I’ve been reading a bit about “populism” recently. It’s seemingly how we got Trump in power, Brexit and Nigel Farage as one of the most recognisable political figures of recent times.
Populism is one of those topics you can talk about forever, without a definitive outcome. But it’s also potentially damaging, because it often simplifies things down a “if only we did this” argument. And this even filters through to buses.
Heaven knows I’ve been having these discussions all of my adult life. Even before “populism” was a thing. But as everything on the road grinds to a halt, and then pollutes the air, killing thousands of us prematurely, “why don’t we just” takes on a new significance. In a world of social media and one-liners, it’s too easy to suggest “if only we did it like this” is a solution to all of our woes.
Mooching through the transport press, I came across this: “Why don’t we just…bring our buses into public control”? You can read it here. It is written by Pascale Robinson. The article, I guess, is written sincerely. It asks a lot of questions borne out of frustration with transport in Greater Manchester – and could apply to any urban city-region. There’s a fair bit of inaccuracy in there too (such as “you cannot have a smart ticket which lets you get on any bus or tram in one City” – sorry Pascale, I have one such smart ticket in my wallet right now – and “many bus companies hate the idea of a daily cap on spend” – so why is National Express West Midlands promoting contactless payments with exactly that “cap”?) I could go on, dissecting several more comments Pascale makes.
But the problem the UK bus industry faces (amongst many) is that these often wildly-written articles aren’t rebuffed, firmly, with clear reasoning. And without that response, the arguments start to take hold.
I recently attended a conference on trams. Everyone loves trams, and there’s no denying that they are really effective people movers and possess a certain “sexiness” which is akin to comparing buses and trams to me to Brad Pitt (but don’t forget, girls – Brad can’t drive a railcar…). But I also detected an element of open hostility towards buses – even from tram industry experts. Pascale thinks I can’t hop from bus to tram to train, whereas I can – and often do. It may not be so seamless in some parts, but in Brum I do it most days. And whichever mode I’m on at any one time is what suits me best at that moment. That’s how we have to view public transport – people increasingly want their mobility to be simple, effective and relevant to them. But there’s too much “demonising” of buses in particular, both for the wrong reasons, and also from people who should frankly know better. On the flip side, some parts of the bus industry also have to up their game.
In the battle against “why don’t we just”, we need to effectively and robustly knock down the false arguments that keep popping up, identify that the likes of congestion can’t be solved by giving the local authority the keys to the bus depot and that if we REALLY want to effect modal change for everyone’s benefit and health, we need to have our politicians making tough choices and offering people a real, quality alternative – and be frank about where we’re currently failing.
Why don’t we just do that?