Tuesday, 26 July 2011

How Much Is That Ticket To Ride?

My old boss Anthony Smith at Passenger Focus is very good at DIY - he often hits the nail on the head when it comes to passenger issues.
News this week that Passenger Focus has concerns about the thorny old issue of train fares is nothing new. But top marks again to the watchdog for highlighting - and continuing to highlight - this aspect of rail travel.
Everyone loves a bargain. And you can actually get some really good ones on Britain's railways. London Midland have been running promotions which offer some quite stunning cheap fares if you book on the internet, in advance, and travel off-peak. Ditto Chiltern Railways, who have created something quite special on the London-Birmingham market in recent years.
But if your mind boggles trying to navigate budget airline's websites to find a bargain for the family holiday once or twice a year, spare a thought for regular rail travellers, who pour over their computers for hours on end comparing and contrasting the myriad offers and permutations on offer from a seemingly ever-increasing amount of websites who can sell you a rail ticket. "2 singles could be cheaper than a return" they cry. Indeed they could. "We don't charge booking fees" declare another. The more savvy amongst the train ticket hunter-gatherers also play the game of "splitting", whereby you can find even more savings if you book 2 singles for one length of journey - so long as your particular train actually stops at the station you're "splitting" at. For example, if you travel from Wolverhampton to Manchester in the morning peak, you can virtually half your fare by "splitting" at Stoke-on-Trent. So you order Wolverhampton to Stoke, Stoke to Manchester and vice-versa for the return. So long as your train actually stops at Stoke, not merely passes through Stoke.
Bargain indeed. But how many people know this? And how many people want the hassle of spending hours trying to work this out?
You can do this, but you can't do that. Travel on this "TOC" only ("what's a TOC?", the uninitiated cry). You can travel quite cheaply long distance if you book all of the legs in advance, split tickets here and there and travel off-peak (even "off-peak" varies on different bits of the network). And avoid peak time travel - but who would guess that all trains from Birmingham City Centre stations from 4.35pm on weekdays would be "peak"? And why?
And what if one of your connections doesn't work and you're on lots of cheaply booked specific journeys? More worries and concerns.
We all know that "walk up" fares are the most expensive. The term "eye-watering" could have been coined for that very experience. Just how did we get to over £150 for a walk up peak time fare from Birmingham to London on Virgin? Is it to price off the railways everyone except those who necessarily have to travel at that time (and often have it paid for by their employers)? There is an argument to be had about capacity on our railways - and we could have hours in the pub over a pint and cheese cob discussing what HS2 might offer us there - but there is no doubt that non-regular travellers are often shocked to see the raw cost of rail travel if they haven't played the "hunt the cheap fare" game for hours on the net in the previous few weeks.
We all accept that we pay a premium for flexibility. But are we necessarily going the right way with such practices involving seemingly endless options for ticketing on websites so that we might save a few pounds? Could this be damaging the perceptions of the overall travel experience using our railways?
The best retail experiences are the simple ones. No nonsense prices that make the offer desirable and irresistible.
We're a long way from that when it comes to railway ticketing.

What's On Track?

New figures released by Network Rail appear to show just how plain stupid some people can be.
In the year to March, take a look at some o the following items found on railway tracks, in many cases, according to Network rail, placed deliberately:
95 bikes
73 trolleys
22 traffic cones
9 mattresses
5 prams
4 sofas

Other items include: trampoline, toy car and a remote control helicopter.

More statistics reveal even more depressing reading:
1020 reports of stone throwing
61 reported incidents of children playing "chicken" with trains
7800 incidents of trespass (this is reported, and could be much higher) and 27 deaths as a result of trespass (again, may not be an accurate figure as the Coroners court has yet to classify the fatalities.)
Network Rail is currently embarking on a hard-hitting campaign aimed at children about the dangers of messing around on the railway. Some adults could do with heeding the message too.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Lithuania is the Age Of The Train.....

