IT was reported last week that the world’s first self-driving bus route will launch between Edinburgh and Fife next month. It was undoubtedly an exciting moment for Scottish innovation but also felt like a bit of a slap in the face for ordinary Scots for whom our buses are unreliable, uncomfortable and increasingly expensive.

It’s a bizarre state of affairs when we seem to have worked out how to operate buses without a driver before we’ve worked out how to get them to arrive on time. It feels like putting the cart before the horse – or indeed the chassis before the steering wheel.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that investment in science and innovation is hugely important, and I’m not inherently opposed to the societal shifts we’re seeing towards increased automation, provided that workers’ rights are kept at the forefront.

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But I really struggle to see the justification for prioritising this £6.1 million project when in the same week, Stagecoach increased ticket prices by as much as 15% in rural communities such as Dumfries and Galloway.

Such a price hike would still be difficult to stomach if the services were reliable, but with constant delays and cancellations, it becomes even harder to justify. Bus operators are defending the increases by claiming that their operating costs had increased, which would be all very well and good if they weren’t still raking in huge profits – in 2022 alone, Stagecoach made a total operating profit of £72.7m. And this is precisely the problem.

We call it “public transport” but this is a misnomer – there’s nothing public about private companies operating our bus services for profit, rather than for the public good.

The failure of privatisation couldn’t be more obvious in cities like Aberdeen and Glasgow, where multiple operators operate different routes, resulting in a completely unintegrated system which benefits nobody other than the private companies and their precious profits.

When I worked in Govan, it would regularly take me more than 90 minutes to travel the three-and-a-half miles home to Govanhill each night by bus – it would actually have been quicker to have walked.

With virtually every route travelling through the city centre, I had to swap buses halfway. With the fastest route being a combination of McGill’s and First buses, I always had to wait for the slower entirely-First route or else break the bank on the significantly more expensive “Tripper” fare – the appropriately named cross-operator ticket for those who have been tripped up by the incomprehensible mess that is Glasgow’s bus network.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. As a Glaswegian, it pains me to be so complimentary of our nation’s capital, but if there’s one thing Edinburgh does well, it’s buses. Lothian Buses is the largest municipal bus company in the UK and is on almost every measure the best bus operator in Scotland.

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Not only are their fares among the cheapest in Scotland, but they have often been well ahead of other operators in implementing technologies such as contactless price capping and functional, integrated live bus tracking.

They’re by no means perfect, but in my experience from working in Edinburgh, Lothian buses are a far more reliable, stress-free and comfortable service than any other in Scotland – and best of all, when they make a profit, it goes straight back to community investment via the council, rather than to wealthy private bosses.

So if Edinburgh’s buses are so great, why hasn’t every other local authority followed suit?

Last year, the Scottish Government used new powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act to empower local authorities to run their own bus services as they see fit, but the problem is that this transfer of powers was not accompanied by the transfer of resources required to make this a reality.

The National:

In a rare occurrence, the political ambition for change is there in many of our local authorities – in fact, even the famously pro-privatisation Conservatives supported local-authority-run bus services in their 2022 local election manifesto, as well as common-sense schemes such as a single “tap and cap” ticketing system. This is an issue with clear cross-party support – but the chronic underfunding of our local authorities by Holyrood means that councillors have their hands tied behind their backs, and the transfer of powers from the Transport Act feels like little more than an empty gesture.

Steps taken by the Scottish Government, such as free bus travel for under 22s, are undeniably a great move in the right direction, but clearly don’t go far enough.

Research by NUS Scotland showed that more than one-in-five students in Scotland have missed classes at university or college because of the cost of public transport, and for those who don’t have access to a reliable, frequent bus service or who are 22 or over, the concessionary travel scheme is of little use.

In Glasgow, the Glasgow Greens have been leading the way on a free public transport pilot, following in the footsteps of places like Luxembourg and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia (below).

The National: A view of Tallinn old town from half-way up St Olaf’s Tower

With the threat posed by the climate emergency, the need to encourage folk away from cars and towards public transport has never been more important, but it’s also clear that we need to do more than just make driving unattractive – we need to make using public transport much more attractive than it is now.

That means investment in our infrastructure, including making it significantly more accessible for those with disabilities.

It’s also important that investment isn’t solely focussed on the central belt and in cities. The Highlands, north-east and south of Scotland are all facing among the highest increases in bus fares, while also facing a lack of investment compared to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Bus services can be an absolute lifeline for local communities, especially for Scots who don’t drive or for those in rural areas.

Well-resourced, municipal bus services like those in Edinburgh are possible all over Scotland, but we need to see the funding and resource given to local authorities to make it possible and to prevent those who rely on these services from continuing to be thrown under the bus.