Bus shelter at night

Who Owns the Roads?

Nicola Biggerstaff

The saga of Glasgow’s night bus service appears to have been resolved this week when it was revealed late on Monday night that First Bus have teamed up with McGill’s to maintain eight out of its eleven Friday and Saturday night service routes. But is this actually good news?

On the face of it, that would appear to be the case. With concerns regarding the safety of women and night-time workers, as well as the recovery and maintenance of the city’s night-time economy appearing to be resolved by this solution. However, their motivation for doing so says a lot more about the state of public transport in the country’s biggest city.

Last month I wrote about my experience navigating public transport between Glasgow and rural Lanarkshire in response to the news that First Bus were scrapping their infamous night bus service, connecting the city to the surrounding communities, on the 31st of July. Following this, in response to public outrage at the decision, the company then delayed the scrap until the 20th of August. Now, two private companies have teamed up, divided their turf, and will provide a reduced service between them.

While it will be good news to those for whom the service is a lifeline, this is not something to celebrate. It is yet another example of the chokehold that private enterprises hold on our communities. By manipulating our expectations, first by announcing the withdrawal of services, followed by the delay to this withdrawal, critics of the move ultimately become more accepting of what is, on the face of it, a decline in services. Services to East Kilbride and Faifley have still been scrapped, forcing the communities to find alternatives anyway.

What is to stop these private companies from threatening to withdraw the service again in the future? There is no civic accountability as part of this new deal, just two companies with a monopoly on public transport, and a vice grip on a major artery to the city’s night-time economy.

On top of this, there is the suggestion that the decision to reinstate the services was not motivated by public good, but instead to mediate public outrage. The announcement last month was met with fury from activists, communities, and politicians alike, all condemning the First Bus decision as a dangerous and narrow-minded cost saving measure. Public opinion on the company would have plummeted, many who could afford to do so may have even decided to boycott their remaining services, and their reputation was very much at stake. They did not do this for us, they did this to save themselves. As private companies are at liberty to.

A notably absent voice throughout the whole debacle has been that of local and national government. Only airing their ‘concerns’ regarding the move, little to no effort was made by Glasgow City Council or the Scottish Government to save the service aside from a meeting with First Bus which ended with them attempting to avoid responsibility by suggesting bar staff be put behind the wheel at the end of their shift.

There was little to no discussion of bringing the service into public ownership, for the good of service users and their communities. The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) had previously refused to provide a subsidised service, citing budget constraints, and Transport Scotland blaming the move on recent shortages of drivers. It is clear that even the companies which claim to represent us and our interests were wanting to stay well away from this, once again leaving us to the whim and will of private enterprises and expecting us to simply adjust our lives accordingly.

What is the point in having an environmentally conscious, left-leaning local council if they will not intervene in issues of environment and public ownership? At a time when their environmental policies are under the microscope following the expansion of the LEZ in June, you would think this is something they would want to get ahead on, a chance to prove to us that they are on top of their environmental policy.

Left to their own devices for silly season, with the pressure of a policy agenda off their shoulders, it is clear where our politicians priorities lie, and it is not with their constituents. It is with the next glossy, cool-sounding hot topic that will win over enough voters at the next election. Whether that’s heat pumps, or offshore wind, or oil, or whatever is next to hit the headlines, transport has been the last thing on their minds for a long time. No wonder so many of us hailing from or living in more rural, isolated communities are well and truly fed up now.

First Bus initially blamed the decision to cancel the service on a lack of footfall, claiming some services were operating with as few as fourteen passengers per hour. But that’s still fourteen people who need to get home. Whether that’s fourteen nurses, fourteen bar staff, or yes even fourteen revellers, that’s still fourteen people who need to get home. They are as entitled to a safe, cost-effective service as any other member of the community, whatever the colour of the sky is above them.

Public transport does not have to be like this. Government investment in communities, including a fully subsidised and comprehensive public transport network, would ensure that every single one of us can get home safe at night, no matter our postcode.

1 thought on “Who Owns the Roads?”

  1. Ian Davidson

    The “spin” tactics you accurately describe in fourth para are commonplace in politics/public sector! In the 80s, Strathclyde Region went through an annual “worst case” policy options exercise (“confidential, not for circulation” hah!) designed to get us (trade unions), media, politicians etc excited. Inevitably most of the “doomsday” options were dropped, after public campaigns, but we would be left with some “palatable” service reductions after the fuss died down! Of course, the fiscal situation is worse now and thus some genuinely horrible service cuts are taking place but the pre-budget spin rules still apply, at all levels of government. Whilst I also favour public sector (or more precisely community/mutual) ownership of key services, including transport; I have no illusions that this will always “work for us”. Eg: Lothian Buses subsidising trams; outrageous senior salaries. Scottish Water – pay rise for CE; Calmac/ferries- zero strategic planning for last few decades; SPT subway – longest modernisation project ever, poor frequency of service, shut down early; etc. So, yes to mutuality but let us not be naive that public ownership/management per se will deliver a better service? We need more open and participatory decision making for that to happen? And we need Consistent strategy and investment to create a situation whereby the majority of car users, including moi, realise that using public transport is, in most cases, always the better option (albeit in some rural/island communities, different options may apply, e.g. subsidised taxis?). The night buses are a “sticking plaster” when the long term requires: Subway to run 18/20 hours per 24 with reduced maintenance shutdowns; ditto at least some key rail routes (my last train from Glasgow 2305), main bus routes running 20/22 hours with night buses filling gap. Expanded/regulated/part subsidised taxi service?

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