Liberation from cars – at least in cities …

I came to the Spring Conference for free and was dropped off at a bus stop outside my hotel, returning home three days later from a stop across the road. The travelling was on two routes operated by Transdev, one of the most forward looking bus companies in the country. Changing in Leeds Bus Station from one stand to another was my longest distance pulling a case, with no need to cross Leeds or York City Centres.

Since gaining my all-England concessionary bus pass a decade and a half ago (thank you Gordon Brown) and as a rail card user, I had become increasingly multi-modal in my travelling habits. Shortly after the 2022 Autumn Conference which never happened, I gave up driving completely.

As a former member of a Transport Authority and a lifelong student of public transport, I felt that I was as best placed an anyone else I knew when it came to making the best of inadequate bus services, which is possible in northern cities. I’m not sure I could say the same about trains. Of course it ought not to be like that. Other European countries do it differently. In or out of the EU, the UK has been woefully negligent in learning from our closest neighbours in terms of best practice in punctuality, frequency, cleanliness, safety, costs and convenience.

Round our way, a number of bus services get cancelled, often at short notice, “due to shortage of drivers” which means that constant tracking of vehicles takes priority over using timetables. If we are in a crisis caused by an absence of qualified staff, most passengers would probably settle pro tem for fewer journeys that were guaranteed to happen. I’d like to think that settling for this relatively unpalatable solution was one of the functions of management but this doesn’t seem to be case. The only way in which the whole mess is the fault of users is that we have failed to elect politicians willing to opt for radically new ways of paying for public transport. This would be preferable to control ultimately resting at the other end of the country, or indeed in other countries, with bosses constrained by the priorities of private sector shareholders.

When I was on the Passenger Transport Authority (now subsumed under the Mayoral Combined Authority) we were making progress with a bus franchising scheme which enjoyed all-party support but it was killed stone dead because of a court case in Tyne and Wear. Our West Yorkshire Labour Mayor is committed to a similar scheme. However she is cautious about the timetable and my worry is that bus patronage will continue in a downward spiral before we have an offer that will tempt people out of their cars.

We don’t necessarily need exciting new rapid transit schemes. We do need quality bus provision with control over fares and routes back in the public domain. Meanwhile I can only testify to the liberation that comes, at least for me, in giving up driving a car.

I had a hunch that serious ring fencing of money was the best way that my wife and I could chart the financial benefits. So we established a new bank account with a debit card that is very different in appearance to the others. This is for train fares, taxi fares and peak time (or non-English) bus fares. There is also a tin, regularly topped up, for unexpected taxi usage.

This travel fund was established with the healthy proceeds of selling a low-mileage car as well as a small monthly injection reflecting a tiny fraction of the money saved by not paying for petrol, insurance, servicing, road tax, roadside assistance etc. Then there are the personal benefits of relaxation (most of the time) while travelling. If push comes to shove it is still possible to read a newspaper, Lib Dem Voice or whatever on a crowded bus or train!

It is clear already that our estimated reduced travel costs are way, way below our expectations already. However I acknowledge that people need more than financial incentives if they are to change their travel habits. As Liberal Democrats know perfectly well, environmental imperatives are a matter of public policy, much more significant than any personal choices we choose to make.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • Mel Borthwaite 24th Mar '23 - 6:53pm

    “I acknowledge that people need more than financial incentives if they are to change their travel habits.”
    I support people being given financial incentives to change travel habits but would oppose choices being removed from people so they are either prevented from travelling or compelled to travel in other ways.

  • Thanks Geoff. I remember many years ago reading a stat calculated in the Netherlands which boiled down to the money saved by not having a car, but a bike instead meant that you could work a lot fewer hours which would more than make up for the extra time it would take to cycle instead of drive. Massive caveat that this was in the Netherlands where they have good cycling infrastructure and the cycling culture means that cycling is much safer than it is here. Although these days with e-bikes it’s possible to cycle much further and maintain a decent pace – even uphill!

