Cambridgeshire Campaign for Better Transport

Newsletter 108, January 2011


Let us fast forward a few years to eavesdrop on a conversation between Mr X and his lawyer. Mr X told his son to eat grass and is on trial for cruelty. He is in solitary confinement at his own request to avoid being bullied by other prisoners as a child abuser. Here is his story.

My life was quite ordinary and happy until a few years ago -- I went to university, got an interesting and well paid job in my local council's sustainability department, got married, had children and bought a house. Indeed I was the first in my family to go to university or buy a house.

Then tragedy struck when the car in which my parents were travelling with my wife and younger son crashed head on with another car. All four died, leaving me alone in the world except for my elder son. Neither driver was at fault -- there was an oil spill on the road.

Fortunately my remaining son was old enough to make his own way to school, so I could carry on working as normal, though I did have to make arrangements to ensure he could be kept amused during the holidays. Still, I was able to cope.

The trouble came with the local government cuts. As the future of the human life support system was not one of our council's priorities, the sustainability department was drastically cut. Then someone noticed that they could avoid paying me redundancy because, due to other cuts by the same council, the bus that I caught to work every day was about to be axed, so I'd have to resign (I did try cycling, but 2 hours each way every day was far too much for me).

The new legislation is very strict in requiring unemployed people to take any job on offer, however unsuited to their abilities -- especially with those who resigned their jobs who were deemed to be "intentionally unemployed" (withdrawal of transport to one's employment not being deemed a relevant excuse). I was also handicapped by being limited to local jobs by the lack of transport. I found myself assigned to a manual job at a level of pay that meant one more or less had to do overtime to survive. I didn't have the stamina to do overtime.

Of course I still had my mortgage and student loan to pay off. Just as well that in my day tuition fees weren't at the astronomical levels of today! My inheritance from my parents -- mostly what the insurance companies paid out after the tragedy -- was fast disappearing; indeed it had to, because as long as I had any savings I couldn't get any help with my mortgage.

And all the time my capability to seek a better life was undermined because of the sheer difficulties of getting around after the bus cuts.

I wrote to my (Lib Dem) MP expressing my outrage that his party (which I'd voted for at the 2010 general election) was supporting a government that had forced me out of an interesting, worthwhile and well paid job, for which I was properly trained, into one which was badly paid and required skills I didn't have; I said this was quite contrary to what I thought were Lib Dem principles; his reply, more or less, was "We are all Cameronites now". When I reminded him of Cameron's promise that his government would be the "greenest ever" he couldn't find an answer.

I then thought to myself. Cameron came to power inheriting a large national debt, because Brown had had to bail out the banks to preserve people's savings. Cameron's policies were aimed at getting our country to live within its means. I was faced with a large personal debt which my income wasn't enough to service. Could I apply his policies to my family?

Well, just as he targeted his cuts on public spending -- money obtained by taxing A to pay for services required by B -- so I should target my personal cuts on the money I spent on my son. It broke my heart to do this but it seemed to me that the logic was absolutely compelling. My son was getting free school meals, and I provided him with the equivalent at weekends and during school holidays; but I said that, if he needed any more, what was good enough for the cows and sheep was good enough for him. And it's as a result of this that I am where I am now.

His lawyer said "Just a few questions. First, did you ever think of getting a car?" "Well I never learnt to drive. By the time I reached driving age I was a committed environmentalist and had made a vow to eschew the car unless circumstances compelled me. I said so at my original job interview, and I felt that they were impressed with my commitment. And the tragedy has made me nervous about travelling by car so I think I'd be an awful driver anyway."

"Did you think of moving house?" "Yes. But the day to day demands of my job, together with keeping house and looking after my son, meant that I didn't really have the time or energy to deal with house hunting, especially given the difficulties in getting around. And then if I did find a house and move, I'd have to resign my job which, the way things are now, would mean I'd have absolutely nothing to live on till I got another job."

"Did you ever think of living on grass yourself?" "Yes I actually tried it, but I found that I couldn't do my job, and decided that if I lost it I'd be still worse off. At least if my son couldn't concentrate on his schoolwork due to inadequate nutrition there would be teachers to help him."

"Well, I'll do my best for you, but I'm afraid you'll have to plead guilty and will probably go to prison. But you seem the public spirited type. I have a friend who might be interested in making a film about your plight. It could become another "Cathy Come Home". I think that if you cooperate, the film will raise such an outcry that you'll be out in no time. Are you interested?" "You bet!"

