Air pollution. A problem that’s hard to see? I don’t think so.

It’s a constant struggle to highlight the issue of air pollution because it’s a problem that’s hard to see, yet it kills as many people in Britain each year as obesity and road accidents combined.

The UK Government is still going through the courts to resist EU legislation that should have been implemented years ago, while the Scottish Government passes the buck to local authorities and local authorities remain frightened to take the necessary steps.
In Edinburgh it’s clear we need to reduce the traffic coming in, and those vehicles that do come in should be cleaner.

It’s alarming to have more pollution zones set up and the boundaries of others extended. What an embarrassment to have tourism hot spots like the Cowgate and the Grassmarket added.

The legislation governing the issue is weak. The Environment Act 1995 doesn’t force local authorities to meet air quality targets – only to “pursue” them.

This has permeated the council’s thinking. Its so-called action plan is about what it might do rather than what it will do: seminars and partnerships rather than tactics with budgets and timescales.

Businesses need deliveries but do we really need massive HGVs lumbering through our streets? On buses we have some cleaner vehicles but could do with proper funding from government to transform the fleet.

In Berlin restrictions have cut pollution by a quarter within a year. Lower speed limits promote cycling and walking. This has happened in Stockholm where most streets now have a 30kph limit – just 18 mph.

And on parking how about incentives so that owners of cleaner cars pay less? This already happens with residential permits thanks to the Greens. Could we extend it to our shopping streets?

3,000 Scots die each year from respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution. A problem that’s hard to see? I don’t think so.



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Keeping cycling up the political agenda

Pedal for Scotland start

Over a year has passed since I led the first debate in the Scottish Parliament on cycling. That debate was partly in response to the very sad deaths of a number of cyclists on Edinburgh’s streets in early 2012.

It’s clear that the wider debate around cycling has moved decisively up the political agenda over the last year, where it must now stay. This shift is entirely down to the brilliant campaigning and hard work of a great number of people who share a vision of how things could be different.

In case we need any reminder of the need to improve cycle safety, just this week saw the sad case of 75-year old Audrey Fyfe, killed in Edinburgh, making the headlines again. Last Monday in London, a climate scientist dedicated to improving our understanding of our planet was killed pedalling to work.

Throughout the year, I have continued to push the Scottish Government and councils to take bolder action and to increase funding to make cycling the obvious, safe choice it should be for more Scots. I have listed just some of the things I’ve been doing below:

  • Called for a ‘cycle safety summit’ by the Scottish Government following a string of cyclist deaths and accidents in Lothian. A special meeting of the Government’s road safety ground went ahead and I was invited along to speak. Among other things, I pushed the need for more 20mph zones in our residential and shopping areas.
  • Had my cycling motion voted through unanimously by the Scottish Parliament after the first ever cycling debate. This means cycling supporters can more easily hold the Government to their commitments, especially on cycle training, road design and funding.
  • Rode as part of, and spoke at, the magnificent Pedal on Parliament demonstration.
  • Raised money for Andrew Cyclist by taking part in the Pedal for Scotland ride (see picture).
  • Established the Cross Party Group on Cycling in the Parliament to build cross-party backing for stronger action and to discuss key topics around cycling at Holyrood.
  • Spoke on a panel at the Cycling Scotland conference ‘Scots go Dutch’. My thoughts on that and ideas for finding more funding for cycling here.
  • Hosted a joint event with Nordic Horizons with a guest speaker from the Danish Cycle Embassy. You can read my blog on that here.
  • Led calls during this year’s budget process for 10% of the Scottish Government’s transport budget to be spent on active travel. The draft budget has an extra £6m over two years for cycling projects but this does not go nearly far enough.
  • Met with Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney, along with fellow MSP and co-convenor of CPG Cycling Jim Eadie, to press the case for new funds for cycling. This resulted in an extra £4m for cycling projects.
  • Most recently, I wrote to the Minister for Transport, Keith Brown, with my CPG Cycling colleagues Jim Eadie MSP and Claudia Beamish MSP outlining a proposal for a competitive award for an Danish/Dutch style segregated cycle lane project design. I feel that we need one fantastic example to prove the worth of proper infrastructure to planners in Scotland.

