In the spring of 2020 an invisible, semipermeable dome came crashing down over Glasgow city centre. People are now repelled from crossing the invisible threshold, but four years later I’m still living underneath it. It’s lasted a lot longer than Stephen King’s (eight days). And yes, some people still actually live in the city centre.

This bell jar over the city is not alien in origin. The barrier is made of the cost-of-living crisis, overpriced parking, the LEZ, burned out buildings, poor cleansing and the worst culprit of all: an absolute joke of a “public” transport system.

A report from the Chamber of Commerce released this week found city centre sales were down £60 million in April. Compared to last May, 410,000 fewer visitors dared enter the dome and GDP has fallen by 15.1% since 2014. One of the report’s recommendations to stop the region from haemorrhaging anymore capital is to either discount or eliminate public transport and parking charges on certain occasions.

The report was conveniently released a week after SPT’s extortionate new ZoneCard hit the shelves. The new travel card made our confused mess of a public transport system even more undesirable with cosmic price increases and a remix of travel zones. People don’t want to come to the city centre. Even if they did, it’s not so easy.

The new Glasgow SubwayThe new Glasgow Subway (Image: free)

For the uninitiated, the ZoneCard is a multi-modal, multi-operator commercial ticket arrangement that allows commuters to traverse our hodgepodge of bus operators, the Subway, ScotRail trains and two ferries. It’s similar to the Oyster Card in London which launched two decades ago in 2003 thanks to public transport operator Transport for London (TfL).

The ZoneCard made headlines last month when commuters found out their fares would more than double. I spoke with a 27-year-old charity worker whose monthly ticket price skyrocketed from £75 to £176 – an increase of 135%. She travels around 4 miles between Shawlands and Govan for work and it takes nearly an hour.

Angry passengers have come out in the dozens to rail against SPT in the media. The transport authority says the prices have not been raised in years while the bus, rail and subway fares had all gone up with inflation. Inflation has not gone up 135% since 2019.

The Oyster card price cap in London for Zones 1-3 is a tenner. ZoneCard? The long-awaited Adult One Day is £8.40. Whenever I’m in Edinburgh I look longingly at the beautiful maroon double deckers winding through the capital in all their public glory. Ride Lothian and you’ll pay £5 for an unlimited day ticket.

While SPT runs the ticketing scheme, they “do not have the power to set or impose ticketing prices or agree the Zones”. These decisions are made by the ZoneCard Forum, a collection of operators that includes First, McGill’s, Stagecoach, Whitelaws, ScotRail and a representative for smaller operators. It’s not just SPT pricing commuters out of an integrated travel card, it’s the private bus companies that have little to gain from its existence. After all, you can still purchase daily, weekly or monthly bus passes from the operators themselves.

Read more Marissa MacWhirter

Now, as Ellie Harrison of the Get Glasgow Moving campaign points out to me, the ZoneCard is actually a huge step towards the Strathclyde region having an integrated transport system. It’s the first time in more than 30 years that the ZoneCard has been modernised. Twenty years behind London, but finally we have a smart travel card. It’s something that the region is going to need over the next seven years as SPT undertakes the process of franchising our buses.

But I imagine meetings of the ZoneCard Forum to be fiery in the least. Days before the latest Partnership meeting on June 28, Sandy Easdale of McGill’s declared his firm was “currently at war with [SPT] and the Scottish Government” over plans to nationalise the buses. It’s not the first time bus companies have wielded their power to stop our buses being reregulated. In 2007 the SNP was accused of “dumping” its plans to return the buses to the public after taking £500,000 from millionaire Stagecoach founder Brian Souter. Imagine if the SNP had just stuck to their guns and fixed the public transport system then? We would laughing now.

The Transport Act 2019 gave power to local councils to take the bus network back into public control through franchising. Cities like Manchester and Liverpool have already started the process but it takes time. Glasgow will be lucky if it’s there by 2028, but I think it’s worth the wait. And as the ball starts rolling, I’m hopeful the ZoneCard prices will become more realistic.

SPT has taken all the flack for the ZoneCard, but it’s a symptom of deeper unrest with the public transport players. Half a dozen of which set out the laughable new travel card prices. We should be angry that our public transport is not really public. We should also be looking behind SPT, the public figurehead for the shambles, into the real root of the problem. Private operators have nothing to gain from an affordable ZoneCard.

There is a web of reasons why Glasgow city centre is falling so far behind other Scottish cities but a core cause is that even if people want to come here, it’s difficult. We should have a robust, accessible, reliable and affordable public transport system that ferries people in and out of the city with ease. And that should have been implemented before the LEZ and before parking charges skyrocketed. People should also be able to choose a sustainable transport option that is not just cycling in the rain. And people should be able to come into town for work, stay for a night out and have the option to commute back home on transport.

Living in the city centre these days is like being trapped in a bubble. It’s difficult for people to get inside, but it can also feel difficult to leave. I understand that better transport will take time, but I worry what will happen to Glasgow in the meantime. Until then, I will continue to feel giddy about commuting when I’m on holiday in any other city (even Edinburgh).

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