More from the latest Eurobarometer survey from the European Commission on our near neighbour's attitudes to their rail services.
All 25 members were surveyed (Cyprus & Malta don't have rail networks) with the Lithuanians seemingly most content with the offering on the tracks overall. Only 5% of those questioned were unhappy with the ease of buying tickets, for example.
Lithuania again came top of the tree when asked about satisfaction with the frequency of their rail services - 87% satisfied (against 10% dissatisfied).
Interestingly, it's the Poles who appear most unhappy with their lot.
51% of Poles are unhappy with the frequency of their services and nearly half of those surveyed (47%) aren't happy with the seating arrangements. (15% of us Brits had the same gripe).
The Germans and the Austrians are the most unhappy with the ease of buying tickets. Whereas only 5% of Lithuanians aren't happy about this, this rises to 42% and 33% respectively.
The UK is above average in 17 of the 19 aspects of the research.
More details available at: www.tinyurl.com/EURObarometer

Sunday, 24 July 2011

It's Getting Better All The Time.....

When you're an advocate for public transport, you open up yourself to be shot at from all angles.
Virtually everyone has a transport horror story (me included, as it goes!) and I quickly get to know about it, as soon as people learn of my interest in the subject.
Recently, I've been having some "head-to-heads"with people in the letters page of my local paper - I always believe it's good to talk about public transport wherever possible, if only to dispel some deeply held beliefs by some people about it.
Journalists are a pretty disparaging lot in general. They look for the worst in everything in order to create a headline. In my years at Bus Users UK I would regularly field questions from local hacks who were often interested, sadly, in the downside of public transport.
Sadly, things rarely improve.
Today sees a genuinely great piece of public transport news - the opening of Wolverhampton's new showpiece bus station. When us transport geeks talk about improving the passenger's lot, this is exactly what we mean. A fantastic new facility that is genuinely welcoming and a good experience to use. When Birmingham's new coach station opened last year, I felt the same. Rail-wise, it is an absolute pleasure to spend some time at stations like Birmingham Moor St, Manchester Piccadilly and London's Marylebone and St. Pancras.
Yet, still the press seek the downside to all of this. In the case of Wolverhampton, we had rumblings of discontent as the thing was being built because sections of the Ring Road suffered disruption. Heaven help us if we inconvenience the motorist in any shape or form. Now, the focus is on some of the services in Wolverhampton that won't serve the new facility. (See previous blog post for my thoughts on that!)
Is it what we Brits do best? Knock public transport because it's the easiest thing to do? Are we all drawn to the supposedly famous phrase that Margaret Thatcher allegedly uttered about being a failure in life if we're still catching the bus past aged 27? (although there is some dispute that she ever actually said it).
I'm constantly bemused by people who try to engage me in conversation about how cars bring "freedom" to their lives, and that buses are an "outdated mode of transport" (the subject of my latest debate on the Express & Star's letters page). Maybe they forget or aren't aware that I too am a motorist and I also drive my car around. But I'm only too aware that I'm adding to traffic congestion when I do so. I don't consider myself to be "free" when I'm driving. I actually consider myself to be more "free" when I'm using public transport. Free of stress, road-rage and bad driving.
Today not only is a day to celebrate another great new transport facility in Wolverhampton. The City has a new network of services, designed with a lot of public consultation. Of course there will be winners and losers, but the new network is a chance to improve the public transport offer.
Elsewhere, in Oxford, something else rather big is happening.
The major operators are working together to launch a new, co-ordinated service in the City, accepting each others tickets and actually reducing wasteful duplication on some routes where they formerly competed. New buses and smartcard ticketing also feature here.
In a couple of weeks,the new guided busway in Cambridge will finally be in operation. Put to one side the farce that has arisen in actually building it, and celebrate another piece of transport infrastructure that will improve the service to the travelling public.
Also next month, new trains for the Snow Hill lines. A step improvement in the passenger experience. New clean and greener hybrid buses will gradually take to the streets of the West Midlands in the coming months. Birmingham's New Street Station is having a huge makeover that will transform it's appearance. Stourbridge's Parry People Mover is genuinely innovative and now has some of the best reliability figures of any rail line in the country, as well as improving the frequency and reducing emissions compared to its predecessor class 150 diesel loco. In just over a month, Chiltern Railways will launch it's new "Mainline" services, promising faster journey times from Birmingham to London. And of course, High Speed 2 continues to occupy the conversation of the chattering classes - if it is built, it will address the growing issue of capacity on the rail network, as well reduce journey times to a mere 49 minutes from Birmingham to London. And, as a Stourbridge (or at least nearby) resident, there is no one looking forward to the opening of our new bus station more than me. Another superb investment in our public transport future.
Public Transport rarely gets the accolades it deserves for being the backbone of life in this country. So as we sit, fuming, in never-ending traffic jams and wonder whatever happened to the "freedom" of life in our tin boxes, let's applaud the Ladies and Gentlemen who are quietly working hard at all levels to bring us better public transport.
As those 4 lads from Liverpool once sang on the Sgt. Pepper album "It's Getting Better All The Time".....

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

It's Not The Horses Wearing Blinkers In Wolverhampton....

It ought to be another positive milestone for the City of Wolverhampton.
This coming Sunday, the new multi-million pound bus station opens it's doors for the first time. Added to that is the biggest upheaval of routes and numbering in the City, certainly in my lifetime.
Predictably, as the midnight hour approaches, there are concerns. Some are real concerns, from less-mobile citizens in the community who are concerned that their service will be inferior to the one they currently have. Others question the logic of opening a brand new bus station and then not having every route that serves the City going into it. Some even wonder why the route numbers have started at "1" again, when we have similar route numbers just up the road in Walsall and Birmingham (I have to say, I'm also yet to be convinced on the route numbering).
Large scale changes like this always result in someone losing out. For those that do, it can be unfortunate. But it can also be healthy for public transport to revise networks from time to time to best serve the majority of users. Buses, unfortunately, can never be taxis and cater for absolutely every single person's individual travel habits.
Rest assured, I'll be out and about in coming weeks to see just how effective (or not!) the new Wolverhampton network is.
But how about this golden nugget amongst the press cuttings?
In amongst all the angst from people whose buses are changing route and number soon, is a sorry tale from a group of business people in the City. Never mind the horses taking part in the 3.30 at the all-weather track - the blinkers are firmly strapped to this lot.
The Wolverhampton Business Group ("made up of hundreds of City company bosses" according to the Express & Star newspaper) has commissioned a survey on those pesky bus lanes.
The "survey" appears to have consisted of someone photographing all buses arriving into the City from the Wednesfield Road between 0730 and 0900 one morning. Then it would seem that someone has poured over the pictures to count how many people are on said buses. Even the spokesman quoted appeared to concede that he'd had difficulty counting the numbers of people on buses in the pictures;
"the only slight numerical issue was viewing the exact numbers on 50% of the buses that were double deckers".
This ought to be laughable nonsense.
Except that it's coming from supposed business leaders in Wolverhampton, who are reduced to photographing buses, then trying to work out how many people are on them in order to kick-start a debate aimed at removing bus priority. In order, presumably, for them to drive their cars just that little bit quicker into work.
Why am I reaching for my blood pressure monitor?
Because when I read articles about people's legitimate concerns concerning why they can't use the City's wonderful new bus station, I ask myself why it is that bus company managers consider it unworkable to route all City services through the bus station?
Those 2 words come to mind again.
Traffic. Congestion.
The bus companies have been brave in introducing some new cross-city services as part of the large review. Transport friends of mine (some in very high places, I might add) have voiced their private doubts to me as to whether they will be able to stick to their timetables. Routing them through the bus station would simply add to the time-keeping issue.
But this is yet another example of a British City that simply doesn't have the balls to tackle it's traffic congestion problem. And here we have supposed "business leaders" quite willing and open about being vocal in trying to get rid of some bus priority lanes!
The message, sadly, is as clear as ever.
Keep driving your cars into our City. Keep clogging it up.
We can dress up the new cross-city bus routes as much as we want. Of course they will open up new links, etc.
But if congestion wasn't an issue in Wolverhampton, wouldn't we have them serving our new bus station to allow easy interchange?
Goodness knows Wolverhampton is in need of investment and new business, as are many of Cities.
But just for once, why can't we have business people who look at the wider picture - one which recognises the importance that an effective public transport system can offer, which in turn can help reduce such damaging traffic congestion?
When we have the self-same people forsaking their breakfast to take pictures of buses to try and count how many people are on them to support a call to remove a bus lane, I for one begin to fear for our economic future in Wolverhampton....

