Back to the future: Reducing car travel in Scotland

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The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan update (CCPu), published on 16 December 2020, includes one car-related policy outcome:

we will reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030.

This replaces the two car related policy outcomes in the previous version of the Plan published in 2018.  These aimed to:

  1. achieve annual reductions in average greenhouse gas emissions from new cars sold in Scotland
  2. increase the proportion of ultra-low emission new car sales, until they accounted for 100% of car sales in 2032. 

Progress towards meeting these, now superseded, outcomes is explored in the recent SPICe spotlight post Car Wars: Revenge of the SUV.

What does this new commitment mean in practice?

The baseline year against which the 20% reduction will be measured is 2019.  However, the latest year for which figures are publicly available is 2018 – during which cars travelled 36.4bn kilometres in Scotland. A reduction of 20% (7.3bn kilometres) to 29.1bn kilometres would mean taking car travel back to a level last seen in Scotland during 1994.

Taking a longer perspective, the steady growth in car travel since the end of the second world war is one of the nation’s key transport trends.  Since the publication of the first Climate Change Plan in 2011 the distance travelled by car has increased by 8.4% – an additional 2.8bn kilometres in 2018 compared to 2011. This trend is predicted to continue for the foreseeable future. Transport Scotland modelling forecasts a 25% increase in car trips and a 37% increase in distance driven (which also includes the fast-growing freight transport sector) between 2018 and 2037. 

The impact of COVID-19 on travel in Scotland

Transport Scotland travel statistics show that travel by all modes has been running well below normal levels since March 2020.  However, travel by car has been closer to normal levels than any other mode, down 25% on usual between 30 November to 6 December 2020, compared with reductions of 85% for rail, 55% for ferry and 60% for concessionary bus travel.  This is perhaps unsurprising given Scottish Government guidance to avoid public transport for all but essential travel.

It is difficult to predict what these changes in travel patterns, combined with possible increases in working from home, might mean for the longer term while we are still living with COVID-19 and restrictions on travel and activity.  The possible impact on motorists was explored by the RAC in its Report on Motoring for 2020 which found that:

…the majority of motorists (52%) say they will use public transport less in future as a result of the pandemic…Meanwhile, for the first time since 2002 fewer than half of drivers (43%) say they would use their cars less if public transport was improved – down sharply from 57% in 2019.

While drivers were asked to consider their use of public transport in non-pandemic times, the coronavirus has likely had a significant impact on how drivers answered.

Nonetheless, taken at face value, the declining appeal of public transport seemingly represents a seismic shift compared to recent years, and suggests drivers are more wedded to their cars than they have been for a long time.

However, a significant long-term switch from public transport to car travel is not inevitable, if appropriate action is taken.  Academics working on the Covid-19 Transport, Travel and Social Adaptation Study have highlighted the need for the Scottish Government to pursue two principle policy responses to manage demand for car travel as we exit the coronavirus pandemic, these are:

  1. Investment in digital infrastructure, particularly high-speed broadband and 5G, and continued support for working from home.
  2. Car restraint, through the reallocation of road space from cars to buses, cyclists and pedestrians, parking restraint, and road pricing.

How does the Scottish Government intend to achieve the reduction in car travel?

The CCPu sets out 17 policies to support the delivery of a 20% reduction in the distance travelled by car by 2030.  The first of which is a commitment to set out full details of how this outcome will be achieved in a “route map”, to be published at some point during 2021.  The other commitments can be summarised under three broad headings as follows:

Consultation, engagement and review commitments

  • Explore options around remote working as part of ambitions for 20-minute neighbourhoods and the work local programme.
  • Highlights the Work Local Challenge announced in the 2020/21 Programme for Government.
  • Work with UK Government on options to review fuel duty.
  • Work with local authorities on the climate impacts of local transport and parking strategies.
  • Support the implementation of a robust National Transport Strategy monitoring and evaluation framework.
  • Consult on regulations and guidance that will allow local authorities to implement a workplace parking levy.
  • Carry out a review of discounts available on public transport to those under the age of 26.

