GLASGOW doesn’t have a simple public transport system – nor an entirely loved one.

Most major cities across Europe have a central agency which controls the majority of public transport – think RATP in Paris or BVG in Berlin. Even London has the creatively named Transport for London.

Glasgow’s network, meanwhile, is a bit of a hodgepodge. Transport Scotland is responsible for trunk roads and motorways, and Glasgow City Council takes care of the rest. ScotRail operates the local rail network and the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) is responsible for strategic transport planning.

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The Glasgow Subway – one of the oldest metro systems in the world – is run by SPT, and is also the only one that has never been expanded. It closes at 11.40pm every day except Sunday when it closes at 6.12pm, oddly.

The bus network – deregulated and private – means ticketing is inconsistent. After all, you might be hopping on one run by First Bus, McGill’s, Stagecoach or West Coast Motors. Unless you are out at night, in which case you will have to rely on just nine routes run by the former two following a row in which they all looked set to be scrapped.

This led to a public outcry from those who depend on safe public transport late at night, both to return home after work and socialising in the city centre.

The National: Electric buses

Fares are also getting more and more expensive. A single on First Glasgow (above) is now £2.85 compared to just £2 on Edinburgh’s publicly owned Lothian Buses.

Though it’s not all dire. The city, for example, has one of the densest heavy rail networks in the UK outside London, with 186 stations across the Greater Glasgow area. Train passengers also had their ticket prices slashed this week as ScotRail launched its off-peak all-day trial. 

But this hasn't stopped people from pointing out glaring issues with the transport network in Scotland’s largest city – with increasing calls in recent years for change.

How did it all get so complicated?

Glasgow’s public transport network used to be fully public – buses included. But amid declining passenger numbers across the UK – the Thatcher government commissioned a white paper into the bus industry.

This resulted in the implementation of the Transport Act 1985 and the deregulation of local bus services across the UK - except London. Since then, private bus operators have been able to start new services simply by giving a couple of weeks' notice.

As a result, critics note that passenger numbers continued to decrease and the quality dropped as bus operators chased profit over the actual improvement of services.

“The impact that was hoped at the time was that you have different providers competing and this would drive up service levels and drive down price,” said David McArthur, a senior lecturer in transport studies at the University of Glasgow.

He added: “In some markets, that works, but with public transport, I don't think it works that way. It creates this system with many operators, making it more confusing for passengers.”

The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 has given more powers to local authorities. For now, it has largely been used to subsidise and improve certain services in Glasgow.

But it also means the city now has the powers to set up a publicly run bus service under Scottish Parliament legislation – a power they haven't had for 40 years.

Private vs. Public

McArthur thinks it’s a good idea, particularly when it comes to simplifying the transport system in Glasgow.

He said: “[Going public] certainly seems to have worked well in other places, certainly, in terms of the passenger experience. It's simpler if you don't have the sort of fragmented ticketing system, if you have some central planning.

“In Glasgow, especially, as you have the rail, you have the underground and you have several bus companies, and they're all operating on different tickets.”

McArthur gave the example of Edinburgh – which created Transport for Edinburgh in 2013, which oversees public transport in Edinburgh, including buses and the new tram system.

Lothian Buses, the largest bus provider in the city, is completely municipality-owned – 91% by the City of Edinburgh Council, with the remainder owned by Midlothian, East Lothian and West Lothian councils.

He said that people would generally say Edinburgh’s bus network is “better”.

Manchester is another example of a city roughly the same size as Glasgow which is moving towards a public model.

All buses in Greater Manchester will be under public control by January 2025, and the first two boroughs started to benefit last month.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority now has more control over fares, timetables and routes and is looking to use the same ticket system across buses, trams and rental bikes.

Karen Lucas, a professor at Manchester University and a world-leading expert on transport and social justice, told the Sunday National that it’s important that Manchester succeeds.

“I think they've been extremely brave to try and take on the London model. I think it's really important but it's a huge experiment,” said Lucas.