This is of course pure fiction. The behaviour of all the characters, from Mr X himself to his local council, and the legislative background, is determined by what's needed to make the story work. In particular we wish to deny any suggestion that we are implying that the MP for Cambridge (the only Lib Dem in our area), or any other Lib Dem MP, would behave like the one in the story. However let us bear the following in mind:

1. The development campaigner Susan George did record a case of a mother who was feeding her child on "cakes" made of newspaper to still the child's hunger pangs because she couldn't afford proper food.

2. The most draconian of the options in Cambs CC's budget consultation would eliminate all supported bus services. Even the less draconian options are likely to prevent some people from getting to work, especially with so many jobs being part-time or involving evening and/or Sunday working.

3. The Government has talked about tightening the rules for jobseekers and is definitely planning to impose large rises on tuition fees.

4. The implementation of spending cuts on local government has ignored the needs of the services involved. Let's be clear as to what the main message of the story is intended to be: just as there's no way in which grass can satisfy the nutrition needs of humans, there's simply no way that the free market can satisfy the transport needs of non-motorists in this car-dominated society.

5. Cameron's actions are in a very real sense worse than Mr X's, because there are big differences between national and household economies. In particular, internal trading for money plays only a small role in a household economy, but it plays a big role in a national economy. The point is that reduction in internal trading can't help in reducing a national deficit, while the main impact of public spending cuts is on internal trading, far more than that of tax increases aimed at discouraging spending on consumer goods.

We described the present situation in Cambs in our emergency newsletter, which would have been distributed to most of you shortly before Christmas. Briefly, the Council's budget consultation put forward 4 options ranging from maintaining support at present levels to abolishing it entirely. The intermediate options were to remove 50 out of 80 contracted services and to remove 15 of them and reduce service levels on others. We regard all 3 "cuts" options as draconian, though of course to varying degrees; and we suspect that the worst options are being put forward in accordance with the time-honoured tactic of trying to make the intermediate options seem less draconian than they are. If anything more money is likely to be needed to support buses in coming years because of other cuts in Government support.

We are hoping to address Cambs CC's Cabinet meeting on Tue 25 Jan, and also to table a question for them to answer at the full council meeting on Tue 15 Feb. But it would obviously help us if you lobbied your own county councillors telling them to make their concerns known to the leadership. Please bear the above dates in mind -- if you want to influence the decision don't wait till it's been made.

Here are some arguments you can use, taken from our emergency newsletter.

1. Has the Council done any survey of the effect of the various cuts options? Will people be forced out of their jobs as per our story? Will they lose access to food or medical services? It really won't do to wave a magic wand and expect community buses to fill the gap.

2. Bus cuts will have knock-on effects on the rest of the network, especially in the longer term in which people buy extra cars or move houses. In particular if your bus service is commercial don't be complacent -- operators are at liberty to withdraw services at any time.

3. Buses are essential to all 5 of the Council's strategic objectives -- both by providing alternatives for motorists and by providing for the transport needs of non-motorists.

4. People will rightly feel resentful if the Council begrudges the relatively small cost of bus support while continuing to lavish money on the guided busway. Its cost overrun would have paid for all our buses for a generation!

5. Buses account for only a small fraction of the county's transport budget, but they are the only means of transport available to a significant proportion of the county's population.

6. Sometime we'll have to recognise that the supply of fossil fuels is limited and it would help if we had a transport system that didn't rely on everyone travelling in their own motor vehicle.

7. You may wish to present the "do nothing" option as a compromise between the "cuts" option and what is really needed to give all the people of Cambs adequate mobility. See our next article for what this might mean.

Remember that anti-cuts campaigning needs to be directed nationallyas well as locally . It is the national government that is 100% responsible for reducing funding for local authorities, for removing the ring-fencing of concessionary fare support, and for the impending effective doubling of fuel duty paid by buses as a result of the reduction in Bus Service Operator Grant.

HEALTH WARNING: READING THIS BOOK WILL MAKE YOU FURIOUS... our transport planners and politicians, for depriving us of the benefits of an integrated transport system -- and very likely soon, in many areas, of public transport altogether.