    But as you say, there’s a lot more to ditching the car than costs. Public transport is not reliable enough in much of the country, and not everyone has one eye on the bus routes when they move home. And this is brings us back to that age old problem – why do we keep building housing estates that aren’t served by public transport?

  • Jason Connor 24th Mar '23 - 9:10pm

    Does financial incentives mean bribes? I hope not. Cycling units have been installed on council estates and blocks near me and are barely used. Perhaps because it’s still very much an upper middle class means of travel and something not all of us are physically able to do or would want to. Most council tenants like myself use the car, public transport or walk. I too have a concessionary pass but use my car for carrying heavy shopping for myself and my 90 year old father with dementia. Something I would not be able to do on public transport excepting light shops, or to buy a paper I would walk. There is tendency on here to stereotype or even demonise drivers but some of us have blue badges, a protected characteristic and human rights. And to add to my point, figures published by my council show that domestic and commercial buildings in the inner London area where I live produce more carbon emissions than traffic, in fact more than twice as much but there is very little action to tackle this aspect. Then there are people who do not recycle but drop litter which ends up in landfill. But we don’t seem to get anti litter campaigns these days or campaigns to plant more trees or grass verges but I guess us motorists are just an easy target. Thankfully my local Lib Dem candidates feel the same.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 24th Mar '23 - 11:12pm

    After years of not being able to afford to take driving lessons and get a licence myself and my wife got our driving licences this year. For years we have relied on our terribly mismanaged local transport system in Bristol.

    My wife suffers from ME and because of that can only work limited hours. After years of being shoved from one job to another she finally got a break with a job that pays her reasonably well. But her job requires her to work from her car. Due to government and societal ignorance of ME, we are considered inapplicable and undeserving of government welfare assistance or much support in other policy.

    Being able to drive has been liberating for us and I make no apology for feeling that way.

    THIS should be what separates us from the Green Party. Instead of shaming or financially squeezing people onto failing public transport systems, we need to accept that cars will still be used in the future. But we should make public transport so accessible AND affordable that cars are used less, but practically accept that they will still be used.

    Remember not all disabled drivers or those with invisible illnesses have access to blue badges.

    I want our transport policy to be liberal, green, practical but not nakedly ableist and dogmatic like the Green Party.

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Mar '23 - 7:16am

    In Holland they have safe and accessible cycling infrastructure. Cars are still used, but roughly half of all journeys are cycled. Children can safely cycle to school on their own. On a personal note I have a trailer for my bike, and use that to bring the weekly shopping home. By comparison the UK has very poor cycle infrastructure, and about 2% of trips are cycled. What we need is to make active travel and public transport a good option for many or most journeys, while accepting that for some people and some journeys the car is still the best option.

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Mar '23 - 8:26am

    Belgium is brilliant for its safe and polite mixture of bikes and cars, combined with much of its big loads being carried on its upgraded canals etc.

    Might we learn form the Belgians and the Dutch?

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Mar '23 - 9:14am
  • Nonconformistradical 25th Mar '23 - 9:57am

    “Might we learn from the Belgians and Dutch?”
    We could but probably won’t.

    Also The Netherlands and much of Belgium have rather more flat land than we do – land more suited to mass cycling.

  • @Jason – I don’t know where you get the idea that cyclists are upper-middle class. Most of the cyclists I know are working or normal middle-class and do most of their cycling to get to work, run errands or to do the school run etc. Saving money is just one benefit, but one that is fundamental to many who simply cannot afford to run a car.

    It may be in some areas that the very people who would benefit most from cycling don’t think it’s for them for whatever reason, which points to more fundamental problems. Film and tv (and not just the adverts) give the impression that cars aren’t just convenient, but come with the promise of freedom. Years of bad planning means people rely on cars just to do their weekly shop. But even the concept of a weekly shop is a marketing creation.

    People deserve choice. It’s not just that the poorest in society cannot afford to drive, many are restricted on medical grounds. Good public transport and safe active travel options have been under-valued by successive governments for decades.

