Why can't we get anywhere?

Why can't we get anywhere?

part ofAt What Cost?
In the latest feature from our ‘At What Cost’ series, we look at how a lack of transport infrastructure and investment is condemning millions to a life of inequality and hardship.

The UK’s transport system is broken. Step outside of any major city and you will see that public transport services are on their knees, with local bus routes continuously axed and train tickets being the most expensive in Europe. Those who are able to afford trains often find them overcrowded and delayed. All the while, transport workers are being squeezed by their employers for profit.

“Unless you have access to a car – which is quite expensive at the moment – people are forced to stay in their little boxes, and it naturally prevents further mingling or being able to visit other areas,” says Nikkie, a 30-year-old from Peterborough. She has witnessed first-hand how those who rely on public transport to go to work, school, or see their friends are finding that their lives are shrinking.

“There’s one cinema in Peterborough that’s a bit out of the way and in order to get there. If you don’t have a car, you either have to get two bus lines and walk 10 minutes through an estate with an underpass which can be frightening when it’s dark, or walk nearly half an hour from town to the cinema,” she says, explaining how everyday trips like this become unnecessarily difficult, especially at night as a woman for those forced to rely on public transportation. “It definitely limits the ability to go and do things and have a social life unless you have friends or family who can chauffeur you.

Though Nikkie lives in Nottingham now, she has spent much of her life dealing with Peterborough’s terrible transport system. The Cambridgeshire district was recently in the news because a mother was reduced to walking along an A-road with her baby to get to a doctor’s appointment. The only bus that served her village was cut in 2019 because the company was suffering “heavy operating losses”. Just last month, another bus service described as a “lifeline” was cut between the town of March and Peterborough. “Once again, rural communities are being denied the basic right to access vital services”, said local councillor Katie Howard, when responding to the devastating news. Local buses are being cut everywhere, with almost one-in-10 local bus services axed in the UK over the last year, despite government promises to “level up” the country’s vast economic inequalities. From 2010 to 2019, there has been a steady decrease in miles travelled by local bus.

Research shows that the lack of reliable and affordable transport deepens social inequality in the UK. According to the government’s own ‘State of the Nation’ report, the country’s social mobility coldspots are concentrated in remote rural or coastal areas and in former industrial areas – especially in the Midlands – where poor connectivity by transport restricts opportunities for both education and work. Only 13 per cent of disadvantaged young people in former industrial areas and 14 per cent in remote rural coldspots progress to university compared with 27 per cent in UK’s hotspots. In rural and coastal areas, poor transport links mean that people’s commutes can end up taking up to four times longer than those in urban areas. People from ethnic minorities, young people not in education, employment or training, students, older people and women are all reported to be particularly at risk of transport poverty. All of these issues combined result in a decreased quality of life and wellbeing, contributing to wider social exclusion.

Nowadays, when Nikkie comes to Peterborough to visit her family, she is immediately reminded that local public transport doesn’t cater to her health needs. “I have fibromyalgia, so it’s been my experience at times that it’s been a struggle with a suitcase and nobody is able to pick me up. The train station doesn’t have an bus stop either so you either need to walk 10 minutes to the nearest bus stop or order an old-fashioned cash-only taxi service.”

“Rural residents are being abandoned by the government,” Rosa Kell, a disabled pensioner from Wells in Somerset told The Guardian when her local bus service was axed because it was not “commercially viable”. She would get the bus to Weston-super-Mare to go shopping, meet friends or visit the dentist. “We’ll have no access to jobs, colleges, larger shops, GPs, or a social life. There is much talk of ‘levelling up’, but where is the level when we have nothing?”

“It’s terrible in loads of different ways,” says Mary-Beth, a 27-year-old Orchestra Manager from Clowne, a small town outside of Chesterfield in Derbyshire. She now lives in Bristol, but recalls how a combination of unreliable public transport and financial constraints manifested in stress and hours wasted waiting for buses in her teenage years. “On certain days it felt like [waiting for a bus] would consume my entire life because I was so reliant on it turning up.” It wasn’t cheap either. A single ticket would cost Mary-Beth around £5 to go into the town centre.

“Everyone would learn to drive as soon as possible and everyone’s parents seemed to get them little red Corsas. I was always really envious because my family couldn’t afford to buy me a car, which was totally fine, but I took two buses into school and back every day.” One morning, when she was due to be taking an important A-level exam, the bus just didn’t turn up and her dad had already left for work. “When you’re 18 it feels like one exam is going to define your life and you’re waiting for a bus that didn’t come”.

Luckily Mary-Beth was able to get a last-minute lift from a teacher. It's a perfect example of how poor public transport services are letting young people – who have greater dependence on it than most older age groups – down across the country. Young people in rural areas are especially affected as their average journey to school is nearly twice as long compared to those living in cities.

Currently, local transport investment in the UK favours road building with driving being the most common mode of transport in the UK. This is particularly true in rural areas, where 90 per cent of travel is made using a car, compared with 72 per cent in the most urban areas. Despite this, young people are driving less than they used to – in part due to the decline in disposable income (more than a fifth in the past year due to high rising rent and utility bills as well as grocery prices) and high insurance costs for beginner drivers (the price of car insurance shot up 50.9% in the last 12 months).