The book, by Paul Mees from Australia, has the prosaic title "Transport in Suburbia". See this excerpt from the book, and a link which enables one to order the book online. For those ordering the book from a bookshop the publisher is Earthscan, the ISBN number is 978-1-84407-740-3 and the price is 39.99 (yes this is expensive, but we think it's worth it, and there's a 20% discount for online orders which more than offsets postage & packing). The main text of the book has 201 pages.

The main purpose of the book is to refute the school of thought that says that if we want quality public transport we have to rebuild our suburbs at city centre densities. High densities have many advantages -- more journeys can be walked and cycled; shorter travel distances make them more sustainable overall; and they use up less countryside -- but they are not essential for good public transport, and the book shows what's needed for effective transport systems in suburbs. What's more -- of particular interest to people in Cambridgeshire -- the same ideas also work in small towns and rural areas.

For best practice he goes to Switzerland. Many of us will be vaguely aware of their reputation for quality transport, but most, including the reviewer, would not previously have known how much better it is. As we want to convey a vision of how much better our transport could be, let us summarise what he says about the Swiss system.

He starts with Sternenberg, a community in Zurich canton, not on the road to anywhere else, with a population of just 349. Villages of 300 people qualify for an hourly service 7 days a week (please ensure you note this). However the population of Sternenberg is scattered between hamlets, so it "only" has 5-7 buses, every day including Sundays, connecting at the railhead (Bauma, pop 1000+) with suburban trains and other buses serving other parts of the canton. Of course one can also connect with main line trains for longer distance (including international) travel.

Is this because the Swiss can afford to have large numbers of buses carting fresh air around? No, the buses is well used. Indeed, in 2000 no less than 19% of Sternenbergers used public transport to work -- more than in every English metropolitan area except Greater London and Tyne & Wear, even though almost everyone in such areas would have more buses than Sternenberg. We may also make comparisons with Cambridge City (9.1%) and Cambridgeshire (6.7%), these including those who drive to a station to catch a train to London. We can therefore see that as far as passenger potential is concerned Sternenberg is equivalent to quite a large English village.

In fact the subsidy for the average journey in Zurich canton is similar to that prevailing in London or Greater Manchester. How do the Swiss work this miracle? By designing a transport system enabling people to get from anywhere to anywhere with minimum fuss interchanges. There are no "no go" areas in Zurich canton. Buses and trains are timed to connect and there's through ticketing. In fact, in Zurich City, half the population have zonal season tickets -- more than own cars. In the canton as a whole about a quarter of people have season tickets.

The author describes how this system was designed by a people's initiative and received majority support in a referendum. Contrast this with, say, Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, where planners conspired to prevent the public from having a say over their plans for a "motorway box" for the city, which now has one of the lowest rates of public transport usage anywhere in the world.

The author also describes how the urban area of Schaffhausen and Neuhausen, with just 44,000 people, manages 3/4 the number of bus trips as the whole of Cambridgeshire (pop 570,000); how the remote rural canton of Graubunden modelled its transport system on Zurich's, with a daily service for every village and 2 hourly services for villages with just 100 people; and how, nationally, Swiss voters rejected both a "Beeching" and a high speed rail plan in favour of the nationally integrated train timetable they now have.

It's easy to try out the Swiss system on the Internet. Go to the website of the Zurich regional transport authority. Click on "Stop specific timetable" than feed in "Stop" and "Sternenberg, Kirche" and you'll find the full timetable of route 809 to Bauma. Try almost any other stop, such as Volken (pop 268), where you'll find an hourly service on route 675. (Yes, Volken is en route to the larger community of Flaach, but Flaach is also served by the 670 so would have an hourly service without the 675.)

See the Swiss railways and postal buses websites. The latter aren't postbuses in our sense but ordinary buses which happen to be run by the Post Office. They covers the whole country -- for example, in Graubunden, by choosing Fuldera (pop 115) one can find the regular route (811), through the Swiss National Park, linking railheads at Zernez and Mals (or Malles) -- the latter in the Venosta Valley across the Italian border. There's also the feeder service to Lu (pop 62) which has 6-9 minibuses every day. If all this inspires you to choose the area for your next holiday, try to see what's in store on the Italian side. (Note that, due to varying languages, in Italy as well as Switzerland, many places have more than one name.)

