20 May 2024
Edinburgh Napier University

In an excerpt from The Glasgow Effect, Ellie Harrison describes how structural inequalities in Glasgow are influenced by distance and transportation options.

Introduction by Cam Proctor

If you regularly commute by bike, buses may not feature highly on your list of viable public transportation options – after all, you can’t bring your bike on the bus. If you live in the Glasgow city area, where you’re well-served by other (often cheaper) options, this may not register as much of a problem. But for those who live in the city’s peripheral areas, the bus is often the only option, with Glasgow’s private bus companies commanding some of the highest fares in the UK (£2.95 for a single compared to £2 elsewhere). This is one of many contributing factors to the structural inequalities that exist throughout the region.

But it isn’t all bad news. After a long campaign, Better Buses for Strathclyde were recently successful in petitioning SPT to franchise Glasgow’s buses, an important first step in rectifying some of these issues. Amongst those involved in the campaign is Ellie Harrison, an artist perhaps best known for her controversial project ‘The Glasgow Effect’ in 2016. Although divisive, the project sparked important conversations about the relationship between cycling, mobility, and health and wealth inequalities (amongst other things) in Glasgow. In 2019, she published an eponymous book detailing these issues, and in the following excerpt, she summarises how mobility in Glasgow is skewed in favour of those ‘better-off’.

Excerpt from The Glasgow Effect (p.226-227)

It was only during my ‘extreme lifestyle experiment’ in 2016 – where I refused to leave Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except my bike – that I truly began to appreciate the significance of Glasgow’s car-centric infrastructure for all of our mental, physical and financial health. I made two key discoveries. Firstly, that despite the fact that Glasgow gives far more of its space over to roads – 25 per cent of the city compared to just 12 per cent in Edinburgh – it has ‘one of the lowest levels of car ownership in Britain’. There is, in fact, a silent majority of people in this city who don’t have access to cars, which includes many of our most vulnerable populations: children and elderly and disabled people. And despite the assumptions of The Glasgow Effect meme-makers that I must own a sports car or have gone out and bought one straight away with my £15k, I was, and have always been, one of them. Glasgow’s roads, built in the post-war period by those arrogant and short-sighted town planners, only served to privatise ‘mobility’ – to entrench inequalities and create division. It is Glasgow’s motorways that have created the ‘two different worlds’ which Darren McGarvey describes, where more than half of the population are made to feel excluded. When I began to crystallise these ideas in November 2016, I wrote:

Glasgow is the city with the lowest car ownership in Scotland (49 per cent of households compared to 86 per cent in Aberdeen), yet its cityscape is completely dominated by the sight, noise and smell of motorways. This car-centric infrastructure has created a divided city of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ – those who own cars and can glide over the epic flyovers and experience their spectacular views and those who have to negotiate the underworld of underpasses and endure the noise and air pollution which filters down from above.

My second key discovery came from the ‘lived reality’ of only walking and using my bike. My whole perception of distance shifted. I could now see quite starkly how isolated I was – why did my friends all live in other parts of the city and not next door? The ridiculousness of my solitary existence was made all the more apparent. If I wanted to visit a friend in the East End or in the Southside, I had to factor that distance into my day. I couldn’t really stay late at people’s houses, or drink too much as I knew I had to be awake enough to cycle home afterwards. It was particularly bleak in the winter.

But when I began to analyse the data being collected on my Trackimo GPS tracking device, I could see quite clearly the places I was frequenting and the sort of distances I was cycling as I went about my weekly routine. I was mainly just travelling about the West End, the city centre, Dennistoun and parts of the Southside […] It was then that I realised the extent to which all of the big peripheral housing estates – Easterhouse, Pollok, Castlemilk and Drumchapel – were well beyond my reach. They were all more than 5km out of the city – the distance Cycling UK (the national charity supporting cyclists and promoting bicycle use) say is a reasonable distance people could be expected to travel by bike in a daily commute.

Suddenly I understood why cycling in Glasgow was seen as an ‘irritating trope of middle class life’. Of course ‘posh people and hipsters’ living in the West End, Dennistoun and swanky parts of the Southside were more likely to cycle into town, because it just isn’t so f**king far! Meanwhile people living in the big peripheral housing estates have been left stranded at the mercy of private bus companies. The post-war redevelopments were the opposite of what we need to do to build a healthy and sustainable city – that is to have a densely populated city centre where everyone can easily walk or cycle to where they need to go, and where everyone lives together rather than being segregated by social class.

Adapted from The Glasgow Effect with the kind permission of Ellie Harrison and Luath Press.
Keep up with the campaign at: betterbuses.uk/strathclyde