Margaret Thatcher supposedly once said something along these lines:
“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”
There is, in fact, no record of her saying this at all – which is a relief, because one would have to think less of anyone who did. Commuting may be a grind, but no one who makes a daily effort to support themselves and their dependents should be described as a failure.
Moreover, if London’s commuters were to abandon public transport for the car, then the result would be permanent gridlock. If those sweeping around in black cabs or chauffeur-driven vehicles ever entertain thoughts of superiority, then they should remember that their mobility is entirely dependent on the rest of us.
Users of public transport therefore deserve a little respect. However, they’re unlikely to get it from the operating companies – who know an effective monopoly when they own it and consequently couldn’t give a toss. That’s why politicians have such an important role in standing-up for the commuter.
There’s only so much that can be done about ticket prices, but political pressure could have an impact in forcing the operators to improve the customer experience.
For instance, why did it take so long for the Oyster card and similar systems to be introduced? Long before the electronic ticketing technology was even available, other countries had ‘carnet’ systems, which provide many of the relevant benefits. We could have had the same in Britain, but the operators couldn’t be bothered – and the politicians failed to knock heads together.
There are many other helpful changes that could be made – and it’s great to see one well-known London politician take an active interest. Unfortunately, it’s not Boris Johnson, but the Blairite peer Andrew Adonis (who may be considering a run for the mayoralty next time round). Last month, he spent a week travelling along 104 different London bus routes – and shared his conclusions in a piece for Progress Online:
“First, Londoners need flexible bus fares. For many, particularly the low paid and parents dropping off their children on the way to work, changing buses and paying another £1.45 on pay-as-you-go is a serious cost. Tube users can change trains without penalty, and bus users should be able to do so too within a set time, as in Paris and Rome.”
“Flexible fares would also make the bus system more efficient. Rather than waiting at stops for a direct bus, passengers would hop on and off the buses which get them most quickly to their destination. This would also relieve key ‘loading’ bus stops.”
Again, here we have an example of something that is taken for granted in other countries, but which is apparently beyond the wit of Transport for London. Thanks to Boris Johnson we have buses that are made for hopping on and off – so why can’t we have the fares to match?
Adonis identifies other everyday insanities, including one that drives everyone mad:
“…poorly managed roadworks, and badly designed junctions and bus lanes, are a constant source of serious delay and unpredictable journey times. On the Mile End Road and through Hackney, my buses could barely move for long stretches because of this. The mayor talks about lane rental and other radical measures, but, again, little has improved since the welcome introduction of red routes.”
When it feels like it, the state is more than capable of interfering in the fine detail of our daily lives. And yet when we’d actually like to see government get stuck-in – as in the case of roadworks – it’s nowhere to be seen.
Positive change would require two big things from our politicians: Firstly, a genuine understanding of the way that life is lived by most people; and, secondly, an in-depth knowledge of the systems that provide the tracks of our daily existence.
So, basically, what we need are down-to-earth policy wonks running the country, when what we’ve got are disconnected PR spivs who only think they run the country.