Monday, 11 July 2011

Let's Go HS2!

Of course, the biggest transport discussion at present is HS2 - the one transport topic that transcends the mainstream news agenda.
I've been deliberately quiet about it, as I'm no expert in the pros and cons of the route it is proposed to take, the back gardens of supposedly well-off Chiltern-arians it will plough up, nor if it will address the "north-south divide" that we apparently have in this country.
I'm a public transport advocate. So naturally, I support good public transport. Does the prospect of Birmingham to London in 49 minutes excite me? Tremendously! I'll barely have time to scoff my bacon roll! Do we need it? I think so. Often, psychology takes over when talking in terms of journey times.For example, I'm looking forward to the new Chiltern Railway timetable that will provide some Birmingham-London journeys in 90 minutes. Does shaving a few minutes off journey times really matter, some people ask? Some may say that you may lose all of the benefit getting stuck in a traffic jam getting to or from the station. But I think journey times do matter. Railways may have lost an awful lot of the romance they once had in the halcyon days of the 1930s for example, but cutting journey times always sends a little bit of excitement to the brain. It makes the world a smaller place. Think of railway history as steam, then diesel locos shaved time off their journeys. Think of the Inter-City 125s when they first came on track. The Virgin Pendolinos that still have the ability to mildly thrill me as they tilt their way along the West Coast Main Line.
I think High Speed 2 will do the same.
But it isn't necessarily the speed that sells this project to me.
It is the potential for extra capacity on our railways that is so desperately needed.
I make lots of railway journeys to all sorts of places. The one thing that has stood out for me over the last 5-10 years has been the explosion in numbers of people travelling on our railways. The rise in numbers appears to be unrelenting.
I went to London last week. Birmingham to Marylebone on Chiltern Railways. 1015 from Moor Street. The peak commuter crowd have more or less gone. This train won't arrive into London until 1225. But it's a busy train, and I can't count all that many empty seats. My £10 ticket - bought on my iPhone - is a bargain. And everyone loves a bargain.
I return from Euston on London Midland's "slow" train, up the West Coast Main Line on the 1554. Even 1st Class pre-booked has only cost me £19.50. But as I stand in Euston at around 1530 perusing the departure board, I am surrounded by a large mass of travellers. As I settle into my supposed premium seat, I can see the sheer amount of people cramming on to this train. It is a scene repeating itself across the rest of the country, around the clock in some cases.
So does the prospect of HS2 give us a new blank piece of paper to start with?
It seems only recently that we upgraded the West Coast Main Line to give us Virgin services that operate every 20 minutes in the daytime between Brum and London. And yet even this isn't catering for the incredible demand for travel. If we can "start again" and build a new railway that can handle such demand, it potentially frees up the West Coast Main Line to both provide additional services and cater for more freight on our railways.
So in principle, HS2 excites me. I don't buy the argument that this is simply a "vanity project" just because the Germans, French and much of Europe has High Speed and we - the nation that gave the World the railway - does not. If anything, we ought to have done this a long time ago. But of course politicians of many colours have left us on the slow tracks.
There are, of course, many questions still to be answered.
The "Nimbys" are revolting. But they do have a point. I don't suppose any of us can really know what it feels like to have a High Speed Railway proposed to run through your back garden, unless you are that actual person. We shouldn't kill off such an exciting, important project based on this alone, but we really have to be assured that the minimal amount of people are affected. But this is progress, ultimately. The Victorians wouldn't have built our railways if they had succumbed to not dissimilar pressure regarding railway routes.
Another concern is the "end game" pricing of tickets on HS2. One letter I read in the papers recently compared HS2 to Concorde. As much as Concorde was a beautiful bird, she was a rich person's plaything. Phil Collins managed to perform at both Live Aid concerts in the 80s due to the miracle that was Concorde with her supersonic speed. But Concorde was indeed mostly for the rich and famous. We must ensure that tickets for High Speed 2 are not completely out of the range of the masses. One of the most intriguing sights I see at Euston are the rows of 1st Class carriages on Virgin Trains, under-utilised on some journeys, whilst others cram onto other areas of the train. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the abolition of 1st class, but it does need to be looked at. Let's not forget that, even now, a walk-up fare on Virgin in the peaks on the West Coast Main Line is probably only regularly in reach of those aforementioned "rich and famous". If HS2 is to be born, it needs to play to everyone's advantage and be available to a lot of people's budgets.
We also need to be clear that the budget for HS2, to build this once in a lifetime opportunity, is not at the expense of what is known as the "classic" network (i.e. what we have now), which also needs investment. Railways - and public transport on a wider scale - is so important in this country, but often falls by the wayside in politicians priorities. HS2 may be sexy, other railways, buses, trams and coaches not so, but all are the backbone to our nation.
So we do need HS2 for several reasons, and I support the project. But let this be the renaissance of public transport on a wider scale. Somehow, I fear that may be a much harder sell!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

