Scottish Governments):

  • the cost of motoring has fallen by 24.7%
  • rail fares have increased by 35.5%
  • bus fares have increased by 78.3%.

The figures for rail fare increases are GB-wide, since 2012 certain ScotRail fares have increased at a lower rate than those in England and Wales. The impact of rising transport costs has a significant impact on household expenditure.  The Office for National Statistics notes that

Households in Scotland spent 15% of total expenditure on transport, making this the top Scottish spending category.

As the cost of motoring has fallen in real-terms, it is not unreasonable to assume that people have chosen to travel by car for an increasing proportion of journeys, particularly at the expense of bus trips – which have been subject to substantial cost increase.

The impact of congestion and longer journey times: The growth of road traffic, and associated peak-time traffic congestion, has had a negative impact on bus use.  Research conducted for the Confederation of Passenger Transport identified increased car ownership, longer bus journey times and increases in bus fares as the main drivers behind falling bus use.

The impact of congestion on bus patronage, and the correlation between bus speeds and patronage is outlined in research conducted by Prof. David Begg, which concluded that:

Over the last 50 years, bus journey times have increased by almost 50% in the more congested urban areas. If we had protected bus passengers from the growth in congestion there would arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today…The net result is a direct correlation between operating speeds and patronage: a 10% decrease in speeds reduces patronage by at least 10%.

Traffic congestion has had a greater impact on Scottish bus passengers than motorists, with an increase in the proportion of bus trips where passengers experienced delay rising from 8.9% in 2004 to 12.5% in 2017, with the equivalent rise for car trips being from 11.9% to 12.3%.

The growth in rail travel: While also affected by fares rising above RPI and no significant reduction in journey times, rail use has grown considerably across Scotland and the UK since 1999.  Research into why this has occurred, points to three key non-transport related drivers of this growth:

  • the overall increase in the population
  • the more rapid increase within this population of those segments with a higher than average propensity for rail use, such as those with high incomes or those in households in dense urban areas without cars
  • some overall increase in the proportion within each segment that make trips by rail.

The possible impact of significant Scottish Government investment in rail services on increased patronage is outlined below.

Transport Investment

The chart below shows annual Scottish Government investment in rail, trunk roads and bus services at 2019-20 prices.  Data for the period 1999-2000 to 2004-05 is not reported, as it is not available in a format that allows direct comparisons with subsequent years.  Scottish Government investment priorities are clear, since 2007-08:

  • Investment in rail services (both infrastructure and franchise operations) has remained at between £800m and £1bn per year. Investment has included major rail infrastructure projects, including the Borders railway, Airdrie-Bathgate railway and the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway and electrification of central Scotland rail routes.
  • Investment in trunk roads has been on a significant upward trend, peaking at around £1bn in 2017-18, with a recent fall mainly due to the completion of the Queensferry Crossing project. Investment has included major projects, such as the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, M8 completion and M74 completion projects.
  • Investment in bus services has been on a slight downward trend, falling from around £310m in 2007-08 to around £270m in 2018-19. No significant investment has been made in bus infrastructure or bus priority schemes, with the sole exception of a £40m grant towards the development of the Fastlink scheme in Glasgow.

SPICe_Blog_2019_20th anniversary_transport costs_Scot gov annual investment

However, these figures do not provide the full story for investment in all modes of transport.  The chart below shows Scottish Government investment in bus services since 2005-06.  The total rose significantly between 2005-06 and 2007-08, as the national concessionary fares scheme for elderly and disabled people bedded in.  The chart shows that the great majority of Scottish Government investment in bus services is to support the operation of this scheme.  While the scheme provides valuable support for older and disabled people, it is not designed to support the provision or development of bus services.  The regulations that underpin the operation of the scheme are clear that:

It is to be an objective (but not a duty) of the Scottish Ministers to provide that operators are financially no better and no worse off as a result of their participation in the Scheme, taking account of the costs (including a reasonable profit) of a well-run undertaking that is adequately equipped with the means to provide the eligible service.

Given this, direct Scottish Government support for the provision of bus services now stands at roughly £60m per year – far less than is invested in the ScotRail franchise (£417m in 2019-20), despite bus services carrying 388m passengers in 2017-18, compared with ScotRail’s 97.8m.

SPICe_Blog_2019_20th anniversary_transport costs_Scottish Government total investement

The chart below shows Scottish Government investment in active travel (walking and cycling) from 2005-06 to 2019-20 at 2019-20 prices.  Figures for 2005-06 to 2015-16 are taken from the well-regarded annual SPOKES funding survey, as the Scottish Government only began publishing figures for investment in active travel in 2016-17.  The figures for active travel had to be charted separately from those for rail, bus and trunk roads, as the level of funding for active travel was simply too low to be effectively represented alongside funding figures for these other modes.

SPICe_Blog_2019_20th anniversary_transport costs_Scottish Government investment in active travel

Annual Scottish Government expenditure on walking and cycling has generally accounted for less than 2% of Scottish Government transport investment since 1999, although a recent doubling to £80m in 2018/19 brings it closer to 4%.  Total Scottish Government investment in active travel since 1999 amounts to less than the cost of several individual trunk road schemes, such as the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route or M74 completion.


Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, more people have chosen to drive more often – partly at the expense of trips previously made on foot or by bus.   This is generally counter to the thrust of Scottish transport policy, which aims to encourage people to switch from the car to walking, cycling or public transport – particularly for shorter trips, bringing environmental, health and economic benefits.

However, there appears to be a clear correlation between the Scottish Government investing significant sums in trunk road and rail infrastructure and growth in their use and the investment of far smaller sums in buses, walking and cycling and their decline or stagnation.  In effect, while policy is important – you get the outcomes that you pay for.

This poses a major challenge for the next 20 years, during which the Scottish Government has committed to the almost complete decarbonisation of transport in Scotland.  While the draft National Transport Strategy focuses policy on sustainable and active travel, the Scottish Government has confirmed the investment of £6bn in the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness and the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen – the two most expensive transport projects ever undertaken in Scotland.  Significant investment in major road projects has been found to generate “induced demand”, and this investment may simply create additional trips by car, as appears to have happened with the Queensferry Crossing.  It also generates significant emissions during construction and locks in higher emission travel choices for years to come. More widely, Transport Scotland has predicted a 27% increase in the distance driven by car between 2015 and 2035.

It could be argued that increasing uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles will mean that increasing vehicle mileage is not a major concern.  However, the growth in the distance driven has negated the positive impact of improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions from newer vehicles since 1999.  Given that ultra-low emissions vehicles made up just 2.2% of all new vehicle registrations during 2018, and that the average lifespan of a car in the UK is 13.9 years – a step change in the environmental performance of the Scottish vehicle fleet would seem to be many years off.

This means that significant investment in infrastructure and other measures proven to encourage people to switch from driving to walking, cycling and public transport, plus measures to manage demand for car use, will be vital in tackling transport related greenhouse gas emissions in the short to medium term.


Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning

Image source: Transport Scotland