Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said that any man over 26 who used a bus could consider himself a failure in life. If she ever heads back to Dartford, where she first stood for parliament, she might be shocked to find grown men leaving their cars at home and taking to the buses.
Admittedly, the former premier’s comments are something of an urban myth, and Dartford is still an exception rather than the norm. But one of the more cheering things I heard recently was how successful the Kent Fastrack bus system has been, with 17% of passengers in the last year using high quality buses for journeys where they’d previously used a car.
And Fastrack isn’t the only public transport success. Take Nottingham’s trams, which are now full to capacity and have resulted in huge improvements in the city centre environment. There are other ways of getting people out of their cars, too: travel plans, such as the one operated by Orange in Bristol, which has cut the proportion of staff driving to work to 27%, or Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, where only just over half of staff now have a parking permit. In 1995 nine out of ten staff arrived by car.
It’s important to keep these changes in mind because the love affair with the car is far from over. I was at an event a few weeks ago where, even though the venue was only ten minutes’ walk from a station, participants were constantly popping in and out to feed parking meters. And love or loathe the car, there are still many places where you’d struggle to manage without.
The point, though, is that people’s behaviour can and does change. Usually, it changes when the alternative to current practice simply makes more sense. And the growing cost of fuel might force the issue for a lot of us.
The risk is that a price-based approach on its own will simply reinforce divisions between the rich and poor, and won’t deter people from aspiring to an unsustainable lifestyle. The loaded will continue to flaunt their 4×4s, while the rest have to put up with whatever sweaty, smelly alternative the public transport providers deign to offer.
There needs to be a better way, and that is to make the intelligent option more attractive. That doesn’t just go for transport, but for housing and planning too: well insulated homes with low fuel bills, in locations with easy access to shops and services, shouldn’t just be urbanists’ pipedreams. ‘Transition towns’ such as Totnes and Lewes are already taking this seriously. We need to stop dumping such ideas in the tray marked ‘too difficult’.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine