Ahh, good old Norman Tebbit. For younger readers, you’ll have to Google what the Tory “big beast” was on about when he uttered those words. But it’s a phrase that lingers, and one that people who dream of a less car-polluting world certainly dream of.
I’m approaching 50. Not being one for the gym and rather fond of any meal that has “and chips” as the title, I’m not exactly healthy. I’m the kind of bloke who would benefit greatly from regular cycling. I live around 3 miles from where I work, so a nice 6 mile round-trip I’m sure would benefit me significantly (coupled with a substitution of lettuce instead of chips on the odd occasion).
But, like many others, I’m put off by idiots. Idiots in cars. And not just idiots. People who don’t take driving seriously. They aren’t concentrating, but they’re in charge of a pile of metal that can seriously injure and kill if not driven with due care and attention.
And a short stretch of white paint doesn’t help. Nor green tarmac at traffic lights. A non-statistical survey in the pub (before the virus put paid to my ale-supping) revealed that many of my fellow drinkers either don’t know what the green section for cyclists at traffic lights is, or don’t particularly give a monkeys.
Yet giving over newly properly segregated space for cyclists has also seen that space reallocated from bus lanes. Boo-hiss, you may well say, and I’ll probably agree with you.
However, cycling and buses need not be natural adversaries. Buses need, more than ever now, to become part of the “alternative” to cars, where possible, and that alternative includes cycling.
In recent times, I was involved in something called “Whim”. It was a notion that you could live without a car, and all sorts of modes were integrated into one app. So, for a monthly fee, you got all the usual bus/train/tram, but also car hire if you needed it short-term, and taxis, and where there was a scheme, bikes. I still think it has tremendous potential, and I was even flown (yes, I know) to where it all started – Helsinki – to see it for myself. Whim even launched in Birmingham, and I was part of a trial that inevitably needed some ironing out, but nonetheless became a “thing”. What happened to the Birmingham trial, I don’t know. It went quiet. And the great Covid disaster will no doubt have repercussions for it. But I remain a enthusiastic convert to MaaS (“Mobility as a Service”) and I really hope it’s time comes.
I’m also enthused by something I spotted recently in the trade press, that is simple, but potentially really effective.
When we talk about public transport, we often come across the issue of “last mile” connectivity. Whatever you think of your local rail service, for example, taking the train is extremely popular. But people still drive en masse to their local rail station because buses can be confusing and taxis too expensive. Cycle storage at stations is often hit and miss – and people often aren’t willing to leave expensive bikes chained up to primitive cycle parking (although that’s not always the case – the rail world is getting better at this). The interface between bike and bus is even less connected.
Yet Cardiff Bus and nextbike have joined forces to provide a simple option – pop the nextbus information onto the Cardiff Bus app. Users now have the option to take the bus, then, if the bus isn’t going close to home or work or wherever they’re going, they can check the app to see how many nextbikes there are at hubs along the route, hop off the bus and grab a bike to their ultimate destination – “last mile” sorted, and no need to actually own a bike.
From this, you can see that Cardiff sees cycling as very much in their future vision, but by integrating it with buses, it utilises the strength of both.
This requires the buy-in of more cities across the UK, coupled with smart ways of making road infrastructure much more cycle friendly – and not necessarily removing that all important bus priority. Manchester too, apparently, is looking to get a cycle scheme going again, after the failure of it’s original one following thefts and damage. Birmingham too seems close to it’s own scheme.
Buses need to be central to the future of “Maas”. In Helsinki, the question was asked as to, if taxis were part of this “eat-all-you-can” scheme, wouldn’t people just grab cabs everywhere? Apparently, initially, there was some evidence of this, almost as a novelty factor, but it soon settled down to sensible use. People hopping on trams, then using buses, hiring cars at weekends if they were taking a long drive out, and taxis if they were on a late night out. Imagine throwing cycles into that mix too. No need to own a car, which is parked up 95% of the time at home or at work, no polluting the atmosphere with your own vehicle, more money to spend without tax, insurance, fuel, wear & tear etc – and potentially getting fitter.
I know this won’t work everywhere, and large cities will be the initial recipients, but just getting into the heads of people that there really are other options has to be the future. When covid is just a horrible memory, attention will swing back to the environment. People may actually remember the months of lockdown where, actually, traffic levels went right down and the air felt cleaner.
At the risk of sounding like an overweight, 50-something bloke-like version of Greta, there IS a future where the car isn’t at the centre of everything. The bus industry needs to quickly integrate itself into that future vision, to have a future itself.