By Gary Dunion, Scottish Green Party activist
I wasn’t able to be at the Scottish Green Party conference in Inverness at the start of October – ironically, I was priced out by the cost of transport – but my motion to adopt a policy in favour of free public transport was.
Scottish Greens’ conference procedure offer delegates the option to ‘refer back’ rather than take an up or down vote, and it’s this route conference took with my motion. I would have enjoyed a clean yes vote, of course, but in reality this is probably the best result in the long run, for reasons I’ll come back to.
But first, a look at the background of the policy. Free public transport is an idea associated in the Scottish context strongly with the Scottish Socialist Party. It was the SSP’s flagship policy for the 2007 Holyrood election, with a brilliant stop-motion election broadcast helping to make the case.
For reasons, I think it’s fair to say, unrelated to policy, the SSP were unsuccessful in that election and the idea of free public transport has lain largely dormant, with only Age Concern’s campaign for community transport to be included in the national concessionary travel scheme touching on the topic.
Internationally, however, free public transport is not only discussed by parties of many political stripes, but has been put into practice in dozens of examples.
The SSP were particularly inspired by the case of Hasselt in Belgium.
Hasselt was a car town. A rural centre about the size of Paisley, it had the highest car ownership in the country, with gridlocked streets and two attempts to alleviate congestion with urban motorways, only to watch it turn (predictably) into long, thin car parks.
Hasselt introduced free public transport on 1 July 1997. In its first full calendar year of operation ridership was up 800 per cent. By its tenth year, that figure was 1300 per cent and still rising. The cafe culture and liveable streets one associates with Bruges are now part of life in rural Hasselt too.
It’s for this reason that the Australian political journal Links described free public transport as “the biggest single pro-environment policy enacted by any national government anywhere on the planet”.
It is particularly encouraging that public transport numbers didn’t just adjust to the new price and stay there – they continued to rise because as the years went on more and more people got rid of their cars, or chose not to get one in the first place.
Belgium, sadly, has been as captured by post-crash austerity politics as the rest of Europe, and they ended free public transport this year, introducing a 60 cent fare for passengers over 19 years of age. The city was at pains to make clear that this decision was “purely financial” – that is, just another cut – rather than a comment on the success of the scheme.
The move to charge was prompted by the operator, De Lijn, raising its demand on the city from €1.8-2.8million – even the latter figure would still have been less than €38 (£32) per person, per year. A Scotland-wide free public transport scheme priced at the same amount per head would cost less than a quarter of the motorway budget.
With our current desperate need for stimulus spending to create jobs, this attitude is hopelessly short-termist.
Green MP Caroline Lucas was one of the original authors of the Green New Deal, showing how spending on green jobs could pay back in spades.
The Green Party of England and Wales’ leader, Natalie Bennett, has spoken engagingly about ‘jobs you can build a life on’, and jobs in public transport are just that – sustainable, unionised, career-track jobs – and most are accessible to people without higher education or advanced technical skills. Additionally, the free availability of transport makes it easier for people to access – and create – employment and training opportunities.
As I said earlier, I’m glad this policy was ‘referred back’ for a year of study and discussion, because that means a year to generate public debate, to listen to voices inside and outside the Green Party, to work with passengers” groups and unions.
I’ll be working with the party’s policy committee, as well as carrying out independent research and engagement.
The Green blog I founded, Bright Green, hopes to make free public transport the subject of one of our first reports as we transform ourselves into more of a think-tank for Green politics. I’ve already had offers from great researchers and campaigners outwith the party politics, keen to help return free public transport to the Scottish political landscape.
Courtesy of the Scottish Socialist Voice