The reliance on cars doesn’t just have a financial impact. Transport and city planning affect people's health too. In areas with higher traffic, individuals experience stress and sleep disturbance as well as an increased risk in developing heart disease or diabetes. People living in rural villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings take the lowest number of walks when compared to those living in urban city and town areas, adding to the health dangers of sedentary lifestyles.

On a rapidly heating planet, where transportation accounts for one-fifth of global emissions and private cars account for 45.1 per cent of all transportation emissions – moving away from heavy car reliance and creating liveable and sustainable cities would not only significantly reduce our emissions, but also improve health outcomes, increase community cohesion, and boost economic productivity on dying high streets. Data backs this up – in 2020 those living in rural areas travelled more miles for all purposes than those in urban areas.

These problems and solutions have long been recognised, with then Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlining the need for “better services in the evenings and weekends, to reflect people’s 24-hour lives and to provide safe, reliable transport” when introducing the ‘Bus Back Better’ policy in 2021. In the foreword, Johnson insisted on “build[ing] back greener, minimising pollution and tackling the congestion that clogs up our towns and cities.”

Just two years later Johnson’s words seem to have been all but forgotten. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who served as Johnson’s chancellor proudly stated in a recent interview with The Telegraph that, “The vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around and are dependent on their cars,” adding, “I just want to make sure people know that I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them.” The Conservative Party is currently waging war on traffic calming measures and clean air zones, alongside green policies in general, in its attempt to grip onto power.

So why is the situation with public transport so uniquely dire in most parts of the UK and why have so many people become car-dependent as a result? The answer lies in the privatisation of buses and trains. “We’ve been left at the mercy of private operators who set fares, routes, timetables and standards with little public oversight,” says Hirra Khan, co-director of climate charity Possible. She explains that in their pursuit of profit, thousands of bus routes have been cut, fares have increased and mass transit has been chronically underfunded. “This leaves communities with little choice but to rely on slow, unreliable public transport options, or to continue to pump out emissions by driving a petrol car.”

“In the village where I’m from there’s one bus a week and it leaves at a very strange time – at about 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday,” says Fergus, from Cheddington, a tiny village in West Dorset. “Otherwise, you have to use a request service. There’s a number you can call up within a day’s notice and ask for the bus to stop in your village. There’s absolutely no other way you’re ever going to get out. It ends up being very claustrophobic and isolating when you can’t drive.” The 28-year-old producer, who lives in London now, says the difference between Transport for London’s (TfL) services and the transport back home is night and day. “I just can’t believe how far behind we still are in rural areas.”

When it comes to intercity travel, Fergus also feels frustrated that there is only one train he can get into London, which can end up costing him between £50 and £60 with a railcard discount. “It’s difficult and slow.” 

Anyone who has used a train service in the last year will know that intercity travel in the UK can be appalling more often than not. In Yorkshire, for example, it takes 20 minutes to get from Leeds to Bradford — two cities that are eight miles apart. It was quicker to get between the two when steam engines were running over a hundred years ago.

The disparity in transport systems is geographical too. In 2017, the capital’s transport spending was over three times greater per head than that of the East Midlands, the South West or North East. Many rural regions of the country are so badly connected that it’s much faster and often cheaper (for those who can afford it) to drive instead. Those on lower incomes and who can’t afford to drive, spend 12% of their disposable income on transport. Some pockets of England, like the worst performing West Somerset, are so underserved by services that it can take an average 1 hour 46 minutes to travel to work on public transport.

In recent years, strong devolved mayoral areas like Greater Manchester, North of Tyne and Liverpool City Region have made great strides in investing billions of pounds in local transport services. Yet many rural, coastal and other previously industrial areas of the country currently do not have the same political power to do the same.

Khan from Possible suggests a multi-pronged approach: set traffic reduction targets, put in a national pay-per-mile charging scheme – “this tax has to be progressive, not regressive, meaning those that earn the most, drive the most, and operate the most polluting cars should be the ones hit hardest with the charge”, she caveats – and invest the revenue generated from this scheme into public transport infrastructure, particularly buses and cycling. “We should also stop pouring money into building roads, as those billions of pounds could be better served being spent on public transport instead of further incentivising private car usage.”

In the longer term, nationalisation or more public control over transport would mean that services would be answerable to those who use them. “Giving the public control of public transport can ensure buses are operated in the public’s best interest. This means more control over fares, routes, and frequency of services, and profits from busy routes can be used to subsidise quieter ones,” Khan expands. She also insists that local authorities be given the power to make decisions on behalf of their communities.

The answer is as clear as day. Not only is fixing Britain’s public transport system possible, but it would immeasurably improve most people’s lives – giving us a cheap, climate-friendly solution to travel that opens horizons, allowing us to live in healthy, sustainable and functioning communities. Social inequalities would be addressed too, especially as marginalised communities and people from deprived areas are more likely to live in high-traffic areas, inhaling toxic air pollution and becoming casualties of crashes. A better world is possible, not building one is a political choice.

Follow Diyora on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.