Sunday, 21 October 2012

Buses "Beating Stress"

Although I'm a car owner, I'm - of course - a huge advocate of public transport.
Myriad reasons for this, but I often refer to the added bonus of getting from A to B on a bus, train or tram. You'll often find me updating my Facebook or Twitter, replying to email, reading (the transport trade press usually!) or simply gazing out of the window at things I can appreciate rather than concentrating on the road ahead. There's also a lot to be said for the down-time of simply day-dreaming - possible on public transport, more difficult driving a car!
So this little piece that appeared on Bus Users UK's Facebook page really backs up my theory about bus passengers being the more relaxed and healthier of the travelling species!

Bus travel 'a third less stressful than driving the car'

New research shows that taking the bus (instead of the car) can reduce mental stress by a third.

The study by Dr David Lewis from The University of Sussex, who coined the term “road rage”, found that motorists face a hidden mental health impact from the stresses of driving, while bus travel can produce long-term health benefits.

r the experiment, the heart rate and EDR (Electro-Dermal Response) of 30 commuters was measured when taking similar journeys by car and bus. The findings reveal a vast difference in EDR, a form of biophysical measurement that Dr Lewis describes as an excellent indicator of mental stress.

When examining the EDR results, the experiment found that taking the car produced significantly greater amounts of stress than taking the bus, which was 33% less stressful.

“EDR can be a hidden stress – it’s not as visible as ‘white knuckle driving’ or audible as road rage. This type of stress can have long-term physiological and emotional implications. Boarding a bus can produce significant long-term health benefits,” said Dr Lewis.

Dr David Lewis says there are three key factors that reduce the attraction and increase the stresses of driving a car.

1. Driving in heavy traffic – especially against a deadline – requires a high level of vigilance, even for experienced motorists. This requires the brain to work especially hard processing a myriad of incoming information and making, often split-second, decisions.

2. Congestion and delays can raise blood pressure and physical tension which may manifest itself as ‘road rage’, a term coined by Dr Lewis in 1985 to describe the explosive outbursts of anger shown by some motorists. Increases in blood pressure can have serious long-term health consequences as well as causing drivers sometimes to take reckless and foolish decisions behind the wheel.

3. A sense of frustration of ‘wasting one’s life’ behind the wheel of the car, unable to do anything more productive than casual conversations or listening to the radio. On a bus it is possible to fill the time more profitably by doing some work or reading.

He also notes that trained, professional bus drivers are skilled in negotiating the challenges of the road, and the relief of trusting someone else to be in charge of the journey, is a key part of what makes taking the bus less stressful.

“This study shows that driving in congested traffic, now outweighs any previous benefits that driving in a private car once gave,” said Dr Lewis.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Lobbying My MP