"Transforming" Bus Travel

It is a rather grandiose phrase, and one that is open to a hefty slap of "egg on face" if it doesn't produce noticeable benefits. Like First's "Transforming Travel" strapline, you only hope that there is tangible evidence of their forthright statement.
"Transforming Bus Travel" (actually a "mk.2 version" - the original was a couple of years ago) is the name given to an agreement between Centro and National Express West Midlands. It is a statement of partnership, designed to focus minds (and press releases) that will aim to provide real benefit to us West Midlands bus passengers.
Has "mk.1" had the desired effect?
You'd forgive most passengers as not being aware of such a deal. I don't mean that in a negative way, because for most passengers, the bus is a pretty boring means to an end - only the geeks amongst us take more notice of what goes on operationally.
One of the major parts of all of this has been the Network Reviews - a root and branch review of local networks in several areas, kicking off with my very own area - Dudley - in 2008.
A culture shock for many - vast parts of the network were ripped up, re-cast and glued together again. Did it work? In the main, it wasn't bad. The Black Country, we are told, had been losing money for years in bus operating terms, and the new network was designed to give it a fresh new feel, reflecting more accurately where people wanted to travel. It was bold, and seems to have largely worked. National Express did come along 2 years later, however, and significantly revise some operations again.
Elsewhere, Solihull seemed more of a challenge. Seen perhaps as more "middle England" (how could it not be with villages called the likes of "Catherine-de-Barnes"), there were more car-owners in leafy suburbs than the former industrial heartland of Dudley and The Black Country. Selling a "new" bus network here was always going to be a significant challenge. The jury remains out as to whether Solihull's network review worked.
Elsewhere, Walsall ripped up the numbers and started again. Perhaps the boldest move yet, passengers had to get used to single and double digit numbers instead of ones that usually started with "3xx". We're told that research proves that people understand bus numbers like "1" and "61" more than "361". Wolverhampton will go through a similar renumbering and restructure later this month. I'm not wholly convinced personally that the renumbering is in passenger's best interests, but I'll see in more detail what this "research" has to say.
But "Transforming Bus Travel" is about more than just network reviews.
This new version includes the reaffirming of the long-awaited "Oyster"-style smartcard (recently delayed due to software problems) and investment in GPS and "end-user" applications, such as websites and iPhone apps to actually see where your bus is in real time.
These 2 initiatives, for me, are going to fundamentally change the way us West Midlanders use our buses.
When I was flown to Ireland last year to road-test an iPhone app for Dublin Coach, it was a liberating experience. To use a service in an area I've never been in and have the confidence to see a little dot on my iPhone screen moving in real time towards my stop was not only fascinating (and very much a "boy with a toy"), it gave me real empowerment. It worked flawlessly (to even the most sceptical of users!) and I flattened the phone battery trying to find a problem. There wasn't one.
Now add to that a credit card-sized piece of plastic charged up with stored value and no expiry date. The freedom to use any bus operator that comes along. The real-time information at the stop, counting down the minutes until my bus arrives, or the freedom to hop on and off different ones to suit. This is washing away many of the gripes and confusion about using public transport that people keep telling me.
But although this sounds blindingly obvious, IT NEEDS TO WORK!
You may agree that it's obvious, but in my years of travels up and down the country, sampling all sorts of operators networks, technology fails on too many occasions. Yes, we all expect that everything fails sometimes. Buses break down, computers crash, etc. But many people are naturally "bus bashers", and line up regularly in the pub on Friday night to tell me so! I so desperately want to prove them wrong. I want people to have real confidence in public transport.
And yet when Councillor Jon Hunt, Centro's lead member for buses and Vice-Chair tells the Birmingham Mail that he's "especially excited" about the smartcard ticketing (as we all are), I'd be even more excited if, wearing his hat as a Birmingham City Councillor, he'd start giving us more bus priority and start effectively policing the poor number of existing bus lanes that we have in the City.
To "Transform Bus Travel" means commitment from the likes of Birmingham City Council too.
Cleanliness is also mentioned, which again is so vital for us local bus users. We are almost desensitised to rolling bottles and cans, piles of free newspapers and empty burger boxes and chip paper. No one says keeping the West Midlands' bus network clean is easy, and of course it is the sheer pig-headed, selfish attitude of some passengers themselves that creates this mess, but whilst there may not be an obvious financial benefit immediately to employing armies of cleaners, it surely adds up in the long run to more passengers willing to give public transport a try, when coupled to the other pieces of the jigsaw that is "Transforming Bus Travel".
There are plenty of people ready to knock public transport, but I'm a proud user of our network of buses, trains and trams in the West Midlands. Centro has done a good job with bringing "Network West Midlands" as a brand to locals. National Express West Midlands, as the largest operator by far, has pledged to buy 300 new vehicles as part of this new agreement, showing new confidence for an operator that, even fairly recently, appeared to be on a slippery downward slope. It's "new" livery may split opinion, but there's much to be said for it's comprehensive network and (still) some of the cheapest fares in the country.
I genuinely wish "Transforming Bus Travel" well in this, it's 2nd phase. Making public transport work for all is a prize well worth the effort.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Love Affair That Needs A Reality Check