Update November 2013

  • The Scottish Government has added an extra £20m to their draft budget for cycling projects – this is positive news and shows our campaign is working, but I’m backing the Stop Climate Chaos campaign to double the total budget for walking and cycling. This would demonstrate real commitment to their climate targets and obesity plan.
  • I used the opportunity of a member’s debate in Parliament to raise the issue of ‘stricter liability’ – a law that most European countries have to protect the more vulnerable on our roads. The Roadshare campaign by Cycle Law Scotland has been gaining wide support, with over 5000 signatures on their petition. You can read a transcript of the debate here.

The proportion of cycle accidents on Scotland’s roads has been decreasing in recent years, which is welcome, but we cannot ease up on our efforts to embed cycling in our day-to-day activities. We need a radical approach to how we design our roads, and we should seize any opportunity as soon as it arises. Every time a road is dug up, a junction is changed or new signs are installed we should improve the layout for pedestrians and cyclists.

I will continue to push the Scottish government at every available opportunity for more funding for cycling, and to target the funding at the projects that will have the most positive impact on cycling in Scotland.

We should make it easy for councils to create cycle friendly streets and incrementally improve road infrastructure for cyclists whenever maintenance work is being carried out.  We must also be more ambitious about on-road cycle training for our children. At the moment only 30 per cent of Scottish schoolchildren receive such training – half the rate of England.  We also need to increase training and awareness of cycling for all road users, and to promote a culture of mutual tolerance and respect on our roads.  The Scottish Government says it’s committed to increasing the number of journeys by bike to 10% by 2020 – the current rate is estimated to be only one per cent and much work is needed if we are to reach this target.  Cycling provides so many benefits in terms of health, congestion, air quality and investment in cycling is sensible preventative spending.

It has been fantastic to receive such support from constituents on this issue. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me if I can be of assistance, or if you have any specific ideas or concerns about cycling in Scotland.

We are paying a hefty price for a throwaway culture

As Northern Ireland introduces a charge for plastic bags, readers of the Courier will spot me in today’s paper explaining why a similar move in Scotland would be perfectly reasonable. Here’s what I have to say…

AJ in Courier on bags

This is an obvious problem we can easily fix. We are paying a hefty price for a throwaway culture. Voluntary measures haven’t helped, and opponents are behind the times and out of step with public attitudes.

Around 600 million bags are used in Scotland each year – that’s 10 bags per person per month. They can take up to 1,000 years to degrade yet are only used for minutes. They end up in landfill or are incinerated, and the warm feeling we get by “recycling” soon disappears when we learn we send 21,000 tonnes of them every year to the Far East for processing.

Their production requires finite fossil fuels that we should be conserving. They don’t biodegrade; they photo-degrade. They break down into tiny toxic particles, polluting our soil and water. Whales and other wildlife, important to our tourism economy, die every year from eating discarded bags. Farm animals and birds suffer a similar fate.

The risk to tourism couldn’t be clearer. Keep Scotland Beautiful has launched a Clean Up Scotland campaign ahead of the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games. On a recent trip to Perthshire I was appalled by the plastic littering motorway verges. Is this the image we want visitors to take home?

Retailers spend millions on these bags yet appear to give them out for free. The reality is we’re paying for them twice. Firstly through the goods we buy, secondly through our council tax as local authorities clear up our streets, beaches and parks. We’re also giving mega-rich retailers free advertising by lugging their logos about.

The evidence from Wales is that a small charge is easy to implement and hugely positive on shopper behaviour.

Even Los Angeles has completely banned plastic bags, helping reduce the rubbish buried in landfills, and giving hope of cleaner waterways and beaches.

The concern of some small businesses is understandable, although many see plastic bags as a cost they’d rather do without. Perhaps a levy should target big retailers first as they contribute the bulk of the problem.

Surveys suggest most people think a small charge is perfectly reasonable. Let’s put some common sense into our shopping.