Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Dependent On Our Cars?

I often get into discussions with all sorts of people about "car dependency". I'm acutely aware of the need to make the public transport "offer" as good as it can be.
Working on both sides of the fence in the world of public transport helps me to see the issues from all sorts of angles. Sometimes, we need the big schemes, like the new Wolverhampton bus station. Other times, we need to make sure that the travelling public receives the very best we can offer, especially when things go wrong.
"Car dependency" is often a challenge to define. You could say that even I am "car dependent" - for when I'm on an early shift that begins at 5am, there's no public transport to get me to Stourbridge Junction, in order to drive the first train on the Shuttle. For people who work all sorts of strange hours, public transport often doesn't work for them. We can't expect public transport to be there at every moment around the clock. It isn't a personal taxi service. Public transport is about moving numbers of people around when demand is there. There is a debate to be had around "demand" - even one about "creating demand" too!
Hats off then, to the Campaign for Better Transport, who have created a report entitled the "Car Dependency Scorecard". It gathers research from all sorts of different areas and gives us something to get our teeth into! The main thrust of the document creates a "league table" of towns and cities that are least through to most "car dependent".
The least car-dependent areas are:
1. London
2. Brighton & Hove
3. Nottingham
At the bottom of the league are:
24= Colchester
24= Peterborough
26. Wigan
Reading the report throws up some strange conclusions, such as the average Londoner needing to spend only 2.5% of their weekly wages on a bus pass, car ownership in Nottingham is just 35%, 1 in 10 Colchester people can only access their place of work by car and in Wigan 60% of all commuting is done by car. The good and bad starkly laid out before us.
It is simple to ask "why"?
We know that London has excellent public transport, but it comes at a cost. In the example of our capital, you really do get what you pay for. But London is often seen as unique.
What is more curious, and fascinating is why, say, Brighton is so good, and Wigan bottom of the pile?
There is no simple answer, of course. But it is clear that the likes of Brighton & Hove, and the ever excellent Nottingham, have some kind of transport "gold" going on, whereas Colchester appears not.
Politics? Maybe. Investment? Or lack thereof? Definitely. Vision? It's worked in Nottingham. Whenever I'm in the East Midlands City, I try to work out why it's public transport is good. Yes, they have a tram - that's always a good start! But the buses are clean, efficient and well-presented. There is more than one operator, but here there is a battle of quality going on. You get the impression that, for example, Nottingham City Transport and TrentBarton don't want to be upstaged by the other. Win-Win for passengers.
The CBT report urges the reversal of recent cuts to bus service funding and more partnerships, which are bringing better services to the people of the West Midlands, for example.
When it comes to cycling and walking, Cambridge comes out on top. But perhaps surprisingly, Dudley reaches the top 5 as an alternative to the car. Birmingham, more unsurprisingly comes out bottom but one - beaten only to the wooden spoon by Gateshead. Still work to do to convince Brummies that 2 wheels are important.
When it comes to car use, however, Dudley sinks into the bottom 3. Here, well over a third of all children are driven to school. That comes as no surprise when the local roads are severely congested in the morning. Only Leeds and Milton Keynes are worse. In MK, 97% of people of driving age own a car. But is this surprising, given that the whole feel to this town is that it was designed around car use?
One example to give us hope is Southampton, which has been rising up the league. New partnerships in South Hampshire and significant project funding from the Better Bus Areas and Local Sustainable Transport Funds show what can can be achieved.
Dudley's problems are highlighted as it's relative lack of railway stations and the effect of the Merry Hill Centre - although major public transport improvements and bus priority are coming soon here. It suggests Bristol is being "contradictory" for both having good policies on travel plans, parking and a proposed workplace levy on parking to pay for better public transport, but also for progressing a long list of road schemes around the edge of the City. ("Induced traffic", it says, is a well-known consequence of road-building and widening).
All in all, it is an interesting publication that creates as many questions as it answers.
But it is clear that public transport needs to keep on improving - with the help of local authority partners - if it is to seriously challenge the damaging effects of "car dependency" with its twin negatives of congestion and pollution.

The Report - "Car Dependency Scorecard 2012 - The Top UK Cities for Sustainable Transport" can be downloaded as a .pdf from the Campaign for Better Transport's website at

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