The author also quotes figures for school travel in Switzerland. The figures for Zurich canton -- Schaffhuasen and Graubunden are similar -- are about 66% on foot or by bike, 31% public transport, and 3% car. Remote Sternenberg is worse at 59%, 23% and 18%, but that's still better than the UK figures of 49%, 20% and 31%. (Some of these figures have been changed slightly so as to add up to 100%.)

The author concludes the section on Sternenberg by saying "Sternenberg has not yet moved beyond the automobile age, but it is ready if it needs to", i.e. if oil supplies were interrupted or transport emissions rationed.

How does what the author calls the "Anglosphere" compare? The author begins the book (and the excerpt) by showing how poor bus/rail links have alienated from public transport students at Monash University, in the suburbs of his home city (Melbourne). The reviewer was irresistibly reminded of connectional problems at Cambridge station.

In the UK shires, as well as Cambridgeshire the author also cites East Lindsey, the district of Lincolnshire containing Skegness and Louth, where a mere 3% of people travel to work by public transport. This compares with 19% in Graubunden, about the same size as Lincolnshire but with about 30% of its population.

But East Lindsey has by no means reached rock bottom (yet), as the author then visits the North Coast of New South Wales in his home country, with a population density slightly higher than Graubunden's. The area, popular with (presumably mostly car-borne) tourists, has inter-urban buses to Brisbane and Sydney, but its railway has no regular passenger trains and there are few local buses, so under 2% of people travel to work by public transport. The area is popular with "greenies" and hosts the only Australian local council controlled by the Green Party. It has many community markets, which lead to a sea of car parking and monumental traffic jams. At one point they sought advice from transport "experts", but were told that public transport was impractical; they ended up with a bike plan, but as typical commuting distances are 10-40km this had little relevance to people's needs.

What accounts for these huge differences in public transport effectiveness? The author is in no doubt about this: it's whether the system is run as a network or as a collection of individual routes. Effective networks require attention to connections and through ticketing; if these are available, then it's a myth that people won't make journeys that require changing. Furthermore, it is essential that networks provide comprehensive coverage so that there are virtually no journeys which can only be made by car.

The author also says that effective networks are impossible unless what he calls "tactical" planning -- timetabling and ticketing -- is in the hands of an area-wide public body. Public transport is a "natural monopoly" -- a system that works best when delivered (at tactical level) by a single organisation -- not because of economies of scale, but economies of scope -- i.e. only comprehensive planning can provide comprehensive coverage.

He therefore rejects both deregulation and franchising. Since New Zealand opted out in 2009 we're the only developed country left still practising the former -- despite the hugely better performance of buses in regulated London, where patronage has nearly doubled as against nearly halving in the other metropolitan areas. Our rail franchising system combines bureaucracy with unaccountability, and he describes how franchising has failed his home city, and how in the interwar period it led to the decline of light rail in cities like Los Angeles to the point where the systems were eventually taken over and closed by General Motors.

We now turn to the author's comments on various proposed solutions to transport problems; he says some of them are worthwhile, but no substitute for securing effective public transport networks; while for others he says the benefits are exaggerated. We suspect that many readers will disagree with some of his contentions, but we think his main argument is powerful enough to survive such disagreements.

For example take the chapter on busways which will be of particular interest to Cambridgeshire people. In some cases they are effective, in some cases not -- it depends on whether the relevant authority is conscious of the need for an effective network. There is an eloquent contrast between the Brazilian cities of Curitiba, where there is an effective network, and Foz do Iguacu, where there isn't. Other busway cities studied are Adelaide, Brisbane and Ottawa. The Cambridgeshire busway was chosen in preference to rail specifically to avoid the need for interchange, which doesn't augur well for its prospects.

What he calls "balanced transport policies" -- public transport for journeys to city centres, cars elsewhere -- don't work, because suburbanization means that more journeys are avoiding city centres. Neither has he any time for technology-based solutions -- from "green cars" to personal rapid transit.

The author says that congestion charging can play only a minor role in sustainable urban transport; he prefers restraint by congestion, provided that buses can bypass the congestion. Unfortunately in Britain, including London, there seem to be great difficulties in creating effective bus priority networks.

As for cycling, the author says that it's far more effective to encourage ordinary people to cycle rather than to cater for cycling enthusiasts, and it's an inefficient use of space to take bikes on urban and commuter (as opposed to rural and inter-urban) trains, trams and buses. (He doesn't mention folding bikes.) He says that "public bike" schemes like that recently introduced in London are of limited value because most of the journeys made on them would otherwise have been walked.

