About five years ago I decided to give up my car. If I had told you at the time that I wanted to make a contribution to saving the planet, I hope you treated that with a pinch of salt. The reality was that as a semi-retired semi-working person – I sometimes like to say “renaissance man” but that’s on the high side of pretentious – I decided that the standing costs of a car (£50 / week before it moves a yard, according to some people) was a cost I could do without. And when I needed to go somewhere, I’d use public transport where possible. When not possible, I’d use a car club; and it happens that one of them has a (brand-new, hybrid) vehicle about 150 yards from my flat.
Also about 150 yards away in the opposite direction is a bus-stop for a service with pretty good frequency, by Bristol standards. And it can take me to the city centre in 15 minutes or to Temple Meads Station in about half an hour. The world, or at least the country, is my oyster.
I soon discovered what I gained when I gave up the car. I can watch the scenery or the people; or read the paper or my trusty Kindle, which has enough reading matter to last until I am pushing up daisies. Yes, there will be delays from time to time but I don’t get as frustrated as I sometimes did when I was driving; there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well settle back and read another chapter. The only times I might get a little antsy on a bus or train is when I have a connection to make. So to counter that I use a skills I have developed very late in life; being early. For years I was reliably late for everything (“You were pain back in those days”, says an old friend) and I nearly missed so many flights. Never missed any but caught them all by the skin of my teeth. But now I’ve discovered the pleasure of being early for things; find a café, drink a coffee and relax.
So far, so good. And yet … and yet. I am now such a regular user of public transport that I cannot resist the temptation to notice how it could be better-organised. And I wouldn’t have to go to Germany or Switzerland or Scandinavia to find examples of better organisation (though I will if you send me an air ticket); just to London.
Here in Bristol, First Bus has a near-monopoly. When people question that company’s practices, the City Council’s Director of Transport says “we have no powers.” (Believe me: I was at the conference where he said it.)
It’s so bad that a national newspaper, in its thumbnail sketch of the key issues during our Mayoral election, referred to Bristol’s “universally hated bus service.”
In my next post I’ll highlight just some of the differences that make our bus “service” here in Bristol (and many users would agree with my use of quotation marks) seem as if it’s run by a bunch of amateurs, whereas by comparison the bus system in London feels like it’s run by pros. Our medium-sized but important and vibrant city is being let down by its public transport system and it doesn’t make sense to start penalising the motorist, as our new Mayor seems to be doing, until that problem is fixed.
Talking of Mayors makes me think of London again. Former London Mayor Ken Livingston, whether you like him or not, seems to have got the bus system well-organised there. The Transport for London organisation evidently lets contracts to lots of different bus operating companies to run the different routes, but they are all TfL buses (all red) and it’s all one system. Our “universally hated” (see above) operator First Bus is one of those companies but in London they are just one, whereas here in Bristol they rule the roost. Their daily or weekly tickets cannot be used on other operators’ buses.
If our Mayor and our council members should wish to find a benchmark for how to run public transport, they don’t need to go to Germany (or almost any other European country). They just need to hire themselves a bus and head up the M4 to London.