Public transport faces a huge struggle to get back on its feet again. We know the future should be ours, but we will have to seize it

The car driver thinks ‘I won’t be long’, writes Ralph Roberts – meanwhile dozens of bus users are delayed


If nothing else, we should have regarded this coronavirus pandemic as a wake-up call to re-assess what sort of a world we want to live in going forwards. In London, as in many other places, lockdown brought us cleaner air, quieter streets and neighbourhoods, and for a while, a dawning that we human beings can be quite kind to one another. Fear is powerful.

The optimism and hope for a sort of Shangri-La coupled with a promise to ourselves that we would not go back to our old flawed ways from now on (honest we won’t, God, Allah, anyone who might have my card marked) was soon undermined by government leaders and their advisers breaking the rules with alacrity and insouciance, and the rise of ‘sod you’ in things like stockpiling toilet rolls, pasta and anything that looked vaguely disinfectanty.

Then we had the demonising of public transport by anyone who could jump on the bandwagon, telling everyone not just to not use public transport but avoid it (a worse thing to say). There were a fair number of shameful own goals by transport operators showing an almost evangelical dedication to haphazardly putting cheap yellow and black stripey tape everywhere and turning buses and trains into something akin to a murder scene or a hazardous bio-chemical outbreak. And, you know, showing cleaners at work in hazmat suits really did turn the bus or train into something out of a disaster movie.

It’s not just a fight to get back to where we were and where we should be heading, it’s a fight for survival

With some level of home working probably becoming the ‘new normal’ eventually bringing a reduction in commuting, the inevitable rise in unemployment and changed town centres, in austerity measures or tax increases, plus the damage to people’s confidence in using public transport, we have something of a fight on our hands. And it’s not just a fight to get back to where we were and where we should be heading, it’s a fight for survival.

This is assuming we believe public transport is a good thing. I cynically worry that a few are in this industry merely for the money and aren’t really of the faith, perhaps fifth columnists who believe cars are the be all and end all of existence and buses merely for other more lowly people. Prove me wrong, please!

So, it’s about time we took the gloves off and started that fight right now, for the betterment of life, the planet, the future and, selfishly, our future. One of those is the fight to decrease car use, a method of transport that is no longer sustainable or desirable in such volume, to achieve that better, kinder, less selfish society and future. Even electric cars (can we make enough non-polluting electricity in any case, enough batteries?) still need space and look how the land is littered with cars already (most spending most of their time idle).

Personal, private mobility – car, motorbike, cycle or whatever – still has a strong, essential role to play, especially where the bus is simply not viable or preferable at any reckoning, financial or social, and where private mobility clearly is the only way. But our attitude towards, relationship with and obsessional, fetishistic worship of the car has got to the point where it will cause more harm than good if not curtailed. There are already too many cars taking up too much space and, like a virus, infecting society and harming the world we’re here to look after (we don’t own it). We must loosen the unhealthy relationship people have been encouraged to have with their cars up to now, along with educating them to be more responsible in how, when and where they use them. We’ve got to get clever and not shy away from the battle. Because it’s going to be a battle.

It’s not just individuals that are doing us and society harm. Local councils, retailers, leisure providers all fall into the trap of believing car drivers are rich and bountiful with their cash, and that bus passengers are impoverished, from the lower orders and never spend a bean. Politicians, generally, have a mindset that to do anything to curb the freedoms of the motorist is to commit political suicide. So much for altruism.

Where car drivers have invaded and literally stolen territory (parking on pavements, for example) a government body thinks it correct to consult over whether this should be allowed. So pavements as well as roads should be for cars to use? Sod anyone in a wheelchair, pushing children in a buggy, with failing eyesight, walking at night or just a bit wobbly on their pins.

Get angry, lobby, throw stink bombs, do something! Can’t you see the monster that’s about to gobble you up?

Councils who will proclaim to be pro-public transport with one hand, think it a brilliant idea to offer and promote free car parking with the other. Oh the irony, oh the damage to our cause and businesses. But are we up in arms about it? Some are; many aren’t. Get angry, lobby, throw stink bombs, do something! Can’t you see the monster that’s about to gobble you up?

