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Demand for free buses soars in Aberdeen – but rural youngsters aren’t on board

A bus in Dundee

Free bus travel for young Scots is proving far more popular with under-22s in Aberdeen and Dundee than with those living in rural areas, it has emerged.

New figures obtained by Labour show dramatic differences in the uptake of the scheme, which was launched by the Scottish Government in January.

The opposition party said the data was a “humiliation” for the SNP and the Greens.

But a spokesman for Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth said Labour had forgotten about the impact of the pandemic.

According to the statistics, Inverclyde has had the highest number of sign-ups in Scotland, at more than 80% of those who are eligible, after local schools helped with applications.

Dundee is next, recording an uptake rate of more than 53%, which is a total of 14,151 free bus passes.

Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth.
Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth.

Aberdeen and Edinburgh are also not far behind, at 40% and 49%, leaving Glasgow as the only major Scottish city with a below-average level of 23%.

The picture is more mixed in the rest of the country, with a lower number of passes issued in many rural council areas.

Postcode lottery

These include Orkney with an uptake rate of 15%, Angus on 18%, Highland at 19%, Argyll and Bute with 21%, Moray at 23%, Perth and Kinross with 25%, and Aberdeenshire at 28%.

Western Isles is bucking the trend among rural authorities, with a rate of 42%, while in Shetland it is at 33% and the proportion in Fife is 34%.

Across Scotland the average number of successful applications among those eligible is 30% so far, or 284,328 out of 949,000.

The Holyrood government was accused of sending “mixed messages” about the scheme at the time of its launch.

Anyone aged between five and 21 is eligible for a card to give them free bus travel across Scotland, however young people were initially told to only apply if they need to make “essential journeys”.

Labour said Inverclyde Council led the way by co-ordinating applications through schools and helping people apply.

Neil Bibby MSP
Neil Bibby MSP.

The opposition party has now called for the process to be streamlined across Scotland.

Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby said: “Free bus passes for young people should have been a good news story but these dire figures are a humiliation for the SNP and the Greens, who have spent years talking about this card but still failed miserably to deliver it.

‘Botched scheme is missed opportunity’

“The botched scheme is a huge missed opportunity, which could have unlocked opportunities for children and young people, eased the cost of living crisis for families, and helped us tackle the climate emergency.

“Instead, the SNP’s rampant incompetence has let a rare good news story descend into chaos – and it is young people who are paying the price.”

He added: “It is time to finally deliver on this years-old promise so that no more children and young people miss out.”

Travellers wearing face masks on the bus in Aberdeen.

A spokesman for Ms Gilruth said the coronavirus crisis had impacted uptake.

“The Labour Party and Mr Bibby appear to have forgotten that in January of this year Scotland, like many other nations, was in the grip of the omicron variant,” he said.

Pandemic impact

“Of course this impacted on the roll out of the under-22s scheme initially.

“Nevertheless, since the end of January, over 6 million journeys have been made and over 300,000 cards issued under the new scheme.”

He added that a number of changes had been made to the online application process.

“The transport minister has said that she will continue to monitor the situation and is not ruling out making further changes to the scheme if that is what is needed,” he said.

“Extending free bus travel to all of Scotland’s children and young people under 22 is ultimately about making public transport more affordable, helping to improve access to education, leisure, and work, while supporting them to travel sustainably.

“While Labour carp from the side-lines, the Scottish Government is supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis.

“We are determined to ensure all children and young people who benefit most from free bus travel don’t miss out.”


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