It all came about as a result of a Facebook conversation.
My MP - Chris Kelly (Dudley South) - is a regular on the social media. And whilst he was bizarrely pictured in some long grass (not a metaphor for his chances of promotion - rather he wanted it cut), another update caught my eye. He wasn't a supporter of HS2.
Why not, queried I?
I felt a longer debate coming on, but he was keen to discuss it more in depth at one of his constituency surgeries, and I agreed. Sometimes, despite all of the advantages of social media, a more face-to-face discussion is more appropriate. Is "lobbying your MP" old hat? Or is it more important than ever?
I'm not a politician-basher. I'm probably in the minority in this country where I still believe MPs go into the job for the right reasons. I've interviewed enough of them on my radio show to get that impression.
So I believe it's important, if you believe passionately in something, to understand your MP's view on the topic.
It's probably fair to say that Chris Kelly MP knows my view on public transport already. His father, Chris Kelly Senior, owns a truck dealership and is all for roads. I've had a few "debates" with him over the years on the letters pages of local newspapers. But what of his son?
MPs are decision-makers. Or they're close to the ones that do. I don't subscribe to the view that politics and politicians aren't relevant in people's lives. Politics is in everything we do - and especially so in transport.
I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Chris's views.
On HS2 he thought it akin to Concorde - only to be used by those who could afford it. And the West Coast Main Line didn't seem to be an issue capacity-wise, in his opinion. He made the point that a family of 4 coming to visit him at Westminster faced a hefty bill for train fares - and for people who don't regularly travel by rail turning up for a walk-on fare via Virgin, it's a point that is well made and understood. For all of the cheap fares you can obtain by booking in advance, a walk-up fare for some journeys astonishes many people.
Would he "rebel" when it comes to the vote on HS2? In true politician-speak, he avoided that question, but it was clear that the people of Dudley South won't be having the support of their MP if they want HS2! To be fair, HS2 isn't a burning issue in these parts, unlike some of the constituencies where it will pass through. But nonetheless HS2 IS important to the Black Country - for reasons far more wide-ranging than simply getting people to London "a few minutes quicker" (which I corrected him on) - the whole issue of capacity on the existing network is vital to our long-term rail system in the West Midlands as well as new journey opportunities, and the chance to get more freight onto the tracks (might affect the long-term objectives of a certain truck retailer?)
Locally, what about buses?
The Black Country - like many other areas of the country - suffers from chronic traffic congestion at many times of the day. Chris even admitted he'd sat in nose to tail traffic to get to his surgery this evening.
I asked him how he could possibly be happy with that situation.
He made the point about "choice". It's all about giving people the choice about how they get from A to B. Reliability was an issue, but how could buses be more reliable if they were stuck in traffic?
The point was made by Chris that if buses were more reliable, more attractive and ticketing was simpler (the London Oyster was quoted - which we're getting a version of in Centro-land very soon) people would choose to use buses more. We're seeing large-scale investment in new vehicles by the Region's largest operator National Express West Midlands - all good, positive stuff - but it's still only one part of the overall jigsaw.
All very laudable (and an argument I've heard many times over the years), but, as in London, modal-shift has been in action due to a carrot and stick approach. Give the bus the advantage - via bus lanes, for example - and there can be no better advertisement for getting people out of their cars onto the bus.
I accept that, here in Dudley, it's different to London. We don't have lots of places where bus priority can be implemented, but then again, we don't appear to have the politicians - locally or nationally - who seriously want to see something done about the traffic congestion which blights our daily lives. The example Chris gave was an idea to implement a new traffic scheme in nearby Pensnett, which would give much freer access to the trading estate and allow freight to access the motorway network much easier (I wonder who else has been lobbying him!)
I don't accept Chris's analysis that "for most people, getting around by car is their only option". Yes, we have a huge challenge to "sell" public transport - as well as cycling and walking - as an alternative option, and of course people's journeys are often more complicated than we think, but the challenge is to create a situation where these alternative modes are seriously considered - and I admit we're not there by any stretch of the imagination yet. Centro is about to embark on a large-scale project - "Smart Network: Smarter Choices" which will attempt to address some of these issues. Whilst it's a challenge to change perceptions of public transport and other alternatives to the car, the will is there to try from Centro.
The other challenge - for everyone who is an advocate of public transport - is to challenge their MP to think about these issues. Public transport is about as exciting as utility bills for those who don't live and breathe it! Myself and other commentators on public transport talk about "making it sexy" - a talking point that gets it into people's thinking.
Whilst we must convince others that thinking about alternatives to the car isn't being "anti-car", we must always engage politicians - local and national - to think differently about public transport, and the difference it can make to congestion and getting around.
Chris talked about Centro lacking discussion about roads themselves. He may have a point, as he appears to see them as having a vested interest in promoting buses trains and trams (of course they do!) but the discussion has to embrace EVERYTHING about how we all move around from A to B (as well as C & D).
Was my 15 minutes with my MP successful? Who can tell? Getting better public transport is an ongoing process that never ends. The point is that we keep moving forward to achieve this, and part of the huge jigsaw that this involves is talking to people that matter. And whatever your views on politicians, they ultimately DO matter in the scheme of things. They are one of many people advocates of public transport need to talk to again and again and again to underline the importance of this industry and what it does for millions of people every day.
As for Chris Kelly MP, I'll keep talking to him, face-to-face, via social media or any via any other avenue. So long as he is my MP, he is one of many people who can make a difference. And as someone who wants the best public transport we can achieve he knows I will!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Taking The Bus Driver Challenge!

