We seem to be in a phase when there any number of vicious circles affecting our lives and our country. Leaving aside the screamingly obvious issue of to-Brexit or not to Brexit, there is the refusal of central Government to either adequately fund local Councils or allow them to raise their own funds through tax, there is our obsession with plastic, and there is our obsession with the motor car.
We know that we ought to give up cars, just as we know we ought not to accept the continued use of disposal plastic wrapping for our food. In both cases, we know that there are viable alternatives. We’re highly aware of the damage that we are doing as a result of continuing our current behaviours. We’re just not prepared to accept the short term impacts that giving them up would bring, despite the evident medium and long term benefits.
If you look at personal transport, it’s easy to see why. Hopping into your car whenever you’re ready to roll is convenient, needs little or no planning, gives easy access to wherever you want to go, and (for most) is affordable, or at least the cost is bearable. So long as that position continues, we’re unlikely to see a revolution in how we travel even short distances, even as we all recognise the pollution that results.
What is to be done? One obvious way forward would be to combine punitive cost increases – car park charges, road fund licences, fuel tax and even toll roads – with radically improved public transport and walking and cycle routes. The trouble with this carrot-and-stick approach is that it tends to be rather more stick than carrot. This is partly because no-one is prepared to bear the cost of front-loading improvements, so that they are available from day one. But more intractable is the combination of political and social impacts. The former is a question of self-interest from politicians, who have neither the stomach nor the courage to face down the organised ranks of fuel tax protesters, and fear what else might be unleashed, as French President Macron discovered from exactly such a course of action.
However, having lily livered leaders isn’t the most important reason for stasis. The real impact of massive hikes in car running costs on people living outside the towns and City of the district are far more important. Our villages have mostly lost their pubs, post offices and village stores, and in some cases their schools and doctors’ surgeries too. Without adequate transport into the urban areas the populations of the villages will be stranded and ultimately will leave.
So we have the intractable dilemma: how to discourage car usage without creating massive negative impacts?
This is especially important in our district. It has such a distinctive combination of urban centres and far flung villages, exacerbated by the fact that the City sits at the heart of the road network as well as hosting many of the facilities and attractions that residents want to use. The result is congestion on the roads to, and within, the City, which in turn leads to traffic queues, which in turn leads to wholly unacceptable levels of pollution and traffic noise, not to mention the physical risk to pedestrians and cyclists.
This is what happens if you look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Because there is a solution. It isn’t cost free. It isn’t going to happen under this Government. And it’s not that radical. It is buses.
However, what would have to happen is that the population as a whole agree to share the burden of the cost, which is significant. But the only readily available and wholly positive solution to reduce car journeys is to provide an alternative. That alternative has to be reliable, frequent, safe, clean, convenient and universal. Buses fit the bill if they are managed properly, supervised adequately, and made available to everyone everywhere at a cost that people can pay. Some people may cycle, but they are more likely to do that for shorter journeys. They too should be encouraged through the provision of dedicated cycle routes and safe and secure storage at their destination, among other things. Some people may live in places served by a regular reliable train service, but that’s a small minority. What we need are buses, and lots of them.
So what is the barrier to this slightly mad idea of a bus-based utopia? Money, mostly.
To give you some sense of the scale of the need, Stagecoach currently spends about £57 million a year on services in East Kent. That’s nearly four times more than the entire City Council revenue budget, so we can assume that it is more or less equal to the budgets for Canterbury, Thanet, Dover and Folkestone councils combined. And, without criticising Stagecoach for this, the service outside the urban areas isn’t at a frequency that is needed if we are to successfully coax people out of their cars. In fact, even in parts of the City – like Thanington – the bus service is non-existent in the evenings and parts of the weekend.
While this is a big barrier to change, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to make progress. The question is two-fold: do we have the will to pay to create a service that is capable of replacing cars? And, more fundamentally for the future of the planet – and our children – can we afford not to?
N.B. This article was initially published in the Canterbury Journal on the 4th April 2019