Miles better: Improving public transport in the Glasgow City Region

Researcher Matthew Coombes and Guilherme Rodrigues set out why bus franchising offers Glasgow an opportunity to help Scotland reach its economic potential.

Report published on 25 October 2023 by Matthew Coombes and Guilherme Rodrigues

Glasgow accounts for 20 per cent of Scotland’s economy but it underperforms relative to cities of a similar size on the Continent and in the United States, meaning the Scottish and UK economies are £7 billion pounds smaller than they should be each year. 

The underperformance of the city’s economy relative to its peers is therefore an issue for both Scotland and the wider UK economy, and public transport in particular is likely to play a role in this.

Why should Scottish policymakers focus on improving public transport in Glasgow?

Glasgow has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the UK: 41 per cent of households didn’t own a car in the 2011 Census, well above Britain’s average of 26 per cent.

This makes the city more dependent on the performance of its public transport network.

Transport is important for the functioning of a city economy because it links people to jobs. The more people it is able to connect, the more attractive a city becomes because of the greater choice it gives to both workers and businesses.

Transport choices have also environmental implications, with air pollution in particular being a problem in big cities like Glasgow compared to more rural neighbours. Poor air quality and road-related injuries and deaths disproportionally affect the poorest in Glasgow, who are also the people least likely to drive. Modal shift from cars to public transport is one way of reducing these outcomes.

Why does Glasgow’s public transport network underperform in an international context?

There are three main factors that determine how well public transport connects people in a place: its coverage, the density of development across its catchment area, and the integration of services within it.

When comparing Glasgow to other UK cities, its public transport network comes out favourably. Its greater range of modes – a more extensive heavy rail system and a subway system in addition to its bus network – sets it apart from most other big cities.

The city underperforms, though, when comparing it to Western European cities. The interactive figure below shows that of the 44 Western European cities analysed, only six have smaller public transport networks, in terms of distance covered, than Glasgow. This is due to Glasgow not being particularly dense compared to its peers, which makes serving it by public transport more difficult, and its transport modes not being especially integrated.

Figure 1: Glasgow’s public transport network size, like most British cities, underperforms

How much could Glasgow’s public transport connectivity improve with better integration?

Glasgow’s economic potential is held back in part because an estimated 300,000 workers in and around Glasgow are under-served by public transport links to the city centre.

Implementing bus franchising – under secondary legislation set to come into force in December – and increasing the frequency and footprint of bus services would connect hundreds of thousands more city-region residents to the city centre within 30 minutes.

Bus franchising also opens up long-term opportunities to integrate urban transport services run by ScotRail and Glasgow Subway into a single transport system with its own ticketing system and cross-subsidies for services in poorly-connected areas.

Doing this would ultimately create a system that is much easier to use, with bus, Subway and train better coordinated and clearer and consistent fares and network-wide tickets easier to introduce. Better integration of the existing network will also complement plans for a future Clyde Metro.

Figure 2: Improvements that can be achieved with increased bus frequencies and better integration

What needs to change?

To make the most out of the existing transport system as well as building a much larger network that will include Clyde Metro in the future, the report sets out how a 20-years transition plan to an integrated and publicly-controlled urban transport network that may happen in three phases:

Figure 3: Three phases to improve public transport in the Glasgow City Region

  1. Franchising of the bus network supported by a 10-year funding deal from the Scottish Government.
  2. Develop a future funding plan and the supporting institutional set up to maintain the franchised network to reduce the public transport system’s reliance on national government subsidy, between five to ten years from now.
  3. Bringing all the region’s rail systems under SPT’s control between 10-20 years from now, allowing for full integration across the network and enabling SPT to take advantage of additional revenues from commercial properties in train stations and enable further cross-subsidy across the entire urban transport network.

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Dan Harvey

More than ever before mayors need to be able to control the bus services in their city. This report explains why and sets out how they can achieve this.

Briefing 11 Jun 2021

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