FREE bus passes for the under-25s is definitely one of Jeremy Corbyn’s better ideas. Let’s put aside our cynicism for a moment. It is clear that the Labour leader must keep on finding ways to appeal to the youth vote, given that his party is riven with strife and Theresa May stubbornly remains ahead of him in the opinion polls.
So we might raise a knowing eyebrow at the timing of this announcement on the eve of the local elections. However, that shouldn’t stop us welcoming it with cautious optimism. For too long now the default argument about public transport has centred on trains – their expense, unreliability, overcrowding and, of course, HS2.
Yet, according to the Office for National Statistics, 62 per cent of all public transport journeys are taken by bus. It is good of Corbyn to acknowledge that bus-users should no longer be treated like second-class citizens.
And I’m intrigued because I’m still reeling with shock. My 15-year-old son caught a bus into town over the Easter holidays and was charged £1.90 for a single journey of less than two miles – an adult fare it turns out, because the bus driver didn’t believe his age.
It wiped out almost half of poor Jack’s spending money for the day. He was gutted. I tried to cheer him up by reminiscing about the good old days of my own teenage years when we youngsters could travel anywhere for the princely sum of 2p. This was just one of the many reasons why my particular sub-region was known as the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.
Good of Corbyn to remember that. It’s estimated that these Labour plans could save 13 million young people up to £1,000 each every year. The cost would come from Vehicle Excise Duty, using funds currently allocated to road building, which would then be covered by Labour’s proposed new National Transformation Fund.
The financial benefits for the young are substantial, but there is more. When I was a teenager if I had nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon, I thought nothing of hopping on a bus to Doncaster, Rotherham or Sheffield with a friend. If it was raining, we didn’t even bother getting off, we’d just ride back to Barnsley.
It was hardly a gap year travelling the world, but it broadened our horizons and gave us a sense of both responsibility and adventure.
For many children now, the thought of taking a bus is an entirely alien concept. Ferried everywhere by car from the day they come home from the maternity ward, they know of no alternative. I doubt some of my 12-year-old daughter’s friends will ever take a bus in their lives.
For instance, the other week Lizzie wanted to visit a local retail park with her pal. They identified which bus they needed and what time it left the stop but then her friend’s mother vetoed the idea on the grounds of safety. We ended up giving them a lift there and back.
I understood her concerns, but my argument was that this bus exists for a reason and if we’ll lose it if we don’t use it. Then, in a couple of years when my children are looking for part-time jobs, the retail park with its array of stores and restaurants will be out of bounds unless I take time out of my own work to drive them there myself.
When our only car was in the garage for a new clutch last Saturday another one of Lizzie’s friends was incredulous. “How did you cope, trapped in the house all day?” she asked. Given that buses trundle past our house every half an hour we were hardly prisoners of our temporary car-less state.
I like this Corbyn idea because it’s about much more than buses. It’s a brave attempt to challenge a mindset which goes beyond the mechanics of travel and public transport. It signals a major political shift towards addressing the concerns of under-25s, instead of constantly trying to second-guess the needs of pensioners.
Outside London all over-65s receive bus concessions; in London the over-60s get not just free buses but free Tube journeys as well. Given that most of my friends in their early fifties who live in London are intending to work well into their sixties to ensure they don’t die in penury, free travel in a few years seems like an outdated anomaly.
There is a catch of course, but to be honest it’s one which could bring its own rewards. Free youth fares would only be available in areas where councils take back bus services under municipal control, or as in London, oversee the show but franchise routes to private companies.
I accept that this arrangement would be one more step towards Corbyn’s socialist Utopia. All things considered however, I’d say this would be a small price pay to get Great Britain moving again.