The Transport Debate: What a ‘normal’ family experiences in modern-day Britain

Iain Docherty

Iain Docherty

Jon Shaw

Jon Shaw

After several years almost out-of-sight, transport is creeping up the political agenda with government decision-making on projects such as HS2 being vigorously scrutinised as never before. The transport debate is a genuinely novel approach to thinking through the choices that face individuals and society, using the familiar idea of the journey as the basis for discussion. The featured journeys – the commute, the school run, the business trip, the family visit and the summer holiday – are made by members of the fictional Smith family, who uncover a wide array of transport issues as they travel around middle England and beyond. The Smiths face up to the very same problems we all encounter as we travel around, and reflect on their experiences to start to think about why they actually come about; which policy trade-offs were responsible for creating them in the first place; what impacts we all have to suffer as a result; and what we can do to fix them.

The Commute
The central character Paul, the archetypal ‘Motorway Man’ on whom the outcome of the 2010 General Election was said to have hinged, used to drive the eight miles to and from work along the motorway each day. But Paul now takes the train to work most of the time: not because of anything that transport policy did, or that the rail service improved or even because the rising cost of petrol made him think about alternatives, but instead because his doctors implored him to get more exercise as well as giving up smoking and watching his diet. At first he found even the 10-minute walk either end of the train trip a chore, but he knew that just by taking the train to work he was building in more than the half hour’s exercise per day that he’d been told to aim for. Once he mastered the iPod the children bought him last Christmas, his morning and evening walks have become even became enjoyable.

His wife Susan, on the other hand, remains a die-hard driver. Her typical day begins with the school run, and then more battling through the traffic to her office on the edge of town. When Susan first began this commute the main road out to the business park was nice and quiet, and had a 40 mph limit. But when that new supermarket was built and it needed a big roundabout that slowed everything down … To add insult to injury, the road now has a 30 mph limit and bus lanes – bus lanes! – for much of its length. Stuck in a longer than usual queue one day, she stares at the empty red tarmac and concludes that every planner in the land is out to get her with their trendy ideas.

But it’s not until one unfortunate morning when both of the Smith’s cars are out of action that Susan is confronted with the everyday reality for people like her office cleaner who don’t have a car in the first place. Going in one direction to school and then the other to work seems almost impossible because the buses don’t seem to join up, so Susan ends up resorting to taxis and lift sharing. Being without her car is discomfiting, but the experience forces her to consider why the family’s life is organized the way it is. Securing a place requested for Sophie in a school with better results has certainly seemed to help her education. But the short walk to the school gates of old has been replaced by a much longer car trip in the opposite direction from work. And why does everybody have to be in the office at the same time each day anyway? It’s not as if lots of work couldn’t be done from home now, and that would make things much easier on days when things go wrong.

The Business Trip
Once a month, Paul makes the trip to this company HQ in London Docklands. Today, unimpressed with the idea of his usual walk to the station in a near-monsoon, he decides to get the bus. Paul likes to think of himself as reasonably tech-savvy and quickly checks the timetable online finding a bus in a few minutes that will do the trick. As he puts his phone away, he wonders why, in the days of video conferencing and Skype, his company still spends a load of money sending people from all over the place to sit around the same table for a few hours. But as his boss, John, once neatly summarized in his southern American drawl, face-to-face communication remains important in the digital age because ‘I need to see the whites of your eyes when you give me bad figures, dude’.

Paul’s journey to London turns out to be far removed from the ‘seamless’ experience that recent newspaper articles about improved public transport promised. He gets to the bus stop with a couple of minutes to spare according to the timetable only to see the tail-lights of a bus disappearing into the distance. Another one doesn’t show up until just after 7.15 and now he’s getting nervous about catching his train. Without really thinking he flashes his rail season ticket at the bus driver, who looks quizzically back. ‘That’s your train ticket, sir; it’s years since we did travelcards for the buses and trains on this route. If you’re going to the station, that’ll be £1.70.’ Paul fumbles around in his pocket, holding up the bus in the process of finding the correct change. Once sat down, he wonders why it’s all so different in London where everyone just taps in and out with an Oyster card.

