Public transport, essential problem to consider

20 Sep

          Although we all have an image of what we think of as being public transport, when we come to define it, it is not quite easy. we may think of public transport as any means of passenger transport available to anyone without restriction as to membership of any group, provided that the conditions of the operator are met, including payment. It may be publicly or privately owned and will run regularly, usually to a timetable.

          Such a broad definition would include all kinds of localized transport such as moving pavements at airports for example, cable cars at ski resorts or in other mountainous areas, small-scale monorails or other railways at leisure parks, horses and carriages in some towns with a substantial tourist industry. These kinds of transport may be important locally but here I have restricted to the sort of public transport for longer journeys. In effect, this means buses and railways.

          There is a widening gap between what we expect of public transport and what can be delivered, given the circumstances in which we seem to expect it to operate. Our expectations for travel are increasing, both in quantity and in the standarts of speed, reliability and comfort. Out-of-town shopping, leisure parks and business parks all involve more travel than did their predecessors. Cars are becoming more like mobile sitting rooms with all the home comforts such as CD player and telephone. To give all this up for a bus or train is asking a lot.

          We all still recognize that there are many people whom public transport is essential, particularly amongst the elderly, children and teenagers and others who have only limited access or no access to a car. Less obvious is the dependence of our cities for their existence on high capacity public transport. Yet there is still a prevalent view that local public transport, especially buses, is only for those who do not have a car, a welfare service for the needy. We still prefer to spend our money on cars rather than public transport, knowing that we cannot all have unrestricted use of them. But we are slowly and patchily beginning to realize that we will have to face up to the reality that we must now find ways of restricting use of the private car more severely, and that will involve some transfer to public transport.

          Public transport has suffered badly from the imposition of political dogma. Some parts of our public transport network are underfunded. Elsewhere, public money is being wasted. Some of out transport policies conflict and undermine the financial viability of public transport leading to poor value for money. Public transport needs to be coordinated and planned together with land uses under the Town and Country Planning legislation. The plain truth is that since the coming into force of the Transport Act 1985, no-one plans transport or even public transport as a whole. Not only has no-one the duty to do so, no authority even has the power to do so should they think it advisable.

          By international comparisons, our public transport operators are on the whole quite efficient, given the unhelpful legislative and political context in which they have to operate. Even so, a great deal of improvement is possible without throwing a lot of money at our public transport networks. Certainly there are many opportunities to get better value for money at the same levels of public expenditure.

          This post is about how local public transport can be made to address what will continue to be asked of it, about how public transport can be made a less unacceptable alternative to the private car than it is now. It is intended for officials, politicians and others interested in the land use/local transport conundrum, about the understanding and reconciliation of what at present is a misfit between demand for movement and the possibilities of achieving it. These should certainly include town planners and those working for passenger transport authorities and in fact anyone concerned with policy making and project appraisal for local public transport.

          If passenger transport planning is about arranging for people to have accessibility to where they want to go, easily, quickly and in large numbers, we have been performing far below our best for a long time. This few clues as to how passenger transport planning can be nudged a little closer to the ideal.

Inspired from Public Transport Today by Barry J. Simpson

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