Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities, led a discussion at the Scottish Parliament launch of a report looked at the much-discussed issue of transport in Scotland’s biggest city.
Mr Carter joked that, when he explains the intricacies of Scotland’s transport systems, it causes European officials to weep.
He added: “Outside of London our public transport systems in our cities are rubbish, that’s the technical term for them, some are worse than others but all of them, particularly when you compare them to European counterparts, they’re not so good.
“When I have conversations with European city leaders about public transport and start to talk about how it’s organised they first start laughing because they think you’re joking when you start to tell them about how we organise our public transport systems.
“Then they start crying because they realise you’re not joking and they are sad and disappointed for you.”
Mr Carter spoke at an event at Holyrood organised by Labour MSP Paul Sweeney to discuss the findings of the report Miles Better: Improving public transport in the Glasgow city region, commissioned by grassroots transport campaigners Get Glasgow Moving.
The report recommends franchising as the best way to improve the transit system with buses tackled first then the region’s rail systems – including the proposed Clyde Metro – under SPT’s control in the next 10 to 20 years would allow for full integration across the network.
It says sustainable funding streams could be developed using revenue-raising powers such as congestion charging, workplace parking levies or new council tax precepts.
The report approaches the issue of public transport from an economic perspective, although Mr Carter acknowledges the health, social justice and other aspects making an efficient public transport system vital.
In common with Scotland’s other big cities, Glasgow suffers lost economic potential that could be eased with an improvement to its bus, train and subway network.
Mr Carter said: “There’s an underperformance issue, the same as there is in Leeds or Bradford.
“Our UK cities do not do as well as their European counterparts. Glasgow’s economy is at least 20% of the Scottish economy. So if it doesn’t function properly, it’s bad for Glasgow and it’s bad for Scotland.
“A big chunk of the country is not doing as well as it could.”
The economic loss, the report states, equates to around £7 billion each year.
While the area covered by the Greater Glasgow transport network does “relatively well”, he said, coming third in the UK behind London and Birmingham, it falls far behind most comparable European cities.
The underperformance is linked in part to the city’s density – higher density levels provide higher passenger numbers.
Glasgow also has a frequently lamented lack of integrated ticketing and an integrated system that allows people to move between modes of transport scheduled to coincide with each other.
Mr Carter added: “But we are not focused on adding to the system, we’re not saying we need another Clyde Metro.
“We’re trying to focus on how we improve the current system and can we get more gains out of that?”
At the moment, the wider Glasgow transport network serves 900,000 people but an improved system would add 30% to the passenger pool.
While there are economic and social benefits to improving transit options, Mr Carter warned that the system would come at a cost to the public purse.
He said: “There is no optimal bus system in the UK, or perhaps elsewhere, that is operationally sustainable on a capital expense perspective.
“London’s bus system runs on an average an annual loss of about £640 million because it’s socially optimal and fulfils a bunch of objectives that London wants and it pays for them.
“Transport is part of a package.
“If you think by franchising that income from fares will see the bus system cover its face, don’t – because it’s not possible. You have to think of how it fits into a wider programme.
“There is no perfect solution. There are trade offs you have to make.”
Secondary legislation from the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 comes in to force on December 4 and will allow for local authorities to franchise bus services, similar to the Bee Network system achieved in Manchester under mayor Andy Burnham.
Mr Carter added that further legislation will be needed in order to ensure the smooth running of a franchised system.
The Centre for Cities report adds that SPT should be the lead organisation to take charge of franchising due to the fact it is an established organisation with capacity already to run services.
Bus company McGill’s has been vocal in opposition to the suggestion of franchising, previously telling The Herald that “whacky” transport campaigners are in the midst of spearheading a Vladimir Putin-esque takeover of the business.
Owner Sandy Easdale was also scathing of the ability of SPT to run transport systems, saying: “SPT Chief Executive Valerie Davidson … [has been] 18 years in a leadership role and you still can’t get a Glasgow subway train after 6pm on a Sunday night.
“Is this what she gets paid almost £180,000 a year for?”
The Scottish Government, Mr Carter said, will need to be an “active partner” in any franchising process and provide funding.
He added: “In England, if you look at the big cities, the government, to varying degrees, is in on these things for about 70% of the costs.
“The benefits over a longer run do outweigh the costs but you need to be serious about the investment required.”
Ivan McKee, MSP for Glasgow Provan, described bus services in the city as “very patchy” with “bits of the city [buses are] hard to find, frankly, and getting worse”.
He asked Mr Carter to describe in concrete terms what difference franchising would make to Glasgow’s passengers.
Mr McKee said: “If you look at the situation in Glasgow, First Bus has the lion’s share of routes but there’s smaller operators around the city.
“SPT puts some money in to subsidise certain routes where there’s a social need. And the Scottish Government puts in money through Transport Scotland so public money is already going in.
“If you move to a franchise model, and say it’s First Bus, you’re still in a situation where a private company runs the buses and the public sector puts the money in.
“The only thing I can think of is you would have better access to data, which would help define routes; and you push the smaller operators out, which has its pros and its cons.”
In response, the expert said franchising would allow for competition for services up front so the service delivery would be considered as a larger system, as well as integrating ticketing and making more optimal use of public money going into the system.
Labour MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy asked if Centres for Cities had carried out any analysis of the extent of change that would be required to allow cross-modal movement around the city for people with accessibility needs.
The think tank had not, but Mr Carter said there was some early evidence from Greater Manchester that franchising “does seem to have induced positive behaviour changes and uplift in terms of usage”.
Pauline McNeill, Labour MSP for Glasgow, said: “It seems we are so far away from any radical option for public transport. The Metro project is a smoke and mirrors project that you cannot grasp.
“Would it be wise to start to build a franchise network looking at what are the patterns for work, looking at the centres for where the jobs are such as Braehead?”
Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, said: “Changing public transport – introducing workplace parking levies or putting in a bike line – is very susceptible to opportunistic opposition and making people angry about something before it even happens.
“How can we create political space in which people can see the positive value of change without howls of outrage?”
Mr Carter said it was important to link revenue from policies to the purpose they are being used for such as a workplace parking levy implemented in Nottingham where all proceeds are ringfenced for funding public transport.
He added: “The current [bus] providers don’t play ball until they realise you are serious.
“They will be resistant and reluctant until they realise they can’t be. And that’s when you get conditionality.”