John Ruddy recently drove to Glasgow. It’s fair to say he did not have a good time.
I apologise to any Glaswegians reading this, but your city is fucked. Specifically, your transport system, the lifeblood of any city, is completely screwed. It may be something only a visitor from outside the city can tell you, but what you perhaps have ended up accepting as just the normal, unavoidable situation for a city of Glasgow’s size is, in fact, not normal, not unavoidable, and definitely not healthy.
Last week I had occasion to travel to Glasgow by car for the first time in many years. Before the pandemic most of my travel there had been by train, and mostly to locations in the heart of the city. This time was different, and my experience shocked me. Weather had delayed my arrival so it was right in the middle of the evening rush hour, but surely it is not normal to have queues of stationary traffic on major A roads and motorways, with no cause other than the sheer weight of traffic?
My departure the following day in the early afternoon was not much better. As I spoke to others who experience this on a more regular basis it became apparent that this was a systemic issue. Despite Glasgow having the largest suburban rail network in the UK outside London, the world’s second oldest subway system and many bus routes there are, quite simply, too many people using their cars and moving goods by lorry.
Like it or loathe it, the health of Glasgow and its economy directly affects the economy of Scotland, in a way that no other part of the country does, with the possible exception of Aberdeen and the offshore oil industry. So it’s vital that we as a country take steps to make it possible to move about the city quickly, easily and sustainably.
The SNP/Green government’s immediate solution to this is to reduce car usage via the Workplace Parking Levy. Now the idea of a tax on parking spaces is a good one. It’s currently used by (Labour controlled) Nottingham City Council, where it has helped to produce a reduction of 10% in road traffic. But the crucial difference is that in Nottingham the levy came after the introduction of investment in new public transport in the form of the tram system, not before.
The recently published STPR2 transport strategy doesn’t even commit to a single infrastructure project happening within the next 20 years to encourage modal shift. It’s clear that the WPL is a fig leaf while the STPR2 is doing nothing but kicking the problems into the distant future – distant enough to take us past the next election or even a referendum. That’s why Scottish Labour is right to oppose the WPL that is being proposed.
A problem as big as Glasgow’s gridlock needs a big solution. Big infrastructure projects cost lots of money – more than could be funded by any parking tax. That’s even before you consider the disruption and inconvenience for voters, sorry, I mean road users, from a WPL that is carefully designed to deflect responsibility from national to local government.
The solution Glasgow needs is a major overhaul to remove traffic from its road system, which will require major government investment. The £30 or £40 million a year that a WPL might bring in would barely scratch the surface. It also needs political will, something that seems to be in short supply now. It needs the public transport system in the Greater Glasgow area to be quick, attractive and easy to use, at a cost that is reasonable and affordable, none of which is currently the case.
And the thing is, we already know what needs to happen. It’s been endlessly discussed for what seems like decades. We need investment in heavy rail, in the form of reopening and electrifying the City Union rail line to improve cross-Glasgow rail flows (“Glasgow CrossRail”); an extension and new lines for the Subway system; new tram systems; and investment to shift freight from road to rail. This all needs to be combined with a ticketing system that is cheap and easy to understand – and that is where a parking tax could feasibly be used to subsidise operational cost.
But until we have a government that is prepared to put its money where its mouth is, and prepared to make difficult decisions that will annoy people, none of that is going to happen, and we’ll have to sit in traffic jams on the M8 for years to come.