USE of public transport including buses, trains and ferries is up to 50% down on pre-pandemic levels - leading to new concerns over the ability to meet stiff Scottish Government targets over climate change.

As the nation seeks to cut car use to decarbonise and introduces low emission zones in some Scots cities which will start to be enforced from this year, it has emerged that the number of bus passengers is down by 40.3% from 392m in 2016/17 before Covid hit to 234m in 2021/22.

And there is further concern that the Scottish Government's flagship bus partnership fund first launched in 2019 and aimed at providing bus priority measures to tackle climate change has stalled. As of August last year it had committed just £25.8m of its £500m budget.

Four years ago as part of its embryonic Scottish Green Deal to respond to the global climate emergency, the First Minister placed the bus at the heart of the Programme for Government announcing what the Scottish Government called a "landmark new investment".

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Transport experts say operators and authorities have highighted that the reason for the lack of take up of the bus fund is that the Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG) process has become "overly burdensome".

The aim of the scheme was to improve bus priority infrastructure to tackle the negative impacts of congestion on bus services and raise usage. It has further emerged that the number of ScotRail passengers is down by 50.5% compared to pre-pandemic levels five years ago dropping from 94.2m to 46.7m.

New data produced by Transport Scotland also shows that ferry passenger numbers have slumped by 23.8% over the five years from 10.1m to 7.7m.

HeraldScotland: CalMac ferry

But there has been just a 12.5% dip in car traffic in Scotland over since 2016/17.

It comes as experts warned that hundreds of bus routes face the axe and fares are set to be hiked as a Scottish Government fund worth an estimated £35 million a year is halted at the end of the month.

The end of the Covid recovery backing through meant that a bus services support budget for bus services has been cut by 37.1% from £99.4m to £62.5m.

The bus and coach trade association, the Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland has told ministers that to meet net zero ambitions there has to be a "modal shift from cars".

The group, which says the bus accounts for 75% of all public transport trips said more has to be done to give priority to buses.

They said it was "crucial" to be able to access the fund which will support bus prioritisation measures with Covid support ending.

CPT Scotland say the main reasons people choose not to take the bus is due to slow bus speeds directly resulting from congestion on our roads.

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They said bus prioritisation measures that reduce congestion and incentivise the shift from cars.

"This will not only have a positive impact on air quality and road safety, but will also make our buses quicker, more reliable, and cheaper, as operating costs are reduced," they state.

There are concerns that the end of the Network Support Grant coupled with soaring inflationary pressures including the rising cost of fuel, energy and wage costs will further exacerbate a decade of decline with many communities effectively cut off from the public transport network with cuts to the number of buses, service cuts and fare rises in Scotland.

Official figures show that the number of public service buses in Scotland has already slumped by nearly 25% from 4800 ten years ago to 3,700 in 2020/21.

McGill’s Buses, one of Scotland's biggest independent bus companies, has previously revealed they are now planning 13% cuts to services in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde and predicted that they will not be alone and that 600-800 more buses will have to go across Scotland very soon.

CPT said the predominant issue impacting bus use has been the rise of car journeys and associated congestion.

According to its survey data, there was a 14% vacancy rate for bus drivers and 7% for coach drivers in Scotland which they said impacts on the ability to run the network reliably.

They say that they are also impacted by average fuel cost rises of around 30% for most operators across Scotland, with some smaller operators reporting increases over 60%. Costs of AdBlue, which is used as an exhaust treatment system to help reduce emissions of diesel engines have risen by 400%.

They also point out that electricity costs have increased by 75-250% for operators and are likely to rise further. Paul White, director of CPT Scotland said: “Scotland’s bus sectors continues to face a number of operational challenges. As government support ends, our focus is delivering a sustainable bus network that meets passenger needs as best as possible while we work with our public sector partners to address barriers to growth and encourage bus use.

Transport Scotland animation explaining the Bus Partnership Fund

"Locally, our ask is that authorities work with the sector to deliver the government’s Bus Partnership Fund and introduce bus priority measures that will free bus from congestion, improve journey times and cut costs. Nationally, the Scottish Government should consider how it supports bus – to ensure its profile and budget reflect the key role bus plays across policy areas such as social inclusion, accessibility, public health, decarbonisation and the economy."


Colin Howden, director of sustainable transport charity Transform Scotland, said the transport sector had worked hard to recover patronage since the pandemic and there were signs of that bearing fruit with an 87% rise in the number of bus passengers and a 225% rise in rail patronage in the past year.

He said: “These upward trajectories need to continue to meet our carbon reduction targets and we welcome the investment planned by the Scottish Government to move people on to public transport and encourage the take-up of active travel. However, the end of the Covid support grants for bus services at the end of this month risks undermining this progress at a time when bus patronage levels remain significantly below where they were prior to the pandemic."

Low Emission Zones (LEZs) designed to improve air quality and were introduced across Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow were introduce last year. They set an environmental limit on certain city roads, restricting access for the most polluting vehicles to improve air quality.

Vehicles that do not meet the emission standards set for a Low Emission Zone will not be able to drive within the zone. A penalty charge will be payable by the vehicle’s registered keeper when a non-compliant vehicle enters the LEZ.

In Glasgow, the LEZ already applies to buses. For other vehicle types, enforcement will start in June. It will start from June, 2024, for residents living within the zone.

In Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, enforcement will begin on May 30 or June 1.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Scotland has the most generous concessionary scheme in the UK. More than a third of the population, over 2.3 million people, including everyone under 22 and over 60, and disabled people and carers, can benefit from free bus travel. 

“Network Support Grant Plus was always a temporary fund designed to provide additionality during Covid. It was extended in June and it was extended again in October.

“All bus operators who agreed to take part in the scheme signed up on the proviso that it would be finally ending this March.


“The Transport Minister has established the bus taskforce to discuss the issues facing the industry with large and small operators, and engaged the UK Government in this work, noting the reserved competencies in relation to Brexit impact on the labour market and fuel costs.

“We continue to engage with bus operators and local government to find mitigations where we are able to, by monitoring patronage and considering support in line with the

Scottish Government’s Emergency Budget Review.”Transport Scotland also said the initial bus partnership funding goes towards the development and delivery of bus priority measures that local authorities are taking forward in partnership with operators, “providing benefit for passengers, businesses and communities”.