I KNOW a mother who has had to give up her job. You might think that there is nothing unusual in that – it happens every day , for one reason or another.
What if I told you, though, that this woman has had to quit her post as a college lecturer because the rest of her family couldn’t get to work, school or college without her or her car?
She worked in Leeds and lives up on the moors near Haworth. With one car, a daughter at school, two step-sons at college and a husband who works away for two or three days every week, she had to do so much ferrying about that something had to give. And the sacrifice ended up being her job.
There was no other way that her family could operate, learn, work and thrive. There simply weren’t enough buses and trains at the right times of day and evening to get everyone where they needed to be and home again.
This is one woman and one family. Her personal story, though, represents the failure of public transport on a grand scale. There must be thousands of families across the country in similar positions, and a good number of these will live in our region. Not just in extreme rural locations, but also in the outlying suburbs and villages of our towns and cities in which taking the car has become the only option.
How many journeys have I contemplated taking by public transport only to find that it is quicker – and usually far cheaper – to take the car? And then, when I do set off in the car, how many times have I sat fuming in a traffic jam on an overcrowded road, wishing I had gone by train instead?
I accept that the entire British transport system is not run for my benefit and convenience, but I swear that getting from A to B is becoming more difficult every month. Now we’re being warned that cuts to the Department of Transport’s budget will make this challenging situation even worse. George Osborne has ordered Ministers and civil servants to find budget savings of up to 40 per cent as he looks to cut £20bn across Whitehall in his spending review to balance the Government’s books.
Where are these savings going to be made? Not on the grand, headline-making infrastructure projects we hear about, but on the beleaguered local bus and rail routes and the creaking road networks which we rely on to get around every day.
That’s why campaigners are joining forces to remind the Transport Secretary that it’s his duty to keep the country moving. In a joint letter to Patrick McLoughlin, groups including the Campaign for Better Transport warn that there is a significant likelihood that “major eye-catching projects” will take precedence over smaller local transport initiatives which bring much larger overall benefits for everyone. These include not only public transport, but the maintenance of roads, cycle paths and pavements.
It is important, obviously, to invest in major routes and connections between the North of England and London and the South-East. However, if we are to build a proper Northern Powerhouse, it must have proper transport as its foundation. Before our region can connect to its best advantage with the rest of the country, it must consider how it best connects with itself.
There is much talk that the devolved city-regions, like Leeds and Sheffield, will have powers to plan transport. However, I’d argue that all those involved in deciding how we live and where we live need to have transport at the top of their list of priorities right now. This includes those who run house-building companies, educational establishments and hospitals. Most crucially, local authorities, transport companies and community organisations should be encouraged to think laterally about the provision of bus services. In some rural areas, “community buses” are already a success. We need more initiatives like this, just as we need affordable, reliable and comfortable trains, improved cycle paths and pavements which welcome pedestrians instead of forcing them onto the highway.
Overall, there is no doubt that we need investment and serious policy-planning from those with the power to implement change. However, this does not mean that we are abnegated of all responsibility ourselves. It’s not necessarily our own fault, but it’s become far too easy to jump in the car before we consider the alternatives.
I have much sympathy for that woman who had to give up work. It sounds like public transport has seriously let her family down and she really didn’t have any choice. However, I don’t have a great deal of time for those who insist that can’t live without their car when a bus goes regularly past the bottom of their road. And I certainly don’t have much sympathy for those parents who ferry their teenage children back and forth without ever even considering that they might walk or cycle instead.
We already know that our transport system is failing to deliver. However, it is only going to grind even more slowly to a halt if we refuse to take steps to solve it ourselves.