“If it works here and if they're able to do all the things that we're talking about – joining up fares and better network planning - then I can see other cities following quite rapidly.”

But it’s towards European cities that the UK should be looking for inspiration, said TK. “Cities like Barcelona, Paris or Lyon tact as an exemplar and they're always under public control and they always have a huge amount of subsidies to be able to do what they do,” Lucas said.

She added: “In the Paris system, they have a tax that they levy from local businesses as they ‘benefit from the transport system’. The RATP – the transport authority – then uses it to subsidise the system.

“Lots of European cities do the same, like Brussels. They've got very good metro services and they're able to enhance their public transport infrastructure services because they lobby funds that are over and above the money they get from central government and fares.”

“And when you talk about these places, the transport provider is also providing a whole load of other [services] - if you like social services that are integrated with mainstream public transport services but are more dedicated to either particular groups or activities.

“You can't undervalue more dedicated public transport at the community level for not only people with disabilities but all sorts of other things. I think what we need is a real rethink.

“Transport interacts with poverty, social isolation for older people and even safety or women's safety at night.”

Lucas said: “Transport, I would argue, isn't a for-profit business – it should be a public service.”

Lucas did add that this doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom in Glasgow.

“The Strathclyde Partnership has free concessionary passes for five to 21-year-olds. We don’t have that in England. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

“Glasgow also has a subway which is pretty good wherever it's available. But as a fixed network, it's very city-centre focused.

“So it's very good for people that are getting around the city centre but that’s probably not where the lowest-income people are.”

Next steps

There are a number of projects being planned for Glasgow, with the ultimate aim of decreasing private car usage.

A new transport plan was also published by Glasgow City Council last year, promoting walking and cycling over car use. The city’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) also came into force in June this year – which effectively excludes the most polluting vehicles from the city centre.

The Clyde Metro – a massive expansion of Glasgow’s long-existing subway network which would look to extend as far as East Kilbride to the south and Kirkintilloch to the north - has been confirmed by the Scottish Government as a key priority for future transport investment.

Trade unions, environmental campaigners and health charities have also all put their names to a campaign calling for buses in the Strathclyde region to be taken into public control.

But moving from the planning stage to the implementation hasn’t always been Glasgow’s strength, said McArthur.

“If you go back to the history, there have been about 20 plans to expand the subway, plans to combine Central and Queen Street stations. Glasgow is excellent at planning, brilliant at strategy.

“It’s the implementation where it falls down.”

A Glasgow City Council spokesperson said: “Creating conditions that increase bus use and encourage a move away from private cars is a priority for the council. 

“Our new transport strategy has a substantial focus on improving bus travel - as a switch to more sustainable forms of transport is essential in the fight against climate change, as well as reducing congestion through less car travel which will make our city more appealing for everyone. 

“We have also committed to exploring the bus governance powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, as set out in our Bus Governance Routemap which we published last year.”

The National’s book recommendations

If you want to learn more about the importance of urban design and sustainable transport, we have compiled a list of both Glasgow and non-Glasgow-specific reads.

1. Happy City

Written by Charles Montgomery, a Canadian journalist and urban experimentalist, this incredible read explores the intersection between urban design and what it means to be happy – stopping off in some of the world’s most dynamic cities.

2. The Glasgow Effect

In Ellie Harrison’s excellent first book, she traces her own life's trajectory whilst examining the relationship between social and literal mobility. 

3. The Ideal City: Exploring Urban Futures 

This forward-looking book chronicles the design of urban futures - from inventive fresh water infrastructure to apps designed to curb food waste. 

4. Shaping Neighbourhoods: For Local Health and Global Sustainability

This engaging and readable book is a must-have guide to creating neighbourhoods that enhance human health, wellbeing and social sustainability. 

5. Restorative Cities: Urban design for mental health and wellbeing

If you’re looking for a book that explores how to place mental health and wellness at the forefront of the way we design cities – this one is for you.