David Carr: Me and my bus pass - good, free public transport for all

CommonSpace columnist David Carr explores what public transport means to our lives - and how it could be made better

I HAVE a card in my wallet that gives me free bus travel all over Scotland. The result of legislation carried through parliament by the Scottish Socialist Party, it is available to people over 60 or with a disability. 

I can’t use night buses - that’s past disableds’ bedtime - but at least it lets me take someone along with me, in case I wander off.

Like 49 per cent of Glasgow’s households, I don’t have a car. Travel in Glasgow - especially with the privately operated First Bus - is outrageously expensive. A single has gone up to £2.40. Life would be less liveable without my card.

With free travel, I can take part in Glasgow’s economic, social, cultural and political life. It connects me to the rest of the city.

With free travel, I can take part in Glasgow’s economic, social, cultural and political life. It connects me to the rest of the city. I can also travel to Edinburgh and use their buses. The municipally run Lothian Buses contrasts with First Bus's clapped out service.

If free public transport is good for me, why wouldn't it be for all? Many cities worldwide provide this service, including in Europe, Brazil, the United States, China and Israel. 

A pioneer was Hasselt in Belgium, which invested heavily to make its scheme work, but received many benefits in return. These included shorter journeys (no delays collecting fares), reduced passenger aggression, support for local businesses, mobility for those on low incomes, reduced congestion and lower carbon emissions. 

The biggest criticism of free services I’ve seen is that they can attract "the wrong sort of passenger" - like 49 per cent of Glasgow.

But for free public transport to work it needs to be good. Services must be frequent and uncrowded. They must get you easily to where you want to go. Glasgow’s public transport - let’s say - has shortcomings.

Ellie Harrison of the F**k First Buses campaign group has physically dragged me - in