Every love affair or long-term relationship needs a reality check every so often.
In Britain, we have our own very deep, very personal love affair. Ever since the internal combustion engine appeared into our lives, we've gazed lovingly at it, let it steal our hearts and decided it's forever.
The freedom the car brings to our lives is well-documented. It is a status symbol of a modern Western-World nation, even if motoring journalists conveniently forget the damage that traffic congestion brings.
I was reminded of this blinkered view on several levels during the past few days.
On Sunday it was my local town's carnival. The one day of the year when the High Street is closed to traffic. I rejoiced on Twitter.
Stourbridge is a lovely town. A town with unique and beautiful buildings, if you look above the usual shop fronts. A traditional feel, some may say, and a complete antidote to the bland, soul-less experience that is shopping at the local Merry Hill shopping centre, two miles up the road. Indeed, I now avoid Merry Hill if I possibly can because the experience depresses me. I'd much rather shop in Stourbridge.
But shopping in Stourbridge can also be a depressing experience.
Many of the "big names" have decanted to Merry Hill (even though the monster that is Tesco is coming soon)and the experience of walking down the High Street - which should be a pleasant one - is always one of awkwardness. Pedestrians are shoved on to narrow pavements in dogged deference to motorists, who cruise the High Street in desperate search of a coveted car park space.
On my radio show, I have often raised this issue. Why not pedestrianise the High Street, so that the much better experience we felt during carnival day was one that we could enjoy all year round? Other towns do it, and are so much better for it. Deliveries could be "out of hours". The consumer and pedestrian could again the King & Queen.
Many of the businesses won't have it.
On one level they must surely decry the decline of shopping in Stourbridge since Merry Hill opened its free-parking emporium. On the other hand, they doggedly refuse to consider making Stourbridge a delightful place to shop via pedestrianisation of the High Street. The car is King and access must be kept as close as possible at all costs.
Of course, I'm being a tad simplistic here. Stourbridge is awkward. The town centre is surrounded by a 3-lane Ring Road. Constructed towards the tail-end of the 1960s, it actually helps traffic move quite well, but it also acts to cut off easy access via public transport. Our bus station - currently being redeveloped - will still be on the wrong side of the Ring Road. The rail station is next door, but Victorian design saw that this is where it ends. Current economics and politics dictate that we won't see it go any further. Our revolutionary "Parry People Mover" railcar - an environmental delight that links Town and Junction stations - ought to be brought right into the heart of the High Street. Imagine that - street cafes with no cars and a small environmentally-effective railcar linking the town to the mainline rail station? It's something that would be given serious consideration by some of our European neighbours. Here,it's a pipe dream. We can't even get a surface-level pedestrian crossing from the bus station to the town centre (on the grounds of "Health & Safety", because we might confuse motorists on the Ring Road) - instead we shove people like rats into the underpass, a vile experience no matter how often the Council repaints it. And car parking is an issue, due to the restricted amount of space within the Ring Road and the aforementioned Tesco's appearance requiring the demolition of a multi-storey car park.
So a combination of pro-car thoughts dictates that Stourbridge will always struggle to reach it's full potential. I can't be the only potential shopper who would use the town centre more if the experience was much improved.