Councils have implemented schemes that reallocate road space in favour of active travel. But some don’t think it through, believing they are doing the right thing for pedestrians by precluding all motorised traffic, including buses, making pedestrians walk to unfriendly spots on peripheral streets because buses can no longer access town centre bus stops.

A town council in Essex is, I believe, responsible for the bus station. Public transport commentator Roger French visited it recently and found timetables on display from several years ago and some for services no longer running. Is it any wonder we don’t get the respect and traction we deserve when we allow this sort of thing to happen. Yes, by not doing anything to stop it, we are condoning it.

One council representative has actually stated that it can’t be seen not to support the motorist. Oh come on, you can’t back both horses where one is becoming a crippling problem, the other offering a solution.

If you want to see the harm that the selfish motorist is doing to bus operation, Ralph Roberts, chief executive of bus company McGill’s, used Twitter to display photographs of cars parked in bus stop bays and other infringements. The drivers just shrug and say things like, ‘I’ll only be a minute or two’ or ‘I’m not doing any harm’, but they are. They are, for example, making it difficult for anyone with mobility problems if the bus has to stop away from the kerb, and causing the bus to block the road (they didn’t think of that!). The desires of one selfish car driver cannot be allowed to override the rights of others. And it’s bloody well illegal.

A French politician accidently held up a passenger train last month by parking his car on a level crossing in Bedous, south-west France. “I saw this magnificent place and I parked there,” Jean Lassalle, an independent MP, told France Bleu, who was left red-faced when police informed him of his faux pas!

And what about the almost terrorist activities of car drivers who rip up planters and the like where councils have made streets better for cyclists and those on foot, because their rat-run has been compromised. The self-centred nature of these actions is frightening.

I mentioned own goals. If we want to attract more people to the bus we must make sure they can get the information easily and in whatever form they need. So what have some bus companies done? Put a notice over leaflet racks in an enquiry office saying they don’t print timetables any more. You can only view them online. They claim it saves a shedload of money, then brag about how many millions they’re investing in new buses. The public understands the irony even if the bus company doesn’t, as it sinks ever lower in their estimation.

The ability to go where you want when you want in a car has become for too many drivers, in their minds, an absolute right

The ability to go where you want when you want in a car has become for too many drivers, in their minds, an absolute right. During the early days of the lessening of lockdown there were several cases reported of cars not being able to get into a beach or beauty spot car parks, so drivers parked on roads, pavements and verges in a frenzy where it was clearly obstructive to do so. There were many cases recorded where buses could not follow their prescribed routes because of this, and whole villages were left without their bus thanks to the selfish behaviour of a few car drivers.

There was one case of an emergency vehicle’s trajectory being blocked by a man in the act of parking his car in such a manner. When talked to sternly, he replied: “My daughter needs to get to the beach. I’ll just pay the fine.” This is the attitude we’re up against: that you can always pay your way out of gaol, buy an indulgence to absolve your sins (or just be a good mate of leaders of nations).

None of this is helped when, as my Auntie Vera used to say, a filthy rich, ultra right wing MP moans that we mustn’t be beastly to motorists because driving your car is an ancient freedom.

If we want to see public transport thrive and grow, we have to do everything we can to encourage more people onto it and stay on it. That’s the business we’re in. That requires effort in making the product something you want to be on (something I’ve been doing all my life), constantly promoting and selling it (ditto) and finding ways of getting people to switch from car when the bus is a viable alternative. Now, more than ever, is the time for all of us to come out and really fight everything and everyone that is stopping that.

The privileges, priorities and status that have been accorded to, heaped on or grabbed by the car driver, especially where these have damaged public transport – and most have – must be reduced and even reversed if we are ever to achieve a better society and and a better world.

Have you got the stamina, steel, heart, balls, killer instinct and belief to go to battle? It really is a case of if you’re not with us you’re against us. Time to fight for our lives, boys and girls! And fight dirty.

About the author: Ray Stenning is the award-winning Design Director of Best Impressions, which provides creative services to the passenger transport sector.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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