Is there a “war on the motorist”?

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There have been several recent media articles, such as in the Scottish Mail on Sunday, arguing that the Scottish Government is waging a “war on the motorist”. Similar articles have focused on individual travel demand measures permitted by Acts of the Scottish Parliament, including Low Emission Zones (Scottish Daily Express), the Workplace Parking Levy (The Times), road tolls/road user charging (The Telegraph) and wider motoring issues such as fuel prices.

This post explores whether claims of such a “war” are reasonable, looking at:

• trends in car ownership and use over the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament.
• motoring costs.
• roads investment.
• local authority parking charges.
• the development and roll-out of travel demand management measures across Scotland.

This is an extended post, so we’ve added a pop-out table of contents to help with navigation.

Car ownership and use in Scotland

There were 1.8 million cars registered in Scotland when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 – this had risen to 2.5 million in 2020. That is an increase of 0.7 million cars, or 38%. To give some idea of what this increase looks like, if these additional cars were parked end to end in average sized parking places (4.8 metres long) then the line would stretch from central Edinburgh to the southern shores of Tenerife – a distance of 3,340 kilometres.

Image showing that the 696,000 cars added to the Scottish vehicle fleet between 1999 and 2020 would, if parked end to end, create a queue some 3340 kilometres long.

In 1999, cars were driven a total of 31.6 billion kilometres in Scotland, by 2019 (the last year unaffected by COVID-19 related travel restrictions) this had risen to 36.7 billion kilometres, an increase of 5.1 billion kilometres, or 16%. That is an increase greater than the distance between the Sun and Neptune, the outermost planet in our solar system. It took the Voyager 2 probe 12 years to reach Neptune from Earth at an average velocity of 42,000 miles per hour.

An image showing that the increase in the distance travelled by car in Scotland between 1999 and 2019 is greater than the distance between the Sun and the planet Neptune.

It is worth noting that after a dip in car travel in 2020 and 2021, largely due to COVID-19 related factors, UK Department for Transport data shows that car trips have effectively returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The cost of motoring

Changes in the cost of travelling by car, bus & coach and rail relative to the Retail Prices Index (RPI) since the Scottish Parliament first met in May 1999 are set out in the chart below. The RPI rate of inflation is used by the UK and Scottish Governments in setting regulated rail fare increases.

Bar graph showing increase in costs of travelling by rail, bus and car relative to the Retail Prices Index measure of inflation.

The “motoring” figures, produced by the Office for National Statistics, include purchase of a vehicle, maintenance, petrol, oil, tax, and insurance.

The chart shows that since May 1999, relative to the Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation:

• the cost of motoring has fallen by 19%
• rail fares have increased by 31%
• bus and coach fares have increased by 102%.

The figures for rail fare increases are GB-wide, though since 2012 certain ScotRail fares have increased at a lower rate than those in England and Wales.

Although outside the competence of the Scottish Government, it is worth noting that the main motoring tax, fuel duty, has been frozen at 57.95 pence per litre of petrol or diesel since financial year 2011-12, with a temporary five pence per litre cut applied in financial year 2022-23. Largely due to this freeze, income from fuel duty has fallen from 2.1% of UK Gross Domestic Product in financial year 1999-00 to a forecast 1.0% in 2022-23.

Research has found, e.g. IPPR and the European Commission, that income from motoring taxes does not cover the full costs of motoring when factors such as roads policing, air pollution, accidents, congestion and climate change are considered.

Roads investment

As shown in the chart below, the Scottish Government has invested more than £11 billion in the maintenance and expansion of Scotland’s strategic road network since financial year 2005-06.

Bar graph showing annual Scottish Government investment in the trunk road network.

The total amount invested in road enhancement is greater than that shown in the chart. Several major road projects, such as the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and the M8 completion, were delivered through Design, Build, Finance and Operate (DBFO) contracts where the cost to the taxpayer is spread over many years, with payment only beginning once the scheme is complete.

The Scottish Government continues to invest significant sums into the development of new and upgraded roads. The Infrastructure Investment Plan 2021-22 to 2025-26 includes road enhancement projects with a projected cost of more that £6.5 billion.

Local authority parking charges

Councils in Scotland made a combined surplus of £39.4m from their parking activities in financial year 2019-20, the last year unaffected by COVID-19 travel restrictions. This includes meter and penalty charge income for on and off-street parking. That is an average of £14.44 for every car registered in Scotland. Clearly, some car owners pay far more than this as regular users of pay-and-display parking or through penalty charge notices, while many others will pay less. Data for privately owned car parks is not available.

Low emission zones (LEZs)

Low Emissions Zones (LEZs) have recently been launched in Scotland’s four main cities. A person cannot drive a vehicle on a road within a Scottish LEZ unless it meets specified emissions standards or is exempted from the LEZ restrictions. Anyone driving a non-compliant vehicle into an LEZ is liable to pay a penalty charge.

Media reports have raised concerns about the impact this will have on drivers of non-compliant vehicles. However, most drivers already own vehicles that are compliant with LEZ emissions limits or will switch to such vehicles before enforcement starts, e.g. modelling by transport consultants for the Edinburgh LEZ predicts that by 2023 some 99.6% of petrol cars and 78.1% of diesel cars travelling into the LEZ area would be compliant.

It is also worth considering the size of the LEZs, which are described in the table below.

LEZ area
Total Council area
LEZ as a proportion of Council area
Roads within LEZ as proportion of total road length in Council area
Local authority area data from Office for National Statistics. Local authority road lengths from Scottish Transport Statistics. LEZ areas calculated by SPICe using LEZ boundary maps produced by the relevant local authorities. Each square kilometre of LEZ is assumed to contain 30km of road, a similar density to that found in inner London boroughs such as Islington, Camden and Tower Hamlets.

Low emission zones cover just 0.009% of Scotland’s total land mass and apply to an estimated 0.38% of Scotland’s 56,959 km road network, although as city centre roads they will carry relatively high volumes of traffic for their length. It is also worth noting that LEZs do not currently apply to any trunk road, which carry 38% of all traffic annually. Given this, it is reasonable to assume that most drivers, on most trips will never encounter a LEZ.

The Scottish Government offers micro-businesses grants that cover up to 80% of the cost of fitting emissions reduction systems to older vans, taxis, heavy goods vehicles and refuse collection vehicles that do not meet LEZ emissions standards. Funding is also available to bus operators under the Scottish Bus Emissions Abatement Retrofit Fund.

Workplace Parking Levy

Since early 2022, Scottish local authorities have had a discretionary power to introduce a workplace parking levy (WPL). A WPL would be collected by way of a licensing scheme. Employers that provide their staff with on-site parking would be required to apply to their local authority for a licence for each car park. The cost of the licence would be based on the maximum number of vehicles that each workplace car park can hold, with a set charge for each parking space.

While all workplace car parks would require a licence, not all employers would be required to pay. Each scheme could set out local exemptions from the requirement to pay for a licence. In addition, there are several Scotland-wide exemptions, where payment cannot be levied. These are:

• qualifying NHS properties.
• GP surgeries.
• hospices.
• disabled persons’ parking places.

A licensing scheme could allow for variations in WPL charges according to different days, different times of day, different parts of the licensing area, different classes of motor vehicle or different numbers of licensed spaces. The occupier of the premises providing the parking places will be responsible for acquiring and paying for the licence, although they can choose to pass the cost on to employees who use workplace parking spaces.

To date, no Scottish local authority has announced that it intends to introduce a WPL. The City of Edinburgh Council agreed at its meeting of 30 June 2022 to:

…continue exploration with the intention of implementation, of a Workplace Parking Levy as outlined in the agreed City Mobility Plan.

The Glasgow Transport Strategy includes a commitment to:

Undertake a feasibility study about a Workplace Parking Licensing (WPL) scheme, continue to develop a business case and report back to Elected Members for a decision on whether to proceed with a scheme.

Road User Charging/Road Tolls

The Scottish Government currently has no plans to introduce road user charging or road tolls on any part of the trunk road network. However, there is a possibility this may change in future years. Transport Scotland’s Route Map to Achieve a 20% Reduction in Car Kilometres by 2030, published in January 2022, commits Transport Scotland to commissioning exploratory research into the issue of charging, stating:

Further exploration of equitable options for demand management to discourage car use, including pricing, will be explored through the commissioning of additional research in 2022. This will provide a short-list of options for further exploration and feasibility analysis, and will enable the development of a new Car Demand Management Framework by 2025.

Scottish local authorities have had the power to introduce road user charges on local roads since 2001, although none have done so to date. The City of Edinburgh Council chose not to introduce a road user charge following a non-binding referendum of city residents on the issue in 2005.

Recently, two Scottish Councils have taken small steps towards investigating the possibility of introducing road user charging schemes. The Glasgow Transport Strategy commits Glasgow City Council to lobby the Scottish Government to introduce national road user charging, which would allow for regional schemes. The Council would look to develop proposals with partners if such national support was forthcoming. The City of Edinburgh Council’s City Mobility Plan commits the authority to exploring the possibility of introducing a road user charging scheme “if necessary”.

It is possible that road user charging could eventually be introduced at a UK rather than Scottish or local authority level. The UK Parliament’s Transport Committee published a report on Road Pricing in January 2022, recommending that it be considered urgently as a replacement for vehicle excise duty and fuel duty – income from which is likely to fall considerably in the coming years as people switch to electric cars.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

The impact of low traffic neighbourhoods is explored in a previous SPICe Spotlight post.

Conclusion – war on the motorist?

Clearly, the term “war on the motorist” is a rhetorical flourish, but can its use be justified by the available evidence? Since the Scottish Parliament was established the number of cars has increased and the distance driven has grown. The Scottish Government continues to invest billions of pounds in road network enhancement. Income from fuel duty has fallen as a proportion of national income and the cost of motoring has fallen relative to the cost of living and other modes of travel.

It is true that the Scottish Government has published policies aimed at reducing the distance driven by car. The Scottish Parliament has passed legislation granting local authorities the power to introduce measures aimed at reducing travel by car. However, to date very little has changed for motorists. Low Emission Zones are the only new travel demand measure introduced on the ground, with the aim of meeting statutory emissions targets aimed at protecting human health, and only apply to a tiny fraction of the country’s roads.

While media reports have focused on the Workplace Parking Levy and road user charging, neither apply anywhere in the country. Edinburgh and Glasgow councils are the only authorities to announce they are taking initial steps to investigate their feasibility with several others making clear that they will not do so, e.g. Perth and Kinross Council. However, even those authorities that choose to proceed would likely take five or more years to introduce such schemes, due to consultation and approval requirements. Again, it is worth remembering the intention of these policies. It is not to penalise motorists, but to encourage those people who can use alternative means of travelling to do so, helping to reduce congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions while tackling issues such as inactivity.

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher (Transport and Planning)