Paul’s journey goes from bad to worse as he experiences the perils of our fragmented railway: pressed for time he forgot to get his London ticket from the machine at his local station, and as his train spends a long time limping into Birmingham New Street he’s only got a couple of minutes to get to the FastTicket machine and back to the platform. When he does so, the inevitable has happened: the doors have just closed, the member of platform staff offers an apologetic shake of the head, and the Pendolino eases off into the tunnel. When the train manager comes round Paul finds out that he’ll have to buy a new walk-on ticket for his journey since his apex ticket was only valid on the previous train. Amazed at the high prices, and realising he may well have to pay for the replacement ticket himself, Paul somewhat ignominiously walks out of First class and heads for Standard class. But hardly any of the seats have proper tables and there are no power sockets available. As he forgot to charge his laptop, he has to give up on his presentation, sleep replacing work for the next hour.

The Summer Holiday
All of the children are excited about the family holiday, even though it would not be cool for Jack to admit it and Sophie’s been telling all her friends that she’d rather be going on a party trip to Malia. Given that Sophie will be 18 next year, this may well be the last time that they all get to go on this kind of holiday together. So Paul and Susan decided the family should all go to the south of France together, a place that Paul and Susan visited twice before the children arrived, and loved.

At Heathrow, conversation turns to how busy the airport is and the amount of construction going on. Paul wonders if the go-ahead for the third runway has already in fact been given; and with the amount of time their plane spends waiting for a take-off slot, once airborne, the whole family is in agreement that it would be a good idea. Looking down at thousands of suburban houses just like the Smiths’ own, Paul wonders what the noise must be like for people living under the flight path.

The sun shines on the Cote d’Azur for the whole of the Smiths’ holiday and Paul and Susan’s stresses well and truly drift away. During the second week of the holiday, even Susan gets a bit tired of the beach and joins Paul for a day wandering around Nice. They can’t help but be impressed by the modern tram system and come across an exhibition about the construction of a new line. But it’s the quality of the public spaces and the extent of pedestrianisation that most surprises and delights them both – what a great place to walk around for the day spending money in the shops and cafés.

The following day it is with heavy hearts that everyone packs up their things and ambles to the station to begin the journey home. Tanned and reinvigorated after two weeks of sun and Mediterranean food and drink, the family boards the TGV for their final couple of days in Paris. A friend had suggested that the Smiths should go home by rail rather than fly. Of course they thought this was a ludicrous idea until they found out just how quick it was, and that they could get bargain fares by booking early. The family can’t believe how smooth the ride is at nearly 200 mph as the train roars past the Burgundy vineyards, and as they head north at such speed, Paul’s mind drifts back to the bumpy and cramped hours in a Pendolino that he endures every month. ‘Why is it that everything seems to cost more in Britain but the service quality isn’t so good?” he thinks, putting his earphones back in.

Sorry for any inconvenience caused
In the book, there is more about these and the other journeys that the Smiths make as they go about their daily lives. They begin to realize that the choices they make about how to travel, and how well the transport system meets their needs and wants, reveals much about our collective assumptions on how the economy works, and how transport can best contribute. Thinking through the interaction of these economic, social and environmental benefits and costs in the round, the authors arrive at three rather fundamental questions that illuminate The Transport Debate as we find it in the UK: first, what is it, actually, that we want our transport systems to do? Second, what is the optimal balance between the different kinds of benefits and costs that arise from our transport systems? Third, how do we set about achieving this balance?

Throughout the book, the authors celebrate the advantages of a modern transport system, but argue that years of poorly conceived and executed transport policy have resulted in Britain’s transport system being far worse than it should be. They show that substandard transport creates economic, social and environmental costs, but also how these can be addressed through affordable and politically deliverable changes.

The transport debate was published in January 2014 by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. Jon Shaw is Professor and Head of Geography with Plymouth University. Iain Docherty is Professor of Public Policy and Governance and Head of Management at the University of Glasgow.

Reproduced with kind permission of the authors and Transport Times.

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