We take our ability to travel easily and at a time of our own choosing for granted
For those of us who own cars, we value the freedom of movement and time flexibility they give us. But as we can all see, our obsession with cars is choking our towns and cities, polluting the air our children breath and, because of routine traffic congestion failing to give us the very freedom they are supposed to promise.
The International Energy Agency estimates that transport consumes 60% of all oil used in the world.
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UK road traffic is forecast to grow 55% from 2010 to 2040 and CO2 emissions will begin to rise again after 2030, according to the Department for Transport. The introduction of self-driving cars is likely to increase rather than decrease journeys by car according to a study by Leeds University.
So how can we, addicted to personal transport, resolve the tension between the convenience our cars provide us and the negative impacts they create?
On our own, of course, we can’t. So long as we act individually rather than collectively, the problems will get worse, especially in Canterbury where the medieval system of roads converging on the city delivers so much traffic straight to its very walls.
But evidence from other towns and cities grappling with similar challenges shows that we don’t have to carry on as we are. Other solutions are possible, given the will.
The key is to give people something significant and positive in return for the loss of convenience, and adopt a range of measures that work across the whole of our communities.
For example: in Dunkirk, there is a trial of running completely free buses around the town. That’s already reduced car journeys, massively increased bus passenger numbers, and created such novelties as quizzes being held as the buses travel round the town.
Tallin in Estonia offers free travel to residents only, as do 57 other authorities in Europe, 27 in north America, and several others globally.
In tourist magnet Avignon, the Park and Ride is free to use and the ancient town centre is served by electrically powered micro-buses which run from by the railway station to the main tourist sites every 10 minutes, for just ¢50 fare.
But in the UK we seem to be hamstrung by our privatised transport system and our abject fear of demanding that taxes be raised to pay for anything.
And the costs of these schemes are not negligible: our local bus company, Stagecoach, had costs of £3.93 per passenger journey last year across its operations in east Kent, with a total operating cost of £57 million.
However, to use cost alone as the basis of rejecting change assumes that a new solution would maintain the status quo.
It also ignores the fact that cheap or free fares plus greater frequency would drive down the cost per passenger journey, since much of the cost of any bus operation is fixed in the buses themselves – £64 million worth of them for East Kent – and in drivers and staff , at around £30 million per year.
Filling the buses with passengers, which manifestly is not the case at the moment, wouldn’t raise those costs substantially but would provide a massive social benefit, especially for those on lower incomes and those who live outside the urban areas, as well as radically cutting congestion and pollution.
Furthermore, running the buses for the people rather than for profit might mean that we change the routes and frequencies. As has been observed rather a lot recently, running buses to the west and east stations rather than the central bus terminus might be a good idea, as would the introduction of genuine hopper buses around the centres of the city and the towns. Or indeed from the villages to and from the Park and Ride sites.
The key to making something like this work is imagination and courage. If we are all prepared to trade off driving into our local town centre for free or cheap buses, and to require that businesses and employers and ratepayers all contribute to the costs since they will all benefit, then suddenly the costs begin to look much more manageable.
And if we were to take the service back into public ownership we could save much more than the £5 million profit which Stagecoach makes from East Kent.
Even if we can’t afford to go the whole hog and have free buses, we could certainly make a step change in the services provided.
The question is whether, in the long term, we can afford not to.