Policy commitments

  • Continue to support the Smarter Choices, Smarter Places (SCSP) programme to encourage behaviour change, child and adult cycle training and cycle safety training for drivers.
  • Support increased access to bikes for all including the provision of public bike and e-bike share.
  • Work to improve road safety, publishing Scotland’s Road Safety Framework to 2030, the consultation on which closed on 1 December 2020.  This is the successor to Scotland’s Road Safety Framework to 2020.
  • Provide free bus travel for under 19s resident in Scotland.

Spending commitments

  • £500m for active travel over five years – first announced in the 2020/21 Programme for Government.
  • £39m for temporary COVID-19 related walking and cycling infrastructure through the Spaces for People programme.  These funds were reallocated from within the 2020-21 active travel budget.
  • £2m over three years to develop Mobility as a Service in Scotland – first announced in the 2018-19 Programme for Government.
  • £500m for bus infrastructure – first announced in the 2019-20 Programme for Government.
  • £50m for the development of “active freeways”, segregated active travel routes on main travel corridors – this is a new commitment.

Are other Scottish Government transport commitments aligned with this goal?

The spending and policy commitments highlighted above are dwarfed by the investment of:

  • £6bn in dualling the A9 and A96 trunk roads
  • £120m to upgrade the Sheriffhall roundabout
  • £31.5m to build the A77 Maybole bypass
  • other significant investments in trunk roads including the A82 and A83. 

Such investment may run counter to efforts to reduce travel by car.  The expansion of road capacity can stimulate additional trips by car through a process known as  “induced demand”, as appears to have happened with the Queensferry Crossing.  In addition, cost and travel time are the two most important factors in how people choose to travel.  Investment which reduces car journey times, relative to travel by rail or bus, on key strategic routes may result in travellers switching from public transport to car, as public transport journey times become less competitive. 

New road building also generates significant greenhouse gas emissions during construction and locks in higher emission travel choices for years to come.

Reducing car travel. What works?

Research indicates that there are two broad approaches to reducing travel by car, often referred to as travel demand management (TDM):

  • Push (coercive): Measures that directly discourage car use, such as vehicle and fuel taxation, road closures, road pricing, parking controls and reduced speed limits.
  • Pull (non-coercive): Measures that encourage the use of alternative modes, such as cheaper, quicker or more reliable public transport, park and ride sites, multi-modal ticketing, better cycling facilities and flexible and home working.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen investigated what combination of measures was most likely to reduce private car use, concluding that:

…noncoercive TDM measures alone are unlikely to be effective in reducing car use. Therefore, coercive TDM measures such as increasing cost for or prohibiting car use may be necessary but are difficult to implement because of public opposition and political infeasibility. If combined with noncoercive TDM measures providing attractive travel alternatives and communicating the benefits of car‐use reduction to the public, coercive TDM measures are likely to become more effective, acceptable, and politically feasible.

This chimes with evidence given to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee by Professor Tom Rye at its meeting of 8 February 2017, where he stated that:

…If we want to focus on and bring about mode shift, we need to improve the alternatives, but I am afraid that all the evidence suggests that we also need to make car use a bit more difficult…What has to be borne in mind is that, if we only improve public transport without making car use a bit more inconvenient, the new passengers on public transport will primarily be people who have been attracted to it from walking or cycling.


Reducing the distance travelled by car by 20% by 2030 requires a reversal of decades of growth and predicted future increases.  Are the policies set out in the CCPu likely to deliver this level of reduction in car travel?  Most of the 17 policies can be classed as “pull” measures.  The two policies that clearly fall into the “push” category are dependent on future action by other administrations:

  1. the UK Government will lead on, and implement the results of, any review of vehicle excise duty and/or fuel duty. 
  2. local authorities will decide whether to introduce a workplace parking levy once regulations are approved and guidance published. 

Research highlights that a reliance on “pull” measures is unlikely to reduce car use and that significant “push” policies may be required to achieve this goal.  It is questionable whether the CCPu contains sufficient “push” measures, such as support for road user charging, to deliver the level of change required.  Much will depend on the content of the delivery “route map” which should be published during 2021.

The Scottish Government’s pursuit of a road building programme that may produce more, rather than fewer, car journeys may make achieving the desired reduction in car travel more difficult.  In addition, the Scottish Government will also have to carefully manage demand for car travel as we exit the coronavirus pandemic, to prevent unsustainable travel choices becoming embedded in people’s daily routines.

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning