The plan to allow free bus travel for under 19s means less congestion, less air pollution, less climate emissions and better access to education and jobs for young people, but more fundamentally it means an acceleration of the long-term decline in people who consider a car the best way to get about.

The free bus travel scheme, agreed as part of the deal between the Scottish Green Party and the SNP, make a difference in many practical ways. It will reduce school-run congestion in our towns and cities. It will mean the bus will look like a great option for a family trip into town, with the kids going free.

Lothian bus going to Holyrood

More people on the bus instead of in cars will make a big difference to climate change emissions, urban air pollution and overall congestion in our towns and cities. It also means more access to education and job opportunities for young people, where the cost of travel previously took a big bite out of low wages or limited budgets.

Helping create a cultural change in transport attitudes

Perhaps the most important dimension of the move to free travel for young people is the cultural change it will bring. The current scheme that gives free bus travel to people over 60 has made a difference not only to car traffic but also to tackling loneliness and isolation. Similarly, most young people will now grow up thinking the bus is the obvious choice for any journey beyond walking and cycling distance.

Over the last 25 years each new generation of young people has seen fewer and fewer people learn to drive, and going free on the buses will accelerate this trend and create a future population much less dependent on owning a car to go about their daily lives.  A country less obsessed with cars can take back urban space from roads and parking, and make our town and cities healthier and more pleasant places to be.

Labour wanted to go further, calling for free bus travel for all under 26s. And we called for all buses to be free for everyone last year as the Scottish Government was putting together its latest set of plans in the Programme for Government.

Going further on public transport

Nonetheless free travel for young people is a bold move. There are a few European examples to show that free public transport works. Luxembourg, which has about the same population as Glasgow, made all journeys on all types of public transport free for everyone this past Sunday. Estonia’s capital Tallinn has had free public transport for all residents since 2013. And Dunkirk introduced free travel by bus for locals in 2018. 

There was another huge change to our societal attitude to transport last week. On Thursday the UK Court of Appeal ruled that plans to build a third runway at Heathrow are illegal because the need to meet the climate change targets in the UN Paris Agreement was ignored. There couldn’t be a more fundamental challenge to transport’s business as usual model and this decision will have implications for all big road and runway plans in the UK.

Public and institutional attitudes to transport usually change slowly but last week saw two big changes. The same budget that introduces free bus travel for under 19s still funds the dualling of the A9 and the A96, but these could well end up being the last of Scotland’s big road schemes.

Well done to the Scottish Green Party and the SNP for taking a big step in the right direction on transport. No doubt, we’ll be continuing to press for even more in future years.

Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 3rd March 2020. 

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