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Glasgow needs bolder vision for true transport transformation

By John Lauder,
Photo of a man and woman on bicycles, on a protected path in Glasgow centre.

It is actions that deliver the cities and places that people want, not just words | Photo credit: ©2018, John Linton

It is a sad reflection on the past that although it has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Scotland by head of population, Glasgow is a city that has been shaped by cars, and has high levels of inequality as a consequence.

A lack of green, public spaces, along with a quarter of the land in the city centre dedicated to road space – the second highest level in a UK city – has impacted hugely on the health and quality of life of its residents and the local economy.

These challenges, along with others identified as part of the recent Glasgow Connectivity Commission report, highlights some of the issues and impacts that poor planning and transport decisions can have on a city and the people that live there.

What the Connectivity Commission report shows

I find much to agree with in the report. It argues the need for greater road space re-allocation to pedestrians as well as to create spaces in Glasgow which could encourage people to spend time and linger. 

It also criticises the low provision for cycling and recommends longer, safer routes on corridors through the city centre. It compares cycling journeys to car journeys, highlighting how cycling lacks the consistent journey times and coherent routes of journeys that motorists are afforded.

But, despite a bold, ambitious introduction and unflinching identification of the transport challenges faced by Glasgow, the actions then proposed in the report are small and low-key. In short, the report’s actions add up to less than the sum of its parts. I am therefore a bit worried about the report and anxious to see what the second part of the report, which will focus on actions beyond the power of Glasgow City Council. Here’s what I think:

The case for transformational change in Glasgow

Firstly, it is important to recognise that Glasgow is making progress. 

Sustrans is a proud partner in the delivery of a number of projects in the city which make it easier for people to choose to walk and cycle.

For example, the South City Way, part of our Community Links PLUS programme funded through the Scottish Government, is delivering exactly the type of street - prioritising people on foot and bike - that the report calls for.

And, like the authors of the report, we want to see this approach more widely in the city and can see how they would make a difference to the people of Glasgow. 

However, it is not enough to simply do more of the same, but faster. 

This report was a chance to acknowledge larger, structural problems. The issues faced in Glasgow’s city centre are largely a product of suburbanites travelling in by car from the Greater Glasgow area. And without addressing this, a vital chance to re-think transport and social inclusivity in Glasgow will be missed.

It lacks a detailed discussion of the positive impact greater numbers of people walking and cycling can have on retail and recreation. And stops short of proposing any truly radical and far-reaching changes which the current situation demands. 

How Glasgow can learn from others

While it is always contentious to compare the two, nevertheless, Edinburgh’s recent City Centre Transformation consultation presented the public with wide-ranging, ambitious, transformational ideas. In doing so, it highlighted problems created by the access of private cars across and through the city. 

It proposed a walkable city centre to prioritise people over vehicles. It discussed improving the numerous town centres of the capital to make them places that people want to spend time and access on foot and bike. It has also benefitted from a whole-city remit, recognising the impact of people living and travelling in wider Edinburgh, the Lothians and visitors from all over Scotland and further.

In Edinburgh, public consultation offered ‘business as usual’, slow change and the opportunity to radically change the capital for the better. Glasgow’s decision on what to do next must present wide-ranging options.

Actions are more powerful than words

A second report will be published by Glasgow’s Connectivity Commission in early 2019, which will address actions beyond the powers of Glasgow City Council. We should wait to see what actions are identified that regional and national powers can help with. 

This is still an emerging picture of what change Glasgow needs. 

I am more optimistic than ever for the future of Scotland’s urban communities, whether they are in a largely rural area or across the Central Belt. A wide range of stakeholders, led by the Scottish Government is helping more people to choose to walk and cycle, to live more healthy lives and delivering better places for people to spend their time. But we need this renewed interest in changing our places for the better to deliver ambitious actions and bold results.

What really matters now is what our local authorities do with the findings of reports and consultations. This affects Edinburgh as it develops its plans based on its consultation just as much as Glasgow as it waits for the second part of the Commission’ reporting. It is actions that deliver the cities and places that people want, not just words.