In praise of public transport

I don’t have a car.

I have a full driving licence having passed my driving test almost 15 years ago, but I’ve never owned a car and have never even driven a hire car in all of that time. The only occasion I did drive since passing my test was soon after, when I booked a motorway lesson with my late driving instructor Gary Garrill. He taught several generations of people in Cambridge how to drive. If he were still around teaching today, chances are he’d be the first person I’d go back to in order to get me up to speed behind the wheel.

So why did I never take to the wheel? During my sixth form days, I couldn’t afford it. As a 17 year old on £2.65 per hour (this was in the late 1990s but before the National Minimum Wage Act) I was not one of those children whose parents bought them a car, sorted out the tax, covered the insurance and paid for the petrol. Not that I was jealous – the truth was that at the time I didn’t need one. Everything in my life in those days was within walking distance.

During my university days in Brighton, I was lucky to be based in a city that had – and still has an excellent public transport infrastructure. Seeing how friends and relatives struggled with Brighton’s one-way and parking systems made me of the view that running a car in Brighton was a liability. When I lived in London, I made the conscious (but wallet-breaking) decision to live in Zone 1, the thought of driving never even occurred. It doesn’t when you’ve got many of the major tube lines running close by.

Between 2006-11, I was dependent on public transport to get to and from work. Without it I wouldn’t have had a hope of getting into Whitehall and back on a daily basis. There are millions across the country who are a similar position – in particular those who are on low incomes. One of the most emotionally soul-destroying scenes I witnessed daily when leaving work at the end of the working day was witnessing the army of contract cleaners coming in to do their shifts in the office blocks in Central London. I say ‘soul destroying’ because of the terms and conditions that many of them have to put up with. How many of you would work a night shift for £6 per hour? (Those of you interested in doing something about this, see the Living Wage Campaign)

  • Public transport enables people to get to work.
  • Public transport takes cars off of the road.
  • Public transport provides jobs.
  • Public transport can cut our carbon emissions.
  • Public transport allows students to get to college – 72% taking the bus to college
  • Public transport can give people a greater degree of choice about where to work, where to shop and where to spend leisure time.

But where are public figures championing public transport?

The problem in part is the mindset of public transport vs private transport (that is in part driven by the media). Speak out too much in favour of public transport and you risk being slammed for being a car-hater who wants to penalise the motorists. (This is despite the fact that taxes on fuel are set by the Treasury, not the Department for Transport).

Just as motorists complain about the high prices of fuel, rising public transport prices can have a huge impact on the finances of those who can least afford them. London’s inflation-busting fare rises are but one example. The reductions in services as a result of the 28% cut in grant from Central Government to councils for public transport runs the risk of forcing more people into cars or stopping people from the activities that they use public transport to get to and from.

When we take pride in our public transport, the results can be both spectacular and impressive. I remember coming back from a work visit to the north of England coming back into the restored St Pancras Station on a cold late autumnal evening. The scene that greeted me was awe-inspiring. (It looked something like this picture by CrashGalloway) The new trains on the Cambridge to Liverpool Street line make the journey so much more comfortable than the dirty skanky chugmobiles that are normally on there.

Is there something that the Department for Transport could consider with its new franchises regarding new rolling stock that it did with housing? Back in 2006 the then Communities Secretary announced that from 2016, all newbuild housing would have to be zero carbon. This was accompanied by a timetable of when the regulations would be systematically tightened towards ultimately enforcing that new target – thus giving industry an incentive to invest and work towards that standard. Could the same be done with rolling stock as part of a green new deal? (i.e. saying that all new rail franchises will be banned from using rolling stock that is over 20 years old, and that from say 2018 that figure will reduce to 15, & by 2022)?

Is there similar scope for buses? Anyone who has had the misfortune to use the really old rail replacement buses knows how horrible they can be. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the accessibility issues. (These buses were not designed with disabled people in mind – not to today’s standards anyway.)

Essentially, I come back to the point I made at the end of the blogpost Oxford to Cambridge transport links in that we don’t have a positive ‘vision’ for what public transport should become in the medium to long term. For me that means amongst other things publicising the work of specialists in this field as well as opening up the debate at a national level beyond the bubbles of Westminster, the consultancy world, local government & academia. When people see something that they can become inspired by, & have at least a vaguely realistic prospect of it being achieved, I’d like to think that they are more likely to get involved – in particular if it will benefit their community.




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