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Mar '23 - 12:40pm

    “People deserve choice.”
    I think this is the most important point in this whole debate. The role of government should be to respond to the wishes of those whom they serve by spending resources on the priorities and choices of the people.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Mar '23 - 12:50pm

    @Mel Borthwaite
    “The role of government should be to respond to the wishes of those whom they serve by spending resources on the priorities and choices of the people.”
    And just suppose large numbers of the people decided to drive round in SUVs?

  • nigel hunter 25th Mar '23 - 2:15pm

    Fiona-Why do we keep building housing estates that are poorly served by public transport.I would say cos houses are built for profit by big Tory donors whilst infrastructure is not profitable and more than likely subject to planning laws.
    Jason-Have you got an ‘Access bus’? A council run bus service that you book to take you on shopping trips.You can take your father with you if convenient.
    As for bus services how about electric single deck buses,good for the environment,replace double deckers and could be more profitable for the bus companies due to being fuller, an increase in regular bus services and more employment opportunities.

  • It all depends on how you define choice. For some choice means they can do whatever they want and who cares who they hurt, never mind if that opportunity is available to everyone. Liberals understand that their choice can’t trump the rights of other.

    In the case of SUVs, we know they do disproportionate damage, are more dangerous than normal cars for both occupants and other road users, and especially pedestrians. Their cost means most people are already excluded from that ‘choice’.

    So I’d say real choice means ensuring that we aren’t overly reliant on any one form of transport. A great local bus service meant my grandpa was happy to give up driving before he became a danger to himself. Car clubs provide choice to those who sometimes need to drive, but without needing to make the time or financial commitment to maintain a car all year round.

    Good public transport and town planning would mean that most people should be able to get their shopping and go to their GP without relying on cars without making it impossible for those who do need it.

    Decades of prioritising cars over people means we don’t currently have a fair choice. That balance needs to be redressed.

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Mar '23 - 2:34pm

    NCR “The Netherlands and much of Belgium have rather more flat land than we do – land more suited to mass cycling.”

    This is a myth. For example Basel in Switzerland (not known as a very flat country) has a cycling modal share between 17 & 25 %.
    And there are many areas of the UK that are quite flat – most of East Anglia, for example – but they aren’t known to have very high cycling rates.
    Almost the only determinant of high cycling rates is safe cycling infrastructure. Which means protecting cyclists from motor vehicles, usually by physical separation.

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Mar '23 - 2:38pm

    And for those that live in really hilly areas, electric cycles take you up hills with relative ease. There’s a long hill near where I live that I wouldn’t tackle on my human powered cycle, but with electrical assistance it would be fine.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Mar '23 - 4:04pm

    Indeed many people are excluded from choosing SUVs. Which doesn’t mean that those who can afford them (but probably don’t need them) would stop choosing them.

    @Jenny Barnes
    Indeed much of East Anglia is flat. I’m not familiar with the major towns/cities but in my experience on many of the flat roads in the countryside driving standards are be too poor (i.e. too fast) for the average cyclist to feel safe.

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Mar '23 - 7:09pm

    “And just suppose large numbers of the people decided to drive around in SUVs?”
    I have no problem with people choosing the form of transport that works best for them, whether that choice is a bicycle, a bus, or even a SUV. However, the fact you asked that question suggests you do not wish people to have the choice to drive around in SUVs. So, would you support making SUVs illegal or would you just wish to tax them severely so only the very rich would be able to afford them? As an aside, I suspect a reasonable proportion of SUV drivers current vote Liberal Democrat.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Mar '23 - 7:48pm

    @Mel Borthwaite
    So you think people who can afford it should have absolute freedom to drive around a town or city in an SUV with poor fuel consumption and high emissions – and which takes up an unnecessary amount of space? What about the rights of other people in those towns/cities to breath clean air?

    My point is – no-one NEEDS an SUV. Some people might need 4wd vehicles but definitely not in urban areas. Personally having lived most of my adult life in the country, with poor-non-existent public transport I’ve always driven a much smaller and more economical vehicle.

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Mar '23 - 8:06pm

    Where we agree is that there should be restrictions on vehicle emissions in built up urban areas. Where we disagree is with banning a particular style of vehicle. Are you really saying you would ban an electric SUV from urban areas even though it has lower emissions and is smaller than a typical Mondeo?

