Target to address bus passenger decline rejected

A call for a legally-binding target to reverse the decline in bus use has been rejected by the transport minister.

Humza Yousaf told MSPs at Holyrood he did not believe a centrally imposed target was the right way to tackle falling passenger numbers.

The Scottish Greens used a debate at the parliament to press for the measure to be included in the forthcoming Transport Bill.

Figures in February revealed the number of bus journeys made in Scotland fell by almost 10% in five years, going from 436 million in 2011-12 to 393 million in 2016-17.

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Green MSP John Finnie said: "Nearly 20% of bus journeys are subsidised so it's entirely reasonable to have a target increasing bus usage.

"It is very clear that buses stand out as the only transport type in decline.

"I accept the solution we have proposed will be complex with bus companies, local authorities and the Scottish Government working together, but to make this work will require clear ambition.

"It's fair to say that the solution will be different in different parts of the country, all this can be accommodated under a high-level statutory target.

"It fits well with other targets, it fits well on inclusive communities, connectivity, anti poverty, air pollution, domestic manufacturing and climate change.

"Ministers have already said that they want to increase bus use so lets all make that clear in a target."

Mr Yousaf agreed urgent action was needed but said the bill would give councils flexibility to pursue other approaches such as partnership working, local franchising or running their own buses.

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He said: "I don't agree that a centralised national approach is necessarily the right way nor do I think a big increase in public ownership is necessarily the answer.

"It's not for central government to dictate how people get around or indeed how transport authorities help them to do so, but we do want authorities to have the tools.

"The upcoming transport bill is exactly that way minded, to give local authorities the tools that they need to hopefully increase patronage."

Both the Conservatives and Labour backed the Greens' proposal, although Tory Jamie Greene suggested this could be achieved in other ways - such as in a transport strategy - rather than in legislation.

He said: "It is important the Government is held to account on this because the move to buses and public transport is part of a much wider discussions around CO2 emission reduction, reducing congestion on our roads and getting people out of cars and on to buses."

Labour's Colin Smyth added: "We have legal targets for our NHS at present, many of which are never met. Targets therefore have to be backed by actions to deliver them.

"So we need a bold rethink about how we manage bus services in Scotland. We need to ensure the real alternative of radical re-regulation and municipal ownership is at the very heart of the forthcoming Government Transport Bill."