Part four of our series on the cost of living crisis ...

MANY now make the trip to the petrol station with a sense of foreboding. How high will the prices be this time? Both petrol and diesel have hit record peaks this year. Typical car running costs, including insurance and fuel, have risen £291 this year according to Compare the Market.

Could rising fuel prices make us rethink our approach to transport? Sales of new cars are at a 25-year low but those of electric and hybrid cars are rising rapidly, with a six-to-nine month wait after purchase. For the majority us for whom an electric car is still financially out of reach, might rising prices tempt us back on to the buses or trains, which were deserted at the peak of the pandemic crisis?

These are crucial questions, because they bring together perhaps the two most important challenges facing Scotland today: the cost of living crisis and decarbonisation.

Driving for a living

IF you drive to work and back each day and are feeling the effects of rising petrol and diesel prices, just imagine how it feels if your job is to drive for a living. Taxi and private hire drivers have to pay 100% of fuel costs themselves. Chris Elder, a taxi driver in Dundee, says the increase in costs, which amounts to about an extra £20 every day compared to one year ago, is another body blow to the trade after the damage wreaked by Covid.

“We lost 100 or so drivers in Dundee due to the pandemic and now fuel price rises has pushed even more drivers out of the business,” he said. “And I can’t see them coming back because it’s been so hard over the past two years.”

READ MORE: April Fuel's Day: Explaining Scotland's energy price rises

Elder, who is branch secretary of Unite the Union’s taxi branch in Dundee, says that lots of drivers are working longer hours to try to compensate for the reduction in take-home pay but: “The longer hours you work, the more fuel you’ve got to put in. It’s a no-win situation.”

Fares were increased recently which slightly boosted take-home pay, but didn’t get close to covering the fuel price rise. Elder fears that if fares go any higher “the public will just stop using the service”. The reduction in drivers has already affected the quality of the service the public gets, especially at non-peak times when there are fewer drivers available than in the past. A vicious circle of lower incomes, fewer drivers, higher fares and fewer customers could be fatal for the industry.

Elder has been in contact with Scottish Government officials about the drivers’ plight and called on ministers to introduce a fuel discount card for cabbies, so that they get a reduction every time they go to the petrol station. He says the response has been “supportive”, but so far no specific financial support has been forthcoming.

The National: The expanded Ultra low emissions zone will come into force from Monday October 25. Credit: PA

Longer term, electric cars potentially offer a solution to both the financial and environmental sustainability of the taxi service. Glasgow’s Low Emissions Zone in the city centre will be fully rolled out on June 1, 2023 and council leaders have said it will apply to taxis too, despite protests from drivers and Unite, that they need more time to transition.

Some 70% of Glasgow’s taxis are currently not LEZ-compliant and Elder says the cost of replacement or retro-fitting on top of rising fuel costs will have a “devastating effect” on the industry. “The funding support for low emissions vehicles is very poor,” he said. “There’s a £2000 scrappage deal for your old vehicle, which is nothing compared to the cost of a new one.

“The cost of a purpose-built wheelchair-accessible low-emissions vehicle is about £60,000. The government is offering an interest-free loan over six years but how are you going to pay that back?

“At the moment, it’s not viable. If they really want us to transition to low-emissions vehicles we’ll need a lot more assistance financially.”

Time for a bus revolution?

IF cars are going to be expensive for the foreseeable future, is this an opportunity to attract Scots back onto the bus? Ellie Harrison, an activist in Get Glasgow Moving, a public transport campaign group, believes it is.

“The problem we have had since mass car use came into being is that it’s been cheaper to get into a car than to use public transport,” she says. “We need to change that, so that the cost of the journey reflects its carbon impact.

“The Scottish Government’s National Transport Strategy states it believes in the sustainable transport hierarchy, where you have pedestrians followed by cyclists followed by public transport users and at the bottom is the private car. If the government really believes in that, then the cost of these different modes of transport should reflect that hierarchy.”

Bus prices are not exactly cheap. In fact, they have risen by 9% in real terms over five years in Scotland. Harrison says: “We have been paying over the odds for buses in Glasgow since long before this cost of living crisis.”

READ MORE: What can Scotland do to tackle the skyrocketing price of food?

