by Neasa MacErlean
The only way for us to achieve more than a token effort on the Climate Emergency is for the community to lead the charge. Local councils are so totally taken up with staying afloat financially that they have all but shut their eyes to taking new items onto their agendas.
Kent County Council (the lead authority on the buses in Canterbury) spends about two thirds of its £1 billion income on social care. And it feels proud that, unlike some other authorities, it is not going bankrupt. Having spoken to councillors and officers there, I realise that they have no budget for improving our bus system. They are highly unlikely to sit down and come up with a vision for the future where heavily-subsidised public transport encourages drivers out of their cars. They will be reluctant to do this because they see it as La La Land. With no money available to deliver such a vision, they would feel that they were wasting resources by coming up with ideas.
The bus system is particularly important because it is the main route we have to reducing the top cause of toxic emissions — from road transport. Five towns in Germany (including Bonn and Essen) are working on schemes to offer bus travel at greatly reduced prices. Another one, Monheim, near Dusseldorf, plans to run ticketless travel on buses from April next year. All these schemes follow on from a decision in 2018 by Angela Merkel’s government to use free or cheap public transport as a way of improving air quality and tackling congestion. Tallinn became the world’s first capital city to offer free public transport to its residents in 2013, and the Estonian government is rolling out the scheme to the rest of the country.
What stops us doing the same thing here is money. So we need to change our system — if we want to protect air quality and reduce the amount of time we spend sitting in traffic. The only way to introduce these schemes is for central government to finance them. The current government has been reducing the amount it passes on to local government — and this has to be rolled back. There are very few calls for this to happen. But we need to start making them.
The Canterbury Society had a meeting about the bus service on September 9. I suggested to the 40 or 50 people there that we aim for free travel. Several agreed and no-one disagreed. It sounds like a huge change in direction, and it is. But what is the alternative? Do nothing. Pay lip service. Spend even more hours sitting in traffic. Let our health deteriorate as we take in more PM2.5s and NOx?
Making buses free is not the final answer to the air quality problem. But it would be a major step along the road. Three times as many journeys are made in buses as on trains. If we put bus bays into the area by Canterbury West station we can take our commuters back to their homes without them having to travel by car. If we make buses more attractive, then more people will want to ride in them. Some people travel to San Francisco to ride on the trams there. Could we make our buses so pleasant that they will be a pleasure to spend time on?