One of the many problems facing society as we try to address the climate emergency is how do we encourage people to switch from private cars to public transport. The solution appears straight forward, we just need to make public transport more convenient, easier and cheaper to use, but our major political parties seem to have no vision or ambition to do this. Here I present one vision to consider.
How did we get here?
A few years ago I went along to a meeting of the village Historical Society, where Ed Davis gave a talk about growing up in the village in the 1950’s. It was a hugely engaging talk that covered many aspects of village life, but for me it was the revelations about public transport that stuck in my mind.
Back then trains still stopped at Charfield Station just over a mile away, giving good access to Bristol, Gloucester and beyond; there was also a station at Badminton with a non-stop service to Paddington. There was a choice of two bus routes to Bristol and one to Gloucester. People managed pretty well to travel for work, school/college, health care, shopping etc., and to go on holiday without the need of a private car.
In the 1960s lobbying by motor, oil and construction companies encouraged the government to invest in road building rather than public transport. The country was transformed by a motorway network that made travel by road easier for car owners. The total cost of this transformation was met by the taxpayer and the consumer. Cities across the country ripped up their tram lines to make way for the car, and train lines and stations were closed as the pace of change quickened. The decline in public transport continues today, as the Campaign for Better Transport has shown that overall bus services in England were cut by 16% in 2019-20, with many small towns across the UK becoming transport deserts.
The human and environmental cost of this transition has been huge. According to the Department of Transport, between 1951 and 2006 over 300,000 people were killed and over 17 million injured on British roads. Statista reports that in 2019 alone passenger cars added 3.2 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Even though lead in petrol was banned in 1999, some 140,000 tons of lead had been pumped into British air and some is still there 20 years later. The impact of air and ground pollution from brakes and tyres is only just starting to be understood. Add to this the environmental impact of manufacturing and maintaining the 32 million private vehicles in UK, and the 247,000 miles of road and we can start to appreciate the scale of the damage done to the environment.
The direction we need to take
Technology is already having an impact on booking and using public transport, but a much higher level of integration is essential to make it a more attractive proposition. Whilst private industry and investment is key for the development of the technology, service delivery should be under public control stopping multinational corporations and banks extracting revenue from a monopoly service.
Infrastructure: The transport infrastructure would be based on a network of hubs, with all vehicles, occupancy and demand tracked and monitored in real time to ensure that there is sufficient capacity to meet the needs.
Regional hubs would be connected to each other by high speed rail and to district/local hubs by train, tram, and bus networks. The rail infrastructure should be fully electrified and expanded to cater for an increased volume of users utilising double deck trains on busy routes. Seating would be assigned to passengers for travel between regional hubs, with systems to monitor that travellers are using the seats allocated (it should never be up to a passenger to challenge another using a seat assigned to them)
Local hubs would be available at centres for industry, commerce, housing, education, and health care. Tram and bus networks would need to be expanded to accommodate more users, and be supplemented by Autonomous Road Vehicles (ARVs) for on demand services. The use of ARVs travelling on predefined routes has the potential to transform public transport for those who live more remotely. As the system will know which travellers are en route to a particular destination, ARVs tailored to support travellers with special needs or destinations can be assigned and pre-positioned to meet them.
Travel: The traveller should be able to book almost door-to-door travel within the UK. Features such as ‘split ticketing’, higher charges at peak time, lower charges for advanced booking, or penalties when travel plans change should be a thing of the past. Apps already exist to guide travellers through their journey in a language of their choice, some are already updated in real time with details of departure times and platforms (if the data is available) along with what facilities are available whilst in transit or at travel hubs. With more comprehensive information available, at any time the app will know where you are and where you are travelling to, offering the choices such as: standing on the next train/bus, or waiting knowing that a seat is available on a service in 20 mins; or what to do if there is a breakdown or travel plans change.
There should only be a nominal charge for local travel enabling low cost access to employment, health care, education and other essential services; with people allowed a limited number of free long distance journeys each year encouraging access to destinations in the UK for holidays and leisure.
Baggage and Freight Services: The freight industry has become very adept at using technology to track goods through its own road based freight network, and there is plenty of scope for integrating these networks with facilities at regional and local transport hubs, to help take some freight off the road network. As people generally wish to travel during the day, with freight travelling overnight, it becomes feasible to offer a 24/7 services for travellers such as.
- Shift workers and those who have an urgent need to travel overnight.
- Those who also need to take larger volumes goods such as collecting/returning bulky items from/to stores, travelling with young children or just helping students move to/from college.
The provision of an integrated infrastructure for passenger and freight transport would not be an innovation. It was there 150 years ago because, during the recent restoration of the organ installed in our parish church, the original shipping label was found showing that it had been delivered via Charfield Railway Station.
These changes, if implemented, could persuade many that they no longer need to own a car and would be a significant step towards taking freight off the roads. Overall the environmental impact will be reduced significantly, keeping the cost of transport down.
Cost though rather than benefits will be presented as the main barrier to progress in this direction, along with the vested interests of oil, motor, banking and insurance sectors. Overall the cost would be a fraction of what has been spent over the past 60 years on private transport. Given that much of the core infrastructure was built by the Victorians, the capital investment to extend and improve it should be spread over the next hundred years.
Currently politicians on all sides seem to have a narrow view of the options available to raise money from the very wealthy to fund the running costs of essential services. There is though plenty of scope in taxing their capital gains and rentier income as I mentioned in an earlier article.
The first step however is for members of the progressive parties that wish to address the climate emergency, to work together to agree on a comprehensive vision for how public transport can be made more convenient, easier and cheaper to use. They then need to describe how they would plan to deliver it. Then after setting out a common view in their manifestos, people would be able to vote for the transition from private to public transport that is so clearly needed if we are to save the planet.
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