Horses For Courses

There is huge scope for enhancing public transport, but it's important to concentrate on what it does best

  • This Page is Pro Transport, Full Stop

    Most of the articles on this website are concerned with the problems, costs and restrictions faced by motorists. That is not to say, though, that I am in any sense opposed to public transport. I am a regular consumer of public transport, partly though not entirely because I don't want to fall foul of the breathalyser, and I fully recognise that improved public transport will have a vital role to play in solving our congestion problems. It is quite wrong to see the transport policy debate as an either/or option between cars and public transport - the two are complementary, and each should have its part to play in an integrated transport policy.

    However, it must be recognised that cars account for over 85% of all passenger journeys, and even if public transport doubled its market share, which would require immense investment in new capacity (which, let's face it, isn't going to happen), cars would still account for over two-thirds. Unfortunately, when John Prescott goes on about an "integrated transport policy" he seems to completely exclude private motor transport, but any policy that does not seek to integrate the major form of passenger transport with the rest is not worthy of the name.

  • What Public Transport Does Best

    Generalised exhortations for drivers to "leave the car at home" are worse than useless, and only serve to alienate people. For most car journeys, there is no realistic public transport alternative, and never will be. Rural railways may have closed, and buses cut back, but even in their heyday they only offered a handful of services a day to destinations along a single route, which is not an adequate alternative to the car. Cars have given country people a freedom of movement that they never enjoyed before in history, and it would be nice if the authorities could acknowledge that.

    Public transport is an ineffective and wasteful means of providing a transport system where journeys are dispersed and irregular. Where it does excel is where there are heavy traffic flows either between two particular locations, or along a single route. This is particularly the case on radial routes into major cities, and on inter-city trunk routes. Since these are precisely the locations where most road congestion occurs, it is clear that dramatically improved public transport could make a real difference. But it is idle to pretend that it is the solution to all our transport problems.

  • A Distress Purchase

    Something that those who wish to encourage the use of public transport should recognise is that drivers will never, ever see buses as an attractive alternative. A bus is always a poor second-best to a car, and something of a distress purchase. Who would want to use the laundrette if they had their own washing machine? You only use a bus if you can't use a car, because you are too young, don't have a licence, can't afford a car, can't park at your destination or have had a few drinks. Buses are also subject to the same traffic delays as everyone else. Of course, in some locations, that can be remedied by bus lanes and guided busways, but then you start to turn a bus service into something else entirely....

  • Light Rail is the Key

    In Greater Manchester, Metrolink has been a great success, even though it is expensive to use and so far mainly a conversion of existing rail lines. It is perceived as modern and attractive, and has the great benefit of running on its own reserved track and not having to compete with road traffic. The initial Altrincham-Bury route had no old-fashioned tramway "street running", although there are short sections on the newer extension to Eccles. Every Metrolink extension that doesn't take over an existing rail line must be warmly applauded, and I'm sure the promised Stretford-Chorlton-Didsbury-Stockport section will prove extremely popular and genuinely take traffic off the roads. It is no exaggeration to say that developing light rail systems is the single most important element in a strategy to improve public transport and reduce urban congestion.

    There must also be immense scope for improving radial rail services, possibly using Metrolink as a model. Currently, the service on most of the main radial routes out of Manchester is very poor, with only Piccadilly-Stockport as frequent as every fifteen minutes, and often using unattractive and obsolete rolling stock. Also, many inner-urban stations have been closed. A ten-minute interval service, with Metrolink-style vehicles, and stations every mile, would do far more to improve patronage than any investment in buses. Interurban rail links such as Bolton-Bury-Rochdale should also be re-opened, and given a similar level of service.

  • Unmetered Communication

    Currently, a major disincentive to the use of public transport is that, compared with cars, it is very expensive at the point of use. For short journeys, buses often cost more than 50p a mile, whereas the marginal cost of using a car is only about 10p a mile, and you can carry three or four passengers too. And people tend to see even the cost of petrol as being pretty much a fixed cost - they drive a set number of miles a year, and if they didn't go to one place, they would go to another.

    There has been a lot of discussion about "unmetered telecommunications" as a way of encouraging use of the Internet. Surely much the same would apply to "unmetered public transport". One of the best ways of encouraging the use of public transport in urban areas would be to sell go-anywhere season tickets at dramatically less than the combined cost of the individual journeys. This would obviously lead to some loss of peak revenue, but it would still bring in worthwhile income and would be an excellent way of actually encouraging usage. Public transport would be genuinely free at the point of use, whereas there would still be a marginal cost to using a car. Clearly this will only work where there is a good public transport network that provides some sort of alternative for most car journeys. Operators could still be given an incentive to optimise services by making the season ticket a swipe card and allocating revenues on the basis of usage - the total pot divided out per passenger-mile, as simple as that.

    I remember when I was at university in Birmingham I had a season ticket (paid for in those more generous days by my home local authority) that gave me unlimited travel on one radial rail route, and on all buses within the West Midlands County. That gave me a far greater sense of freedom in using public transport, and encouraged me to use it much more, than would have been the case if I had had to pay for each individual journey.

  • A Different Lifestyle

    People who wish to highlight the inadequacies of public transport often use the example of particular multi-purpose car journeys and ask "How on earth could I ever do that on the bus?" In a sense, that is missing the point. They are only making those journeys because they have a car. If they didn't, and had the mindset of using all the opportunities that public transport did offer, they would go to different places, at different times. It would close down some options, but open up others - making it much more attractive, for example, to visit places where parking is difficult or expensive.

    In rural and suburban areas, public transport can never be more than a poor second best to the car. However, in urban areas such as much of Greater Manchester, a safe, reliable, frequent public transport network (i.e. one vastly better than we have at present), backed up by attractively-priced go-anywhere tickets, could provide a workable and even attractive alternative lifestyle to car dependency, and be an effective way of reducing both car usage and car ownership, and therefore road congestion.

  • Don't Criticise Those Without an Alternative

    But you will never do that by denigrating, taxing to the hilt, and otherwise frustrating motorists who don't have any viable alternative, and never will. All that will do is breed resentment and in the long run harm the cause of better public transport. And you certainly won't do it by introducing a workplace parking tax!

(Last updated November 2002)

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