As for Park & Ride, it can only be a supplementary access mode, not the main solution (whatever Cambs CC think). He points to a case in Melbourne where almost all users of a new site had previously gone the whole way by bus.

He also describes free travel schemes like our concessionary bus passes as the last resort of politicians who have run out of other ideas.

Jitneys -- small vehicles that go when they have enough passengers -- may provide transport in dense low income cities like Manila, but they won't work in affluent suburban areas.

He regards the evidence in favour of behavioural change schemes such as Travelsmart (which was tried in Peterborough) and "walking school buses" as flawed; but he considers that there is a synergy between public transport and walking because if people get into the habit of walking to bus stops or stations they are more likely to make their local journeys on foot.

We conclude by quoting the last paragraph of the book: "Transport politics will have to change as well, but there is ample evidence that, when given a genuine choice, communities will not only vote for radically improved public transport, they will even use it. But the easiest change of all is the most necessary of all. Before we can provide public transport solutions for suburbia, we must stop telling ourselves that the task is impossible."

Branch news

There are still a few members who haven't renewed for 2010-1. We are sending them this newsletter because every extra voice in favour of buses may help save our county network. But if you receive a renewal slip please respond to it so that you can continue to receive our newsletters.

At our AGM the constitution as distributed to members with Newsletter 107 was agreed. We also resolved not to renew our affiliation with the CSRRA, and to remove our walking and waterways representatives (neither of whom are branch members) and make our Secretary responsible for issues not covered specifically by other "mode representatives".

Cambridge Carbon Footprint have asked us to publicise an event on Fri 11 Feb: Zero Carbon Britain 2030, 19.30-21.30, St Luke's Church Centre, Victoria Road, Cambridge. The Centre for Alternative Technology will be talking about their report, whose transport proposals require large scale traffic reduction. Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, will be introducing the event.


According to the Cambridge Evening News of 1 Dec 2010, Cllr Nichola Harrison announced her resignation from the Lib Dem group of the County Council to work on a project aimed at stimulating public debate about how Cambridgeshire can achieve the quality transport system it needs and deserves. We look forward to working with her when she is ready.

Thomas Cook have announced that they are ceasing publication of their Overseas timetable which covers the whole world other than Europe. There will be some expansion of the European timetable which will partly offset this. We are hoping to get an article about this for a future newsletter.

Cambridge library now has timetables for Cambridgeshire and most but not all surrounding counties. It also has the two Thomas Cook international timetables, though as stated above one of them is being discontinued.

Public transport news

Essex: The X22 between Stansted Airport and Clacton has been withdrawn. However through tickets from Cambridge to East Essex, with railcard discounts, are still available on the X30 between Stansted and Chelmsford.

Milton Keynes: The Coachway has reopened on the old site near M1 J14, and the X5 has been rerouted to serve it. This is longer so we hope its timekeeping isn't too badly affected. We would be grateful for any information about the timekeeping of the 06.30 ex Cambridge which in our experience was the worst affected journey -- and passengers from Cambridge who don't want to rely on a connection off it have to leave a whole hour earlier. Also in Milton Keynes, the X34 to Flitwick has been withdrawn -- we believe that a route on this corridor would have a better chance of attracting passengers if it was part of an integrated network.

Bucks: A new 160 route between Aylesbury and Bicester is now running at weekends, passing close to the Bucks Railway Centre and Waddesdon Manor. From Cambridge connect off the X5 at 07.40 on Saturdays and 08.10 on Sundays.

Kent: The period return fare from Cambridge to Gravesend, including travel on the high speed train from St Pancras, is unchanged at 20-15, so costs no more than a period return to London.

N Yorks: Stephenson's of Easingwold have introduced a new network of services for the area between York, Helmsley and Malton, in particular serving Castle Howard. See their website for details.

Cornwall: Last year a booklet was produced to promote sustainable tourism in the Fal estuary, between Truro and Falmouth, with boat, train and bus timetables, which you can download. We hope services will still be running this summer.

Action Line

Just three things: continue to remind local and national politicians of the importance of sustainable transport and buses in particular; if you haven't paid up for this year's membership, please do so! And there's the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 event as mentioned above.