Ian Findlay: Scotland's new, emerging National Transport Strategy must help tackle our climate emergency

Over the last couple of weeks, our First Minister declared a climate emergency. Our Chief Officer shares his thoughts on how transportation policy can help us reach 'Net Zero'


Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been exposed to a major report from the Committee on Climate Change.  This led our First Minister declaring a climate emergency and the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform making a Statement in the Parliament on 14 May.

I welcome the commitments contained within these interventions.  In particular, I welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s statement that transformative change is required and that we all have a role to play.

In light of the above, I’d like to share my thoughts on how transportation policy and our emerging National Transport Strategy can contribute to dealing with the climate emergency and reaching ‘Net Zero’.

Transport and climate change

The climate change report points one of its fingers at transport emissions as a cause of climate change and the need for system change in transportation as part of the solution.

In a Scottish context, transport is now Scotland’s largest source of climate change emissions (28%) and is the one sector where there has been almost no decarbonisation since 1990 (only 1%; figures from Transform Scotland).

Scotland's New National Transport Strategy

The above realities, shout clearly to me that Scotland’s new National Transport Strategy (NTS), currently in development, must be very different in its strategic priorities to the current strategy.

Over the last couple years, I’ve been immersed in transport policy, including sitting on one of the NTS Review Working Groups.  Also, the organisation I lead, Paths for All, has a major focus on promoting walking, cycling and public transport as a first choice for travel.

Having been involved in writing strategies for over 30 years now, I believe it’s critical to get the high-level thinking clear at the beginning. What’s the overall purpose of the strategy?  What will success look like? If this high-level thinking is clear and logical, then the detail will cascade more easily.

Regarding the strategic thinking required for the new NTS, I’m clear this cannot be about transportation in isolation.  The new NTS must respond positively to other policy imperatives such as tackling climate change as mentioned above, but also air pollution, public health challenges, inequalities and environmental concerns.

In essence, I think the new NTS and especially its implementation and resourcing, must be predicated more strongly on the transport hierarchy.

Transport Hierarchy

Having thought a lot about this, I think it’s possible to distil my strategic thinking into one sentence, albeit a long one:

The over-arching aim of the NTS is to move people and goods from one place to another as efficiently and effectively as possible in strict accordance with the transport hierarchy and in a manner which responds positively to policies relating to climate change, air quality, the environment, public health and inequalities.

NTS delivery insights

In addition to the above strategic thinking, I’d like to share some delivery insights.

  1. The presumption should always be to use and support transport modes as far up the hierarchy as possible.
  2. Demand management tools should be used to reduce travel needs in the first place and/or redistribute travel demand in space and time.
  3. A top priority will be to create a transport system where travellers choose walking, cycling and/or public transport for everyday journeys over the private car (conventional, hybrid and electric).
  4. The land use planning system and the NTS must be more closely aligned.  In the words of the renowned urban planner, Brent Toderian, The best transportation plan is a great land use plan’.
  5. National, regional and local transport authorities structures and budgets should be realigned to the transport hierarchy and moving modal share as far up the hierarchy as possible.  To use Brent’s words again, ‘The truth about a city’s aspirations is not found in its vision.  It’s found in its budget’.
  6. The next Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2) should be fundamentally informed by and designed to deliver the above over-arching aim.  Investment decisions need to reflect this, which will mean moving away from hugely expensive road building projects which create demand and are contrary to climate change ambitions.
  7. A ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work well.  For example, urban and rural transportation needs and challenges can be very different.
  8. Avoid the risk of doing the wrong thing better.  A good example of this is electric private cars.  Whilst such vehicles have their place, e.g. in rural areas, simply replacing conventional private cars with electric cars, especially in urban settings, is inconsistent with delivering the over-arching aim above and does not reduce congestion or encourage modal shift.
  9. Achieving the over-arching aim will involve a range of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’.  Some of the sticks will be unpopular and will require brave leadership. The recent controversy relating to a workplace parking levy and Air Passenger Duty are cases in point.  
  10. The ‘polluter pays’ principle’ should apply to transportation.  For example, it becomes less justifiable to provide tax incentives for aviation (tickets and fuel are tax exempt) and it makes no sense that a rail fare for a journey should be more expensive than an air fare for an equivalent journey.
  11. Transportation inevitably has a carbon footprint.  However, it should still be possible to achieve a Net Zero position with the development of accredited carbon offsetting schemes.

And finally

I appreciate that a tremendous amount of work has already gone into the development of the new NTS and that the devil is invariably in the detail.  However, I feel it is important to think high-level about what sort of transport system is now required and how such a system impacts on other policy priorities.

I really liked what the Cabinet Secretary said in her Statement about us all having a role to play.  I agree and commit Paths for All to doing all it can in encouraging walking, cycling and public transport as a contribution towards meeting what are the largest challenges we face and achieving Net Zero.

Written by Ian Findlay, Paths for All Chief Officer. Follow Ian on Twitter @i_findlay