Something else caught my eye last week.
The New York Times ran an article entitled "Traffic Torments, By Design".
The main thrust of this was that whilst the yanks were doing all sorts of things to make motoring easier ("apps to help drivers find parking"..."synchronizing green lights to assist traffic flow"...) us Europeans are "creating environments openly hostile to cars".
London, with it's congestion charge, is the only UK City to make the article. The rest include Barcelona, Paris, Stockholm and Zurich. And the more I read about these "openly hostile" measures, the more they make eminent sense.
To quote some facts from the article:
- Cities welcome new shopping malls... but severely restrict the allowable number of car parking spaces.
- On street parking is vanishing.
- Pedestrian underpasses...have been removed (are you listening Stourbridge?)
- Operators in the City's tram system can turn traffic lights in their favour as they approach, forcing cars to halt.
And so it goes on....
But there is so much common sense in all of this.
In Zurich, a riverside pedestrian zone lined with cafes used to be two lanes of gridlock. 91% of delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work. A startling statistic, but oh so sensible.
Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, is 3 times the size of the Atlantic mall in Brooklyn but has only half the number of car park spaces. 70% of visitors get there by public transport.
And what about this for a quote, from Pio Marzolini, a Zurich City Official: "We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy. When I'm in other Cities, I feel like I'm always waiting to cross a street. I can't get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car".
And yet that's what I am, when I'm in Stourbridge. I am worth less than a car.
So frustrated last Thursday was I when on the bus leaving Birmingham City Centre at around 5.30pm, I vented my spleen on Facebook. Despite me attending and speaking at the annual Birmingham Transport Summit over many years, my experience as a public transport user in the City is as worse as it ever was. The precious little bus priority that we have in the City is simply ignored and not policed, the bus has no discernible advantage over the car. It's a very poor show. Remember, this is the City that actually REMOVED a bus lane in the recent past.
Maybe I'm being a little hard on Brum. There are plans, to be fair, to create a more car-free City Centre, and to have the Metro tram running through the heart. But the proof of the pudding will be in the riding of it. Will it be actively policed and motorists illegally in the Centre actively punished for being so? And let's also acknowledge that our European friends in places like Zurich have well-established public transport that works. Here in Birmingham, it's not so much about having a "long way to go" to achieve a decent comparison, but for having the political will to really step up a gear and give public transport the arena it needs to really shine and be effective. In Britain, the car lobby is still mightily effective and protective towards its own interests, however selfish at times, they may be.
In Germany recently, in the spot where I like to down my BitBurger and pork schnitzel, it was recently "Happy Mosel" day - a version of car-free day that is supposed to give the Mosel River and its many communities a day free of cars. I'm sure there were voices of dissent somewhere, but most people accept it and enjoy it, from what I can see. They took the opportunity in many towns and villages to have small festivals and carnivals. The beer was drunk, the wine tasted and a good time had by all. Can you imagine such a thing on such a grand scale here in Britain?
I'll state for the record again that I'm not anti-car. I have one, and I use it.
But the love affair us Brits have with our tin boxes does need a reality check.
Once again, our European neighbours are streets ahead with such thinking.