What is it like being dependent on public transport?

Summary

Because buses are in the news following Prime Minister’s Questions today

…even though some say Mr Corbyn should have demanded the resignation of the Work and Pensions Secretary following a damning letter from the Comptroller General and head of the National Audit Office. But it was buses that led the way. And the figures don’t make good reading.

Cambridge and South Cambs have formed a new local bus users group for anyone who uses buses that travel in and around Cambridge.

Led by Richard Wood, anyone interested in getting involved can contact the group at https://cbgbususers.wordpress.com/contact/ as just over half a dozen people are now forming an executive committee. They are also affiliating to the national Bus Users campaign – see their back catalogue here. For those of you who are regular bus users, now would be a very good time to get involved and shape the organisation – one which politicians of all parties have said they hope becomes as influential as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. And the reason why this matters is demographics – regular bus users tend to be economically less well off. (Otherwise they’d drive…wouldn’t they?).

Since my mental health crisis in 2012 I’ve stopped cycling regularly, and as a result go pretty much everywhere by bus. I use them almost daily unless I don’t want to/don’t have a reason to go into town – whether for meetings, rehearsals, visiting archives or just running errands.

When you become dependent on something like buses, you end up shaping huge parts of your life around them. For example it might be which choice of supermarket to go to. Only one of the large supermarkets is reasonably served by the bus route on my road. i.e. the bus stops inside the supermarket premises fairly close to the entrance and exit. All of the others are ruled out.

Choice of evening classes

Before my mental health crisis I completed a basic certificate in teaching for adults at Cambridge Regional College.  It’s something I’d recommend to anyone looking to go into consultancy where you are delivering workshops. The problem I had was getting there and back in the days before the Guided Bus. I’d lose two hours in the day simply getting to college and back from South Cambridge. It was exhausting given that it was such a short distance. Cycling wasn’t realistic either because of the huge number of junctions and the road traffic in general. Again, this was before the completion of the Chisholm Trail. As a result, courses ‘north of the bridge’ for me have been out of bounds due to my limited mobility.

Getting to council meetings

I’ve been able to film and report from council meetings across the south of the county due to the generous support of fellow community activists with cars who have driven me out to places like Cambourne (which for whatever reason built all of the houses before building in a decent transport system and infrastructure to serve the town). In extremis I have caught the bus to Cambourne and back, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The service is infrequent and does not stop outside of South Cambridgeshire Hall. Whoever planned the place stuck the hall at the end of an anonymous business park at the back end of nowhere – perhaps awaiting the next phase of development. But as things stand, I can’t see the local council’s headquarters (South Cambridgeshire District Council) as being that buzzing civic centre of a building that local residents are proud of. I have a longer moan here.

A night on the town?

When you’re on a low income, you simply don’t have the luxury of catching taxis. Instead you’re looking nervously at the clock for the time of the last bus close to your house, followed by the last bus to not so close to your house but walkable if you’re not too nervous being out and about alone that late at night. (I have an anxiety disorder). So sticking around for a drink or three after a film or show is simply not an option.

Going to that community event hosted in a place that’s not near any of the bus routes

It’s why I stopped going to some of the city council meetings that cover part of my neighbourhood – councillors insist on holding East Area Committee meetings at venues where there are no bus links. A few years ago I’d be cycling to those meetings, but because of my health I can’t really do this anymore.

Costs are not cheap if you are on a low income

I’ve lost count of the times the machine has told me my top up card has run out and I have to put more money on it. It’s all the more frustrating when you see more affluent pensioners from other parts of the country using local bus services for free while locals have had to face ever-rising fares. Before reminding myself that this is a political decision designed to divide the masses and that under #CommissarPuffles the buses would be nationalised and free for everyone, paid for by the magic money tree that bailed out the banks.

“What’s the difference between using and not using a bus route?”

For me, 20 mins between each bus is about the maximum that I would tolerate for a daytime service. Anything more than that and anecdotally I can see why such bus routes are empty.

Part of the problem seems to be the lack of discussions between bus operators and communities about what the services should be. It’s all very well asking those of us who do use the buses, but given that we want to get more people onto buses rather than on individual motor transport, aka cars, asking people what puts them off (and what would encourage them to change their habits) is something that needs doing, and doing continually.

How buses can make or break not just a business, but an entire shopping centre

In my anecdotal view, it was Stagecoach wot broke the Grafton Centre. I don’t have statistical evidence to prove this claim, but if you look at the buses that served the purpose-built bus station off East Road in the mid-1990s, lots of bus routes stopped there. Today, not a single frequent ‘Citi’ route uses that bus station. The Citi 3 passes along Newmarket Road to the north of the shopping centre, but there are no clearly marked paths linking the bus stops to the centre. One of the bus stops has a huge tree growing by it, whose roots are winning the war against the pavement. If you are going shopping, the last thing you want to do is to cross a busy road in order to get to the shopping centre. There is no traffic calming on what is one of Cambridge’s historical major roads.

In mid-1995, The Grafton opened a large extension to a big fanfare – the big attraction being the new WBros Cinema complex which made the one where The Regal is look very run down. In those days, The Grafton was the place to be. We’d used to hang out there as teenagers did in those days. There was nothing for us in what is now the Grand Arcade. But they took away the buses and ever since then, the range and standard of the shops has adjusted accordingly. For example there used to be a branch of Heffers, along with at least one record shop (remember those?), and a handful of higher end high street fashion stores. Today, the centre has lost its main anchor, BHS, and has too many empty shop units – which has resulted in the makeover it is currently going through. But unless it sorts out the buses issue, I think it will struggle.

Strangely enough, I can’t help but think that they should have replaced the old BHS with a very large bookshop that could have served Anglia Ruskin University over the road, as well as the communities that continue to use the Grafton Centre. Could that have encouraged the diversity of shoppers while at the same time providing access to families on lower incomes with access to affordable children’s books?

All those diesel fumes

Sitting by bus stops while too many drivers leave their engines idle – especially in this heat – is doing my throat and lungs no good. A problem as I’m singing in a concert on Saturday. The sooner we get electric buses for Cambridge (and elsewhere) the better. But basically I’ve got bored of tweeting to Stagecoach about drivers leaving their engines on while not moving for minutes at a time – especially on roads that have big air quality issues.

“I don’t like sitting next to strangers on the bus”

Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about that a few decades ago.

You may recognise the riff from somewhere.

The point is a sound one from a personal safety perspective. Although I can’t recall having been targeted by anyone hostile on a bus, testimony from women posting their experiences on social media shows that harassment both on buses and at bus stops is a major barrier to them using buses. And if it’s not safe enough for women, it’s not safe enough for any of us. What could a community response look like to make public transport safer?

“Are things going to get better for buses?”

Not in the short term. Local councils are primarily responsible for local transport policy, and they have no money to subsidise bus routes.

As the Public Accounts Committee reported earlier, local government is in crisis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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