Having just finished putting my publications relating to my work as a community activist into the public domain, I realize I have said hardly anything about a significant issue that does affect our quality of life – transport. The reason is simple – while transport is an important part of community life, it is not something that I have been particularly involved with other than as a user. While I recall many past campaigns, other than giving some moral support on occasions, I have not been active in any of them. But I thought I will continue my early excursion into the world of blogging by touching on an important subject that isn’t too controversial – or is it!?
Looking back over the years, issues around transport have arisen on many occasions and, more often than not, it relates to problems experienced by the community. I’m old enough to remember steam trains, the thought of which gets me emotional still. I also remember the hiatus over the “Beeching axe”, which resulted in what some would regard as a brutal decimation of the railway network, with stations closed, lines dismantled and services drastically cut. The ramifications and economic verses social arguments for these actions are with us still. It was evident at the time this happened (early 1960’s) that with the rapid (historical and to be expected) increase in road transport as a means to ferry goods and people between places, some rail transport was deemed uneconomic and something needed to be done, but the social including environmental consequences were also huge and some would say outweigh the purported economic gains. Personally, there is a nostalgic hankering for what we had in the past and, while I am not a railway buff, I still like traveling on trains. I remain particularly fascinated by and drawn to the Indian railway system, which remains such an important part of its national and local life. Having said that, I realize that times are a changing and that we need to change with the times, even if reluctantly. As with many of things on our wish lists the issue of how are we going to pay for what we want cannot be ignored but neither should the hidden social costs.
What cannot be denied is that we are seeing more and more cars on the road and the same concerns over lack of infra-structure (roads and parking) being raised. One of the consequences of increased car usage is there is less demand on public transport. I use my car a lot and public transport infrequently and like many I do so because, it is more convenient, i.e. I go from A to B whenever I want, and the alternatives are too often not around. Being involved in residents meetings as I am, I know too well the problems due to too many cars and not enough parking and some of the collateral damage e.g. as a result of cars on grass verges, residents unable to park outside their house because there are other cars parked there and issues like parking restrictions, speeding and speed bumps. One thing I found as a Street Pastor, going round the town centre in the early hours of the morning, is the number of people I come across who having missed the last bus or train home need to hang around until these services start up again – later in the morning. I am also mindful of the people who need or would want to travel but simply can’t or can only do so at less convenient times, because services are restricted, particularly if they live or where they want to go is out of the way. And even if services are around, there may be a lot of waiting around if changing connections is needed. As for roads, more cars mean more and better roads are needed and the environmental consequences of doing so are well documented.
So where should we go from here? I have no simple answer. As with many of these complex issues, there is no flash from heaven with the perfect solution. It is why we often get animated when we debate the various alternatives. It seems to me that there are always winners and losers – building roads through beautiful countryside for example may help the motorist but at what environmental and other cost? I can well see why good people see things differently and the plethora of competing ideas as to what we need to do. Having been involved with children going to school, I recall walking bus schemes, encouraging children to cycle to school, and restricting parking near the school gates because of problems this causes residents, all of which in principle I endorse. If I do have a suggestion, it is to do with reducing the number of private cars on the road. I would like to discourage individual car usage e.g. by increasing road tax and putting more tax revenue arising from car usage into providing better public transport services. I have happy recollections of my European travel days when I found how easy and convenient it was to travel in some of these places using the public transport that was available. And if we are to invest in better transport infrastructure then the emphasis needs to be on rail usage rather than road. But as I have already intimated, unlike with some of the issues I deal with, such as immigration, homelessness and poverty, where my ideas are more thought through, on the issue of transport that is not the case, yet this issue is still important.