Sunday morning. I have a vision of what England should be. Church bells gently chiming, birds singing in the sycamore tree. Ella had it right.
Actually, you’re more likely to encounter some aggression-fuelled argument over a car-parking space on Sunday mornings by me. It’s November as I write this, which of course means we’re fully into “Christmas” mode. And after a long, hard week at work, what better than to spend the morning of the Sabbath in the vast car park of your local shopping complex enjoying the appalling air quality of thousands of cars all circling around for an elusive (free) car parking space, in order to spend your hard-earned on festive tat?
The other week, it was little better. In my local High Street in Stourbridge, where a similar never-ending game of grab the space ensues, I was treated to more Neanderthal fist-waving from irate motorists arguing with each other about where to leave their hulk of metal. This is what we’ve become.
I relate this appalling tale of woe as I’ve been watching a six-minute video on the Guardian website entitled “Why We Should Be Paying More for Parking”. It’s all very enlightening, and makes entire fools out of most of us who drive cars. You can watch it here Pay MORE for parking, I hear the inner petrol head inside you shriek? No way, Jose. Indeed, my local authority here in Dudley have dangled the carrot of FREE parking on council car parks for two hours, in order to stimulate the High Street.
I get it. It’s politicking at it’s most simplistic and vote-grabbing. Why shouldn’t the council give us something back? And with punch-ups on the car park at Merry Hill’s vast shopping centre for what is already free parking, why should we pay for similar fisticuffs on council facilities? I’m seemingly the only one who has ever argued against it. “It revitalises the traditional centres”, my local Council Leader tells me, over a pint. I do see the point. But it’s desperate stuff. I do understand the worry of local business owners, desperate to stem the loss of trade to folk clicking on Amazon, and others having a Sunday morning brawl up Merry Hill. When I was on the radio, I stuck my neck out and suggested the aforementioned shenanigans on Stourbridge High Street ought to be curtailed once and for all by pedestrianising the lot of it, to create an ambient boulevard, free of polluting cars and mouthy motorists threatening to chew my ear’ole off unless they can park right here, right now. You’d have thought I’d asked to see the Queen pole dancing. Local shopkeepers queued up to tell me how I’d got it all wrong, and that they needed the steady flow of cars to keep trading. Maybe it hasn’t dawned on them WHY a lot of people prefer to walk around the shops – perhaps up Merry Hill – where there aren’t cars attacking them from all angles?
Even one of my bus driving pals throws his hands up in the air and tells me it’s still a society in love with it’s cars. Even if they’re slowly killing us early.
The Guardian video shows us the folly of our ways, and how it could all be different. It isn’t easy. The mindset needs a thorough overhaul. Likely? Not when the council is throwing free car parking like sweets in a kids playground.
I sat through a gruelling 8-hour conference on what devolving powers to local Mayors might mean recently (the things I do for fun). And while it became apparent that it’s all about economic growth (stupid), where were the definite priorities for tackling congestion? There came none. HS2 is a big thing, and rightly so. Connectivity is vital. But jumping in the car and congesting our local environment “because it’s what we’ve always done” has surely got to be tackled? If the big, fast train set is coming, and the excellent tram systems in our City areas are to be enhanced, we’ve still got to do the hard things politically. I still see too many “park here all day for £2”-style banners dotted around car parks uncomfortably too close to city centres. What bus lanes we have are never effectively policed – and when they are, it’s like howling wolf in the local press and on Facebook, as if those in authority should be out “catching real criminals” instead.
The problem lies with politicians scared witless (my spell check corrected me) of motorists with votes, opposition politicians all too eager to encourage votes next time around by becoming the motorist’s “friend”, and, actually business, who, all too often, fail to recognise that public transport users bring real value to their operations, and it actually isn’t all about families in their 4×4.
At conferences, and inside glossy brochures looking at utopian futures of city centres, the line is always peddled (excuse the pun) that cycling has to be pushed, and that tram and rail are what moves people. Hardly ever do I see those with real influence wax lyrical about the bus. It’s also about autonomous cars, electric cars and “walking strategies”. Sometimes I grab the mic at such gatherings and ask about the elephant in the room. Not the rotund bloke in the corner who enjoyed a bit too much of the buffet, but the bus. The huge number of buses in our cities. The ones that bring huge numbers of people in, The ones that get stuck in never-ending congestion and end up being beaten over the head by people who think that if only you gave them to the council, it would all be alright again. The people on the panel visibly squirm when you ask them about buses, because they aren’t sexy like trams. Trams are great. I love them, because they ARE sexy. But they’ll never go everywhere. And, actually, I despair of transport people who want to pit trams against buses against trains against bikes. It should be public transport, working together, providing seamless, effective, relevant mobility solutions against the car.
The bus industry, and transport as a whole, needs to keep on hammering home a message, that if only it had the tools, it could do an effective job.
The Guardian video guy makes a point that it’s no good being “anti-car”. I suspect he’s right. It’s actually about making fools of people sitting in endless, polluting congestion watching clean, swish, cost-effective, and – dare I say – “sexy” public transport whooshing by. It’s about getting public transport users closer to the shops and attractions than cars can. It’s about costing an absolute fortune to park if they insist on driving right in. It’s about having limited car parking space, rigorously enforced, so that driving is always the wrong choice. It’s about believing that driving a car into the city centre is polluting us, and actually costing us our lives too early.
I wonder how many politicians and business leaders are with me?