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Community / Althing debate almost unanimously agrees Shetland cannot end dependency on private cars

Neil Clubb and Gary Robinson (left) spoke for the motion while Moraig Lyall and Vic Thomas brought forward arguments against. The meeting was chaired by Andrew Halcrow. Photo: Sarah Cooper

A PACKED audience listened to a diverse and interesting Althing debate on Saturday night focused on Shetland’s ongoing dependency on private car use.

Gary Robinson and Neil Clubb spoke in favour of the motion that the dependency had to end, while Moraig Lyall and Vic Thomas were against ending private car use.

The arguments against the motion were stronger and more convincing than the points made in favour, which was evidenced with the result. At the end of the night 22 people voted against the motion of Shetlanders giving up private car use, with only two in favour, with a few people undecided.

Robinson opened the debate by highlighting that many of Shetland’s housing schemes were constructed in the 1970s when most households didn’t own a car, while now the average number of cars per household is two. This has become a problem, as there isn’t ample parking in most schemes.

He added that cars spend 95 per cent of the time parked, which is a “vast waste of resources”.

Lyall opened with a controversial statement, saying: “There are advantages to grandparents dying”. In her family’s case, this allowed them to get the money together to purchase a car. She added: “This wasn’t just a mode of transport; it was a ticket to freedom.”

However, these weren’t the primary reasons that Shetland couldn’t end its dependency on private car use. Lyall raised points like how public transport is plentiful in an urban setting, but because Shetland has a sparse rural population, empty buses would be “tootling about needlessly”.

She also discussed managing the logistics of using public transport when travelling with children, or if there are multiple venues needed in one trip.

Lyall suggested instead an alternative, perhaps changes needed to be made to the car itself and advised using electric vehicles, or creating an app or WhatsApp groups to allow people to car share, reducing the number of cars on the road.

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Clubb meanwhile focused on the new Scottish Government ’20-minute neighbourhood hubs’, saying the pandemic had allowed many people to work from home and start appreciating their local area more.

He called the private car an “unsustainable” mode of transport, and also spoke in favour of a car-sharing app, while suggesting the town service bus to run on a continuous loop so people could park their cars on the outskirts of Lerwick and use public transport when in town.

He finished up by adding: “If we are going to crack net zero by 2045 we need to think ahead”, and suggested Shetlanders should be able to access bus services for free, and they should be electric.

Thomas spoke against the motion, stating getting rid of the private car was “simply not possible”. He said: “We simply cannot, unless we radically change everything humans do.”

He also suggested looking at the root causes for private car use and tackling those instead. Thomas said these were an “unsustainable population”, “wasteful practices of human activity” and “consumerism”. These changes would need to be at an international level, rather than local.

Audience participation was high, with over half an hour of statements and questions from the audience. One person highlighted the fact that car sharing happens regularly in Shetland, with various vacant cars seen at the Nesting junction, and the Black Gaet.

The general consensus was that it was possible to live in Shetland without using a car, but only if you live in Lerwick. For anyone in the country, it was impossible.

Others mentioned that while 20-minute neighbourhoods were a “nice idea”, they were “unfeasible” in Shetland with a lower and more isolated population.

Two audience members raised the complexities involved with accessing public transport services in Shetland with disabilities – a point that had not been discussed by any of the speakers.

One added that using public buses came with the potential of experiencing bullying or harassment because of their disability, while when she was in her car, she was comfortable and safe. She said: “My car is my legs.”

Another added that public buses also increased the risk of experiencing hate crime, and that she had been victim to this on a Shetland bus. She stated: “Buses are not always safe.”

In summing up, Robinson pointed out that by 2030 companies will have to stop selling new petrol and diesel cars.

“We have to change, it’s whether we embrace that change or get dragged kicking and screaming,” he warned.

However, audience members sided with Lyall and Thomas, agreeing that at the present time, Shetland could not stop using the private car, and alternatives would have to be put in place before this could become a feasible option.

The next Althing debate will be held at the Lerwick Town Hall on 18 March at 7.30pm, covering the topic: “The 1970s – we never had it so good”.

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