Advocates of current Scottish Government policy point to the fact that the buses are free for under-22s, over-60s and those with a disability, covering a significant chunk of the overall population. However, Harrison points out that this does not help the vast majority of those who are in in-work poverty, nor does it address the fact that “the middle chunk between 22-60 are the ones driving most and thus producing the most carbon”. But is it realistic to have cheap bus fares for everyone? Harrison says various examples prove it is. “Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has said buses will have a flat fare of £2,” Harrison says. “In Edinburgh it’s £1.80. In London you can hop on as many buses as you need in an hour for £1.55. How can it be right that in Glasgow we’re paying nearly £1 more for a single journey than in London?”

Manchester, Edinburgh and London all have something in common which Glasgow does not: they either have a publicly run bus network (London), a council-owned bus company (Edinburgh) or are currently in the process of re-regulating their bus network (Manchester).

The National: Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher (above) deregulated the buses in 1986 (except for London and Northern Ireland) and since then fare prices have risen while the number of bus routes has fallen across the UK. That includes Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament has had powers over the buses since its advent but has failed to reverse Thatcher’s privatisation.

In 1986-87 there were 644 million passenger journeys in Scotland, and in 2019-20 (mostly before the effect of the pandemic) there were 366m, a 43% reduction. Bus fares have increased by 58% in real terms since 1991. Even the most diehard Thatcherite would find it difficult to defend the performance of bus deregulation.

Recent years have hardly seen an improvement. Vehicle kilometres, the main measure of bus provision, have fallen from 397m in 2007-08 to 256m in 2020-21. Even before the pandemic, passenger journeys had fallen by 17% in a decade.

While bus decline may not make many headlines, one person who has taken notice is the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, famous for provoking the ire of the Tories after excoriating the “great misery” of UK Government welfare policy. Alston published a report last year which found the “extreme form” of bus privatisation in England, Scotland and Wales was “almost unique among wealthy countries” and had “provided a 35-year masterclass in how not to run a bus service”.

“It provides bad value for the public, does not work for far too many people and has had severe impacts on people’s lives and human rights,” he concluded.

It's possible this could be changing. The Scottish Government’s 2019 Transport Act introduced new powers so that councils can establish public bus companies and/or re-regulate the network so that routes and timetables are planned by the local transport authority. Private companies then bid to run sections of the network.

The new powers were delayed by the pandemic but a consultation on their implementation was held last year, and new Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth announced in March that councils could set up their own bus companies as early as July.

However, Dougie Maguire, Unite organiser, has described Gilruth’s announcement as “just words”, pointing to the fact that Scottish Government subsidies are still going towards private bus companies. “The critical part of this equation is that local authorities have access to available funding streams and revenue support in order to make [public bus companies] a reality,” he said.

Harrison agrees, saying the powers will be “meaningless” if cash-strapped local authorities are not provided additional funds to make use of them. “Also, it’s no use setting up a public bus company without also properly regulating the network, as otherwise you are going to have public and private bus companies competing for the same routes, which would be a complete mess,” she added.

Harrison also has another proposal for how public ownership could happen: by buying out the private companies: “If you buy out First Glasgow, which will cost £200m, you would have 80-90% of the routes in the Greater Glasgow area, which is a similar scale to publicly owned Lothian buses.”

READ MORE: Europe shows ‘laissez-faire’ economics is not the answer to the cost of living crisis

However, the Get Glasgow Moving campaigner does not believe public ownership and re-regulation will be enough to deliver a modal shift from private to public transport. Such a shift is surely required to meet carbon emission reduction targets in urban areas.

Transport is the largest sector for emissions in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s own target is to cut car miles by 20% by 2030. Glasgow’s target is even more ambitious: to be net zero by 2030.

“There’s no way you are going to have everyone in an electric car by 2030 and you wouldn’t have enough room in the city even if you could do that,” Harrison says. “So if you want to achieve that target, you really want to have everyone using public transport in Glasgow by 2030 – that’s what I’m aiming for.”

Get Glasgow Moving’s vision is for an integrated system of publicly owned transport across trains, buses and active travel. “We need to completely rebrand and relaunch the public transport system because people have lost faith in it,” Harrison says. “The buses in particular are seen as a mode you would only use if you don’t have any alternative.

“That image needs to be changed: buses need to be cheaper than driving and the service needs to be world-class to match.”