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Wales inspired by Scottish free bus pass scheme – but how successful has it been?

Two years after the free bus travel scheme for under 22s has been running in Scotland, Wales is now considering a similar green scheme to encourage their young people to use public transport.

Waiting in Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station a crowd of fellow young people are next to me in the queue forming at Stance 54, for the M90 to Inverness. Notably, we are all clutching onto our Young Scot National Entitlement Card (NEC). This means a trip, which might otherwise cost around £30, is completely free.

On 31 January 2022, the Scottish Government introduced free bus travel for all young people and children aged 5-21 as part of a green scheme that allows young people who live in Scotland for a minimum of 6 months of the year, to travel on Scottish buses for free with a Young Scot smartcard. After two years of the scheme running in Scotland, Wales is now considering a similar initiative for their young people with The Senedd’s petition committee looking into the practicality of a similar scheme by quizzing Transport Scotland officials.

Growing up in a rural Scottish village, I have always been dependent on transport for doing pretty much everything, but I was always more inclined to drive than take public transport due to the limited bus timetables and infrequent services. When I moved to Glasgow for university I found the public transport was much better, with regular buses, trains and the subway – using public transport in the city was much easier. However, for a return trip to travel home to see my family whether travelling by bus, train or car, the cost was around £50, which was often out of my monthly budget. But as of 2022, the stress of my student budget keeping me back from seeing my family was removed with the free bus travel scheme.

A report published in June 2022, by Transport Scotland, carried out before the scheme began found that although buses were heavily used for travelling to education, training or work, bus travel came second to car use across most leisure and social journeys. The report saw almost half of the 17,462 respondents stating that travel and transport were unaffordable. 

A follow-up report published in December 2023 found an increase in respondents thinking that bus travel was affordable. Comparisons of previous surveys indicated that usage of trains and cars had declined across almost all journey purposes asked about, whereas bus use and active models had increased. Now in 2024, the plan to build a greener society through free bus travel has contributed to over 100 million journeys being undertaken so far, something that Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights, Patrick Harvie described as a ‘huge landmark’. 

Using public transport reduces congestion in city centres, allows for leisure time during your commute and is a simple, yet effective way to reduce carbon footprint – one full double-decker bus removes up to 75 cars worth of pollution and congestion from the road.

Welsh architecture student, Will Thomas (22), moved from his rural hometown village Bont-Goch to Glasgow for university in 2020. Reflecting on the Scottish initiative, he explained he thought it was positive, especially for people in education who do not have a lot of disposable income to spend on everyday travel. He said the scheme seemed like a ‘no-brainer’ as young people are much more inclined to do things when they feel they are getting a good deal.

Thomas explained how he thought the scheme would benefit Wales as, like Scotland, it has vast areas with sparse populations. He further commented: “Bus travel helps climate change in so many ways, especially reducing the number of cars on the road, reducing fuel maintenance, but also all the other environmental impacts of the car industry, such as manufacturing them and maintaining infrastructure.”

Another Welsh student, Lloyd Walton (23), who grew up in Machen, South Wales, is also studying in Glasgow and explained what he thought of the Scottish initiative: “It is awesome! I have friends who travel home to Aberdeen three hours away for free.” He continued that in his rural hometown most young people who can, use cars as the buses are unreliable, but he acknowledged how a similar scheme in Wales could help climate action.

Walton said: “I think Wales would benefit from a similar scheme because then more people would be encouraged to get the bus, but I do think they need to initially put more funding into the buses in Wales – where I am from anyway.” He added: “If I had had it, I would have definitely used the buses more for going back and forth to work and school when I was under 22.”

So, from the perspective of Welsh students who have seen the benefits in Scotland, if Wales applied the scheme to shared transport, they would not only be helping their young people but encouraging them to help the environment. However, just as in some more rural areas of Scotland, the bus services in some areas do need to be improved for the scheme to be fully effective. 

Although the Scottish initiative has enabled me to save hundreds of pounds and having the free bus pass made taking the bus an obvious choice when possible, there is still a lot to be done in more rural locations as I am only more inclined to take the bus in larger cities in Scotland where the buses are frequent. But, the initiative – and encouragement from my student budget – did somewhat force me to make the most of my smart card. This got my head around the city’s bus services and made me more confident in taking the bus. Although over the past two years, not all the buses I have gotten have been on time, they have all been free which was the main encouragement to just wait it out at bus stops.

As my 22nd birthday approaches, I have less than 40 days left of free bus travel with my Young Scot smartcard. My new appreciation for the obvious benefits of taking the bus has left me more inclined to continue taking buses even when I do have to pay. 

Figures have shown that Scotland’s green scheme has had a positive effect on the number of those under 22 using buses in Scotland so far. It can be hoped a similar scheme in Wales would be an incentive for its young people to use public transport and an encouragement to be more conscious of their carbon footprint even when they turn 22.