When National Express West Midlands asked if I'd like to try my hand at driving a bus, what was I to say? 
I write about them, monitor them, ride them endlessly, take pictures of them, read about them.....but DRIVE one? 
There were 4 brave souls from Bus Users UK who were up for the challenge. After a quick briefing at NXWM's training centre at Walsall Garage, we were taken out into the large training area, marked out with various cones and kerb-style mock ups. Just as well it was large - there were other trainees going through their paces, and whilst they were doing it for real, we all felt slightly apprehensive about getting behind the wheel! 
Our Instructor team split us into 2 pairs. We had a double decker Metrobus and an ex National Express Volvo coach as our vehicles. 
Me and my partner had the Metrobus first. I recognised this as the former "Timesaver" 2951 - a bus I'm sure I've ridden on in much younger days. 
"Who's going first?" shouted the Instructor. It appeared that I had no choice in the matter! 
I had the course explained to me - a bit like a bus version of an obstacle course - littered with cones in all sorts of pretty shapes and sizes. Foot on brake, select "drive", handbrake off, then, like my own automatic car, releasing the footbrake, the classic 80s decker rolled into action. 
I gently touched the accelerator and that familiar Metrobus roar appeared as I gingerly made my way towards the first "challenge" - the mock up kerb. 
"Don't forget the wheels are behind you", reminded the Instructor, as I edged towards my fictitious kerb, with possibly fictitious passengers. 
I didn't do too badly "for a first attempt", apparently, (although I think the Instructor was possibly being kind), as I headed towards challenge number 2 - the chicane. 
Weaving in and out of cones (without mangling them in the back wheels) was completed (without any mangling), and then a diagonal run (avoiding other trainees in their large white steeds) leading to a full left-hand lock, bringing me to challenge number 3 - lining up the back wheels in between two cones. 
"About 6 inches out" said the Instructor. Hey, what's 6 inches amongst friends?! 
The final challenge was the scariest! 2 lines of cones tapering in to 2 final large cones either side of the vehicle, which were positioned just about wide enough to get the bus through.  The secret was to watch the right -hand mirror, get the bus dead straight - and then don't move the steering wheel! Having been hugely tempted to pull the wheel all over the place, I listened intently to the Instructor's advice - and I managed to get through - without any injured cones! 
We swapped teams, Instructors and vehicles - now I was behind the wheel of the Volvo coach. The brakes certainly worked as I applied them for the first time! We repeated the assault course in our new vehicles and then the big test - our Instructor was going to mark us! Aaarrrggghhh!! No advice, no comments, nothing. 
Round the course one more time, trundling with the coach at no more than 10mph - the poor vehicle had once had the prestige of gliding down the motorway but now she had me - proving that the brakes very much worked every few moments! 
I managed to squeeze the coach through the tiny tapered cone arrangement one more time and spun her round, parking her next to the Metrobus which contained our other pairing. 
The moment of truth was very much like an X-Factor moment and in classic 3-2-1 countdown - I'd won with the scores on the doors, to raucous laughter and cheesy grins! We'd all had a lot of fun! 
Apart from a hugely enjoyable afternoon testing our skills behind the wheels of our mighty vehicles, what had we learnt? 
Well, in much the same way that I learnt to drive the Stourbridge Shuttle Class 139 Railcar, I can tell you that it is a lot more challenging than it looks! The real trainees face lots of theory tests and numerous practical ones before they can be let out onto the streets. It may look relatively easy but it requires huge amounts of concentration at all times - and it's very different to driving a car! 
Catching a bus is something most people don't really think about - and shouldn't have to. But driving such a large vehicle, in traffic, thinking not only about what you're doing, but the actions of others, whilst having up to 70+ people behind you is a huge, continuous responsibility. 
Apart from having a hugely enjoyable and fun afternoon, my "driver experience" has helped me to appreciate what skills bus drivers have and what an excellent job they do every day across the highways and byways of our country. 
Thanks to National Express West Midlands and the Training School at Walsall Garage for a fascinating afternoon.