Last month, Green MP Caroline Lucas invited Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old Swedish school girl, to address Westminster ministers after inspiring the school climate strikes movement. She criticised the UK for supporting new exploitation of fossil fuels and for exaggerating cuts to carbon emissions. She stressed that time was running out, action was required now and made the analogy that if your house was on fire, you wouldn’t just stand there and watch it burn!
This month, the Scottish Government agreed to legislate in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2045. This is five years ahead of the UK and a significant improvement on the current Scottish target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 compared with 1990 benchmark levels. This is a recognition of the 'climate emergency' as declared by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in her speech at the recent SNP conference.
Edinburgh has become the first city in the UK to join the Open Streets movement, where city centre streets are closed on the first Sunday of every month under plans to reduce air pollution. Glasgow also closed some of its city centre streets around George Square the previous weekend but has not yet committed to closure on a regular basis. In both cities, the free movement of pedestrians and cyclists without the danger of motorised vehicles was exhilarating.
However, initiatives like this just once a month are clearly not enough. We have known for many years that we need to encourage our nation to be more active. We need to get people out of their cars and onto their feet and bicycles. We know this will help tackle health issues, pollution levels and will also be good for the economy. We need to change our modes of transport for the short journeys to school, work and shops. The key to this though is safety. A significant percentage of people will not let their children walk to school or get on their bicycles because they don't feel it is safe to do so.
In 2010, the Scottish Government's Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CAPS) had a vision for 2020 that 10% of everyday journeys taken in Scotland would be by bicycle. Today, that figure still sits at less than 2%. Some Councils like Edinburgh City Council, for example, have had greater success with 7.5% of Edinburgh commuters travelling to work by bicycle in 2017. However, 46% of residents also said that they would like to start riding a bicycle or could ride their bicycle more. 80% support the building of more protected roadside cycle lanes. Whilst this is starting to happen, it is not happening fast enough.
It is time for change. Road safety needs to improve if we are to encourage more people to ditch the car and walk or cycle as an alternative. We need to introduce legislation which will protect vulnerable road users. The Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill needs to be passed immediately and presumed liability should be introduced as part of a comprehensive programme of road safety measures. Following the introduction of strict liability in France in 1985, there was a 38% decrease in the number of cycling fatalities in the decade that followed. There is no country in the world that has high levels of safe active travel which does not have some form of liability legislation in place. Presumed liability cannot be ignored any longer. It’s a low cost yet effective measure that can be implemented quickly.
When the Road Share campaign presenting the case for presumed liability was launched in Scotland in 2013, it quickly received cross-party support. Today, it is only the Green Party who have included presumed liability within their manifesto. Nearly all our European neighbours recognised that the interaction of motorised vehicles alongside more vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians would create an imbalance on the roads. As such, they introduced road safety measures to protect the vulnerable including legislation. We are massively behind the curve and need to take action now. It’s time we led the way in the UK like we are on climate change and introduced presumed liability in Scotland.