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Mar '23 - 8:43pm

    @Mel Borthwaite
    Actually it ought to be possible to measure actual vehicle emissions and dimensions automatically and in an urban area tax vehicles on that basis. A poorly maintained ICE vehicle may be producing more emissions than its spec says – ideally it should be penalised on that basis. And large cars should be charged more than small ones as they need more space on the road and when parking. I say cars because some allowance has to be made for commercial vehicles – builders vans etc. tax them on a different basis.

  • George Thomas 25th Mar '23 - 10:47pm

    Ensure HS2 and future train projects in England only are seen as England only investment and properly devolve funding so investment can be made in public transport in Wales.

  • Mel Borthwaite 26th Mar '23 - 9:10am

    I disagree with higher tax on the most polluting vehicles in built up urban areas – that approach merely allows the rich to keep on polluting regardless. The appropriate restriction should be that the most polluting vehicles are completely banned from certain built up urban areas with the only exception being for vehicles associated with the emergency services.

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Mar '23 - 10:14am

    NCR ” I say cars because some allowance has to be made for commercial vehicles – builders vans etc”
    This kind of approach is why we ended up with SUVs. The US decided to mandate fuel economy standards across cars, but excluded “trucks”. Lo and behold, the invention of a truck with 4 seats (crew) huge engines and weighing several tonnes aka the now ubiquitous SUV.

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Mar '23 - 10:15am

    “driving standards are be too poor (i.e. too fast) for the average cyclist to feel safe.”

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Mar '23 - 10:32am

    @Mel Borthwaite
    Now I’m confused!

    You gave me the impression earlier that you felt no-one should be prohibited from driving whatever vehicle they choose wherever they choose. If you now say it’s OK to ban the most polluting vehicles – fine. My only problem with that is getting implementation of the scheme right and not harming those less well off people who need a vehicle for work purposes but can’t afford to upgrade to a less polluting vehicle.

  • It’s about ensuring that people pay a fair price for what they consume and the damage they do. We need to remember that the poorest people in society don’t drive and rich people driving expensive cars are already hurting the poor. Putting up the cost of driving in proportion to the harm so it begins to reflect the true costs to society might frustrate the rich who never want to pay a fair price, but it is fairer for everyone else.

    And as damaging as SUVs are, and not just because of emissions, many other things are required to free people from being reliant on cars. As Jenny points out, poor driving standards discourage walking and cycling. The proliferation of cycle-cams may help a bit to pick up on some of the most dangerous driving, but the reaction to videos shared on social media reveals many drivers are not just ignorant of the Highway Code, an ability to assess risks, but angry that life doesn’t match the adverts.

  • Steve Trevethan 26th Mar '23 - 12:42pm

    At bottom, are we/should we include discussion of forms of rationing in this conversation?

  • Jason Connor 4th Apr '23 - 4:19pm

    I agree with Zachary. No many poorer people do drive and it’s a misnomer to say otherwise. Where I live many of the people in houses worth up to £1m cycle though they may own a car too. As for damage, well E10 petrol is far less polluting so until I see the latest figures and an not upper middle class Guardian article, I do not accept your argument. It is also possible to maintain a reliable car on a low income eg 0 hours contract like myself, certain models are better than others.

    There’s nothing on here on the damage caused by domestic and commercial development which causes far more carbon emissions, twice as much according to figures from my own council, perhaps the result of over-building and the seizure of any green land, cutting down trees for housing.

    Interestingly the FOI figures for admissions in my local hospitals for respiratory health issues due to traffic are very low if not negligible compared to smoking and I expect they are likely to increase with vaping. As for some cyclists there needs to be more regulation of cycling on pedestrian only paths or on narrow pavements where they are likely to cause injury to vulnerable people. When I walk out and about I am far more likely to be hit by some cyclists riding up behind at speed or on paths where they should not be than a car not stopping at a zebra crossing so please do not stereotype and demonise all motorists.

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