Much of the debate around transport and climate change often centres on the move away from fossil fuels and the combustion engine to cleaner power sources, such as electric. But the reality is the bigger environmental prize lies in measures to encourage a large-scale modal shift from what are frequently single-person car trips to more sustainable shared transit and active travel.

Research by the campaign group Greener Journeys suggests that everyone switching from car to bus for just one journey a month would mean one billion fewer car journeys and would save two million tonners of CO2 every year in the UK.

Critical to delivering this switch is consumers’ perceptions about public transport and their journey experience when they make the leap to test an alternative, whether it’s for their daily commute or for leisure. That is where the power of digital technology is being leveraged by bus operators to make their services safer, more comfortable, easier to use and more efficient.

Travel choices are made before a foot has been placed outside the front door. That is why, as well as focusing on the basics of running reliable public transport, bus operators across Scotland are making huge investments in better information, both at bus stops and digitally in real time.

This month, Stagecoach launched a new, extensively enhanced version of its bus app that provides customers with real-time tracking of their bus service on an interactive map. Combined with an interactive journey planner and the ability to buy and use mobile tickets all in one place, it is designed to give consumers greater confidence in using the bus.

Scotland’s biggest bus operators now offer convenient contactless ticketing, allowing passengers to pay for their travel with a contactless credit of debit card, as well as Apple Pay and Google Pay devices. Contactless now accounts for close to 30% of Stagecoach ticket sales in some parts of Scotland. Its popularity is growing and stagecoach is working on plans to offer capped daily and weekly contactless payments to make travel even easier.

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Further improvements have also been made in integrating ticketing between various types of transport to make travel simpler. This month, in a joint project between Transport Scotland, public transport operators and other agencies, all types of public transport smartcards can now be used between different modes.

On board, technology is also helping drive an improved journey experience. Stagecoach in investing £80 million in more than 350 cleaner powered vehicles for the UK in 2019-20, including electric buses. Around three quarters are fitted with audio visual display systems that provide next-stop information. Most of the new buses also have free wifi and all are equipped with CCTV and USB charging points.

State-of-the art telematics systems are also installed on all Stagecoach vehicles to deliver safer and smoother journeys. The GreenRoad dashboard mounted traffic light system gives drivers instant feedback and their manoeuvres, encouraging smoother, safer, and more fuel-efficient driving. It is one of the initiatives that has helped Stagecoach cut carbon emissions from its businesses by 14% over the past five years as we continue efforts to tackle climate change and boost air quality.

Looking to the future, Stagecoach is working with bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis, Transport Scotland and tech company Fusion Processing on trials of innovative autonomous bus technology in Scotland. In 2020, a fleet of five autonomous single-decker buses will run on a 15-mile route between Fife and Edinburgh, crossing the Forth Road Bridge and connecting with Edinburgh Part train and tram interchange. Operated with a driver as safety back-up, the multiple hi-tech sensors and satellite navigation technology will deliver safer, more comfortable and more efficient journeys.

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But while technology offers huge opportunities, it is no substitute for investing in the skills and development of people Research by Transport Focus earlier this year found that the human touch remains key to customer confidence and increased bus use, even among tech savvy younger people.

To maximise the benefit of bus operator innovation and investment, there must be a fundamental rethink on how we allocate space on our road infrastructure. The recent forward-looking Scottish Government announcement of £500m investment in bus priority infrastructure, including potential high occupancy lanes on the urban motorway network, is a real opportunity to deliver a step change in bus use.

If we are serious about addressing climate change and poor air quality in our towns and cities, we need brave steps from Scotland’s councils to tackle congestion – the biggest barrier to bus use in our communities – and deliver for our citizens who choose more sustainable transport.