HIGHER taxes should be levvied on polluting cars and city centres transformed to penalise motorists, under radical plans being proposed once lockdown restrictions are eased.

The country’s largest bus operator is calling for governments to have a “grown up” conversation to hit polluting vehicles hardest to help pay for the affects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stagecoach is calling for a complete transformation in how transport journeys are taxed with a move towards a system “where the polluter pays”  and sustainable behaviour is rewarded. 

It is feared that bus companies grappling with the economic shutdown will fail to persuade passengers to return. 

Many people are instead expected to use their cars as the lockdown is eased, over fears they cannot socially distance effectively on public transport.

Research by consultants SYSTRA suggests public transport use in cities could be 20 per cent lower than pre-lockdown levels.

Now, Stagecoach has set out a six-point plan for reviving the industry and overhauling how people move around the country, including staggered work times to avoid daily rush-hours

It is also aimed at tackling the climate emergency – believing the pandemic could be a “game-changer for sustainable transport”.

Included in the radical vision is a “targeted investment in decarbonisation” which could see sustainable transport being harnessed to “help restart the economy”.

Air pollution, which is responsible for more than 2,500 early deaths in Scotland each year, is also being linked to increasing death rates from Covid-19.

Stagecoach is calling for “lifestyle changes” to help tackle the problem – with many temporary reductions in air pollution in Scotland’s cities set to disappear as the lockdown is eased. The company is also touting a “focus on technology to address the damaging impact of transport emissions”. The firm believes that measures are required to “rebuild confidence in mass transit” amid social distancing measures, as well as a “move away from peak-time commuting”. 

This could take the form of “a joint operational and investment plan developed by industry and government” to help bring about a “sustainable transition” of bus networks across Scotland.

Stagecoach’s chief executive, Martin Griffiths, said: “Covid-19 has taken a terrible toll on many people’s lives across the UK and overseas. But among all the human tragedy, the pandemic has given us a window on what could be a positive future world, one with dramatically fewer cars on our roads, safer streets, cleaner air and less damage to our environment.

“As government examines how to take Britain out of lockdown, we must make Covid-19 a defining moment to deliver fundamental changes in how we manage mobility and put sustainability at the heart of decision-making. 

“Public transport, particularly our regional bus networks, and active travel must be central to a transformed approach by all governments.There is no reason why we all cannot return to safely using Britain’s most important public transport mode. Transitional support is an investment that will pay back many times over in helping our communities, economies and planet recover. We need to make Covid-19 the game-changer and out of tragedy, create hope. 

“By grasping this opportunity and working together, we can create a real legacy to honour the key workers that have selflessly given their lives in the fight against coronavirus.”

Research from Transport Scotland found people intend to use their cars more frequently to avoid public transport – amid fears over being unable to socially distance.

Managing director of First Buses in Scotland, Andrew Jarvis, said socially distancing on public transport “is going to be a challenge”.

He added: “We haven’t got a perfect solution yet but we are trying various methods to see how we maximise social distancing, whilst still carrying a reasonable number of people on the bus.”

He added that “public transport will cope an awful lot better” if there are staggered start times when workers go back and schoolchildren return to schools.

Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: ”Moving from a before to within lockdown comparison is important to monitor changes in travel as we consider the transition from restrictions looking ahead.

“I would like to thank and pay tribute to the clear overwhelming majority of people who are continuing to follow Government guidance and limit travel to only essential journeys.”

Environmental campaigners have welcomed the vision and called on Scottish councils to develop more measures that prioritise public transport as we enter the “new normal” after the pandemic.

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s air pollution campaigner, Gavin Thomson, said: “There are some good ideas in Stagecoach’s plan. They are right to highlight that the most polluting modes of transport should pay tax at a level reflecting the damage they cause to our health and our environment.

“It would be great to see councils in Scotland introducing public transport prioritisation measures, like 24/7 bus lanes to quicken journey times, meaning more journeys are possible, enabling physical distancing on each bus. These are measures which should have already been introduced to tackle climate change, but are now equally important to help us deal with Covid-19.”

Scotland’s four major cities are still set to press ahead with Low Emission Zones (LEZs) with buses in Glasgow already subject to restrictions in a bid to encourage operators to invest in greener vehicles.

In Edinburgh, plans have been drawn up to overhaul the city’s transport system as part of a 10-year strategy which will prioritise public transport in the city centre and see bus routes redrawn.

Council bosses are still pressing ahead with a £207 million tram extension, although the business case is dependent on millions of pounds being handed over by Lothain Buses, which is owned by the authority.

Council leader Adam McVey said: “We face an unprecedented challenge, which will no doubt have a lasting impact on the way in which people travel.Right now, our priority is to ensure the safety of essential trips and daily exercise by implementing emergency measures to facilitate cycling and walking. “