Free parking/travel – putting transport in a climate change context

I often feel that this highly emotional subject actually hides a much bigger travel issue which involves us all and needs to be tackled if we are serious about climate change.

The bottom line is that use of petrol and diesel powered vehicles has to come to an end and the sooner the better. More of us need to walk or cycle shorter distances. Public transport, when it becomes OK to use it again, needs to be significantly extended as motor vehicles start to be used less often.

Parking of vehicles is a big issue, whether that be at hospitals (staff and visitors) or indeed anywhere else. Our streets are becoming choked with abandoned (I use that word deliberately) cars when they are not in use. We expect somewhere to park our cars wherever we go and when we can’t park legally/in a car park we abandon our cars on pavements, grass verges, in cycle lanes, across private/business accesses/driveways.

In short privately owned motor vehicles are our problem, not the solution to our travel difficulties.

Of course public transport has been run down over many years via cuts in subsidies and by people not using it. You can track it back to prior to the Beeching era as Beeching was in itself a reaction to the rise in road transport. Ironically the buses which were, with cars, seen to be the solution when railway lines closed have in themselves been pushed further and further to the sidelines as cars have taken over our roads.

We’ve designed/planned a society that has become reliant on the ownership of the private car with those who don’t have one being left to fend for themselves. We’ve invested countless Billions of £’s in a transport system which has. however inadvertently. encouraged the continual growth of the private car. We now face the prospect of trying to put all that into some form of what will most likely be a disorderly and unpopular reverse to try to save our planet. Imagine what the Daily Mail will say!

My view has long been that local public transport should either be free or with just a one-off daily charge for it’s use such as a £1 a day. But that in itself is only part of the solution as we need to significantly improve the bus network so that it’s clean, frequent, reliable, easily accessible and it works in harmony with our local rail networks. Bus, rail & trams are not rivals, they need to be integrated, efficient and cheap to use. We need to arrive at a point where car users say to themselves that running a car is too expensive and they’d rather read a book travelling to work on a train/bus than sit in traffic jams. And don’t scoff, this is all possible should be want it to be.

And yes I’m a car driver a pedestrian and a cyclist. I try to use my car as little as I can and I feel we need to find a way to make the use of cars more expensive the greater the mileage that is done. If you choose to work many miles away from where you live that journey has consequences for our environment. So surely that should mean you paying more per mile into public coffers than someone who has chosen to live much closer to their place of work and does much less mileage. Of course if you live close to your place of work there should be rewards in the system especially if you use public transport, walk or cycle. Putting it simply the taxation system should reward walkers, cyclists and public transport users.

The case for free public transport and getting on with (rather than talking about) bus re-regulation

Vintage Ribble bus photoed at the West Lancs Light Railway in 2018

Very soon after I got involved in politics I attended a Liberal Party conference in Blackpool, I think it was in 1980. On the agenda was a motion for debate that was all about making public transport free to use in and around towns and cities. If memory serves David Alton, MP for Liverpool Edge Hill, was backing the motion and he must have made a powerful case because ever since I’ve held the view that free public transport (or with a nominal fare) would one day become a reality.

David Alton MP

That conference motion of 40 years ago was clearly well before its time so to speak but the reasons for it were sound then and look even more sound now as we have arrived at a Climate Emergency and are suffering air pollution problems that are quite literally killing us!

Of course the underlying reason for that 1980 debate was to try to start a process of reducing reliance on cars by making high quality public transport a viable attractive alternative particularly in urban areas. That only 2 years later the Conservatives passed the Bus Deregulation Act pushing things in totally the opposite direction is at best ironic! What’s more urban areas like Manchester and Liverpool are presently trying to find ways to re-regulate bus services because they are in crisis, but more on that later.

In rural areas, sadly, bus services are all but extinct in parts of Lancashire although that’s as much about the lack of public money to subsidise vital routes as it is a cause of the Bus Deregulation Act. Add into all this the chaos created via the privatisation of our railways, which are now widely seen as dysfunctional, and it should make politicians who created this mess (and those who have failed to get us out of it) feel very much ashamed – but of course it doesn’t.

So whilst we should have been developing high quality subsidised public transport to tackle road congestion, air pollution and accessibility to all kinds of services for those without access to cars our governments have been pushing public policy further towards reliance on cars!

Merseyrail train at Maghull North Station

But across Europe’s cities and regions there’s been experimenting with and policy changes in favour of free public transport, whilst they’ve rarely gone down the road & rail to ruin routes that the UK has chosen for itself. I think Luxembourg is the latest convert. The downside to public transport being free (other than paying for it of course) is the potential for it to have the unintended consequence of encouraging folk to do the exact opposite of what they need to do. I’m talking here of walking and cycling because if we create a system where say short walkable journeys reduce because folk get on the free public transport we’ve solved one problem but inadvertently created another with negative health consequences.

But to go back to that re-regulation issue, which I’ve heard talked about for more years than I care to mention particularly on Merseyside, is it going to be action or more taking? I ask as the Liverpool City Region Mayor has popped up recently to rehash all the old arguments in favour of re-regulation. Now don’t get me wrong I with him but I just wish he’d get on with it! No more talking Steve!!!!

310 Ribble bus in Maghull – Photo credit Arnold Richardson/Photobus

We know the bus companies and their shareholders won’t like it, that’s a given, but we need as a matter of some urgency an integrated public transport system of high quality buses and trains. What’s more we need it to deliver far less CO2 emissions (thinking of diesel powered buses in particular here)and be good enough (punctual, fast, reliable and running 7 days per week) to make us want to ditch our cars for many local journeys.

So yes re-regulate the buses, integrate them properly with the trains and start to look seriously at either free public transport or nominal ticket prices.