Impacts of Covid (Pt 2): Will public transport ever recover?

Mixed messages from the authorities – avoid buses now, but get back on them soon

Public transport: Avoid … or use it all the more please? It’s all a tad confusing, isn’t it? And the dilemma has been hastened and heightened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Before Covid-19 entered our lives, UK public transport was being viewed by the authorities as a potential saviour in terms of the country’s environmental (green) agenda. Put simplistically, more people taking buses and trains would mean fewer cars on the road; fewer cars on the road would equal improved air quality – something we can all subscribe to.

But then Covid-19 came along. In the early days of the first lockdown we all got more than a glimpse of what fewer cars on the road might mean in terms of air quality. It was quite nice, wasn’t it? A big tick for those who would seek to get us to move onto buses and trains.

Then, when the first lockdown was eased came the double whammy that saw public transport’s clean air gain go into sharp reverse. The Government advised us to try to avoid travelling on public transport where possible to stop the spread of the virus. But, if you did need to use a bus or train, there would be far fewer places for you to sit and you would all have to wear masks.

For me, a journey to London by train suddenly became a pain. If I wanted to travel on the fast service I would have to book a seat. No great problem. But I would also have to commit to a seat and, more importantly, a train time for the return journey. Not so good. When I go to the capital I like to relax and not be looking at my watch all the time, worrying about missing my return train. I like the “there will be another one along should I fancy another pint” flexibility. My perception was I would not be allowed to switch to a later fast train if it proved necessary. Suddenly a trip to the capital could not be carried out on a whim. I had to be planned in greater detail. Not my style.

At this point, I should perhaps make it clear that I am not anti-car. Indeed, I miss driving. I am waiting for the prices of electric cars to reach something close to sanity. But I am anti-bus. And, even that, requires some explanation. I don’t mind bus travel in itself, but I do not like sharing with rude idiots who think that everyone around them is interested in sharing their mundane lives when they talk too loudly on their mobile phones.

In a car of your own, by and large, you can have some privacy. No one is going to get you to “bunch up” so they can sit down (unless you are on the back seat, of course).

Another thing I find slightly “off” is that the people who are trying to get us onto the buses in greater numbers are the very ones who are least likely to ride on a bus themselves – the “don’t do what I do, do what I say” brigade.

So, at some stage in the future, when the authorities feel we have this Covid thing under control, we will experience a gigantic U-turn. We will be told that public transport is our friend again and we really ought to use it as much as possible in addition to cycling and walking to our destinations.

In recent years everyone with a say in public transport has been seeking the magic formula to get us back on the buses. Bus usage was in decline before the virus came along. One of the avenues they have been exploring is DRT (that’s demand-responsive transport to you and I).

These are more like taxi-buses in that you use an app to summon them. They have been tried in several areas of the country. ArrivaClick carried out a two-year experiment in Sittingbourne for a ‘corner-to-corner’ not a ‘door-to-door’ service. But I have no news on the conclusions drawn from the trial. However, I read that a similar service is coming to Swanscombe and Greenhithe at the end of the month (30th). A similar ‘ride hailing’ bus service has also been tried in Sevenoaks by Go-Coach.

The problem with pretty much all public transport is that councils and the Government continue top delude themselves that they can be handed over to private operators who will run them profitably. They tried it with the railways but they have, effectively, passed back into public ownership during the pandemic.

Public transport and profit are not the best of bedfellows.

For people to give up their cars – especially those living in rural areas where the bus services are, generally, pretty crap – public transport needs to be more responsive to individual needs. It needs to go some way towards matching the convenience of the car. Nothing will match the ability to walk outside your front door, jump in the car and run down the shops. If the shops are still there that is … maybe a subject for the Impacts of Covid (Pt 3). But, if you could be confident that, after hailing it on an app, you can walk to the end of your road to pick up a minibus to take you where you want to go, the idea of getting people to give up their cars may have a future.

This virus and the “avoid public transport” advice has boosted the sales of second hand cars – the run-around to keep people off the buses. But, on the other hand, many people are finding that they don’t need a second car because they are working from home. Indeed, the “first car” is rarely getting an outing. No simple answers.

How will it all pan out? A lot of consultants are making a lot of money in pursuit of the answer. I wish them luck.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past local weekly publications he has worked for include: the South-East London Mercury* covering the Borough of Greenwich as a junior reporter; Orpington-based News Shopper as a sub-editor; and the Kent Messenger when based in Larkfield, Maidstone, as deputy chief sub-editor. He has also worked for the following dailies/nationals: Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor on a car fleet magazine. His first foray into property ownership saw him move from London to Rainham (the Gillingham, Kent, variety). He has subsequently lived in Chislehurst, Petts Wood and Orpington in the Borough of Bromley (which he still regards as being in Kent). In more recent years he owned three different properties on the Kings Hill (West Malling) development.

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