Oh dear. I’ve been stirring it up again in my bowl of bus porridge.
It’s common knowledge amongst my pals that I’m not a fan of my local out-of-town-like shopping centre “Merry Hill”. Give me a traditional High Street any day – pedestrianised, with good nearby bus access, if you please.
However, I do recognise that Merry Hill is a major part of the Black Country retail scene. Thousands work here, and it’s where more countless thousands come to spend money, eat and play. There are myriad bus services based on this venue, which all get eaten up in the horrendous congestion it creates. It’s probably best to bring a tent if you’re planning on Christmas shopping here, and a small supply of baked beans and mini-camping stove. If you use the roads to and from, you’ll rapidly lose the will to live.
So, notwithstanding that large numbers of Black Country bus users’ lives get affected by traffic at Merry “Hell” (as the natives call it), I often make it my business to whinge at whoever might listen in what often seems a futile attempt to get some sort of holistic view on tackling the congestion, pollution and general annoyance that descends on the local road network.
It’s free parking here, which acts like a giant magnet to the local’s cars. Any notion of challenging that is long-since dead. A few of us hapless souls have investigated, but you may as well ask for a date with the Queen of Sheba. In the meantime, a race to the bottom ensues, with the local Tories on Dudley Council regularly dangling their carrot of “free Council car parking” in the traditional locations in a bid to stimulate the High Street, should they gain control. Except that doesn’t work either. In neighbouring Brierley Hill, a private shopping centre has thrown open it’s car park for “2 hours free parking”. So underwhelming was demand that it has now been announced that they’re going to build flats on half of the car park instead…
Metro trams are the great white hope, although I used to have brown hair and no discernible beer belly when that was first mooted. I have slightly more hope now that we’re getting a “Metro Mayor” in 2017 – and because the Black Country seems to believe all of the dosh will go to Birmingham, it might be a case of doing something for those of us west of the M5 to prove a point. Ahh, politics! We shall see…
A couple of years ago, when Aussies Westfield owned the site, there were plans to throw some real money at bus access for Merry Hill. A bus-only thoroughfare was suggested, and a larger bus station to replace the current one, which is just too small for the demand. Centro (as was) made a joint bid for Government cash and all seemed well – until it never happened. Westfield supposedly got cold feet, the bus revolution never happened, and the money went on revamping the bus/rail Interchange at nearby Cradley Heath instead – welcome, but the raiser of some eyebrows, to say the least. Westfield sold the Merry Hill Centre shortly after to Intu – who own several other similar retail outlets elsewhere.
And this is where the latest story begins.
Due to the requirement to purchase a birthday card for one of the few friends I have left, I actually went inside Merry Hill. Unusual for me. Passing the large customer services desk, I noticed lots of leaflets for “how to find your shops”, but, actually nothing whatsoever for “how to find your bus”.
A late night whinge on Facebook and Twitter, bemoaning this sadly typical state of affairs brought an interesting few responses. I suggested to West Midlands Combined Authority (who are the “new Centro”) that they ought to spend some money on a bus guide for Merry Hill. Network West Midlands said that they would look at trying to send some information out, and a northern friend told me that Intu actually produce their own public transport guide for their outlet in Manchester’s Trafford Centre.
Then, low-and-behold, Intu’s Twitter feed responded by saying that public transport guides were actually available at Merry Hill – “just ask!”
So off I went, courtesy of Diamond Bus’s 226, up to Merry Hill again to peruse the customer service desk in search of the improbable.
The impossibly grinning assistant beamed at me as I stomped up.
“Have you got any public transport info?” I fire. The grin drops slightly, as I reveal myself to be someone showing an interest in buses. “We don’t have the actual timetables”, she says, “but we do have the map and guide”.
“Yes please”, I respond, like a lap dog, about to get a chewy treat. “Bear with me”, she replies, “It’s in one of these cupboards”. And, with that, goes off flinging pure white cupboard doors open until she retrieves the nugget of gold – “Hop On Board” – the Intu Merry Hill public transport guide.
I seize it like Dickens’ Scrooge and scurry off into the darkness of the bus station to examine.
It is actually a very decent publication. An excellent network line map, and individual route information, including frequencies and first/last buses. There’s also details of the less-frequent services and rail connections to nearby Cradley Heath (albeit with a few errors). And a vintage Diamond Buses logo, last seen sometime in the 90s. Whether Centro / WMCA / Network West Midlands had any involvement isn’t clear, but it’s a very decent effort.
But here’s the rub.
It is hidden away at the back of a cupboard. I had to ask for it.
Throughout Merry Hill are information stands dispensing leaflets on where to find the shops. No problem with that. But how about putting public transport in people’s faces? I recall visiting Cribbs Causeway near Bristol a while ago. There was a “public transport wall” near the bus station, full of all sorts of information. At Merry Hill, I have to ask, like another of Charles Dicken’s characters, Oliver Twist.
Merry Hill is car heaven (or hell, depending on your viewpoint). If we can’t have parking charges, or some serious long-term plan to tackle air pollution and congestion caused by it, at least a bit of “soft nudging” is surely in order. At least getting public transport into a corner of people’s brains ought to be the very least of a start.
Maybe when Midland Metro trams finally arrive, we’ll see a bit more interest. We’re told a serious upgrade to the current bus station isn’t on the cards, as it may move when the tram comes – but that still appears a way off yet.
Instead, a very decent public transport guide remains a tragic secret to the masses – I can’t even find it on Intu Merry Hill’s website – just a link to National Express West Midlands’ website (and never mind the other operators who serve the place).
The last time I came across decent info locked away was in Leeds bus station, when I wanted a timetable for Transdev’s now-seminal route 36 to Harrogate and Ripon. None on display, but kept safely under lock and key behind the counter. I hope Head Honcho Alex Hornby has long-since got that misdemeanour sorted out.
But in the meantime, do we ever have a cat in (Merry) Hell’s chance of even trying to get a tad of modal shift going on in “car town” when the cupboard of all knowledge holds all the secrets from the masses?