Saturday, 14 July 2012

The public transport dilemma

I'm writing this on the train home from work. Normally I don't commute on the train, as it's slow for me and expensive. But it does give me an excuse to cycle to the station and back, and get some exercise in the process! So I try to use the train once a week.

I'd love to get public transport every day, but it's just too much hassle and expense. So I compromise. Three days a week, I drive a fuel-efficient car to the outskirts of the nearby city, then catch public transport from there to the city centre. And one day a week, I work from home.

I've never really understood why we have a public transport system based on 1950's life - when people commuted from the suburbs to the centre. Today, the offices and factories have moved out of town, but you often still have to go into the centre to come out again.

I do think that we need to end our obsession with the car. But public transport is often a poor relative of the car when it comes to commuting.

Unfortunately, it's often the case with long-distance travel too. I recently priced up a trip to Belgium for 3 people, booking 2 months in advance. The train was over £700. Taking the car, and using the Dover to Calais ferry, cost about £120 including fuel. No contest - I can't justify the £700 spend.

I think there are some possible solutions, but they need money and time.

Firstly, long-distance train travel has to be cheaper. If I need to be in London for the morning, I can go by car for about £60, by parking in outer London and getting the tube into the city. By coach, it's under £60. By air, it's about £150. By train it's £230. Why?

Secondly, since we're stuck with the "out of town" syndrome (shops, offices, healthcare) then we need to have transport hubs in these places. Travelling 12 miles into and out of the centre, in order to reach a destination 3 miles away, is not the kind of thing that promotes public transport as a viable option! We have cities with successful Park and Ride systems, but we need to build on this.

Thirdly, we need to make cycling more accessible. In Belgium and the Netherlands, many locals don't think twice about cycling to the shops or to the station. In the UK, we've embraced leisure cycling, but we charge commuters 20p per day to access the toilet, so they can change out of their sweaty cycling gear before getting on a train!

The car still has a place, and is a valuable form of transport. Trains and other forms of public transport need a chance to shine too; but this won't happen unless people start using them more.

So why not try using public transport or your bike once a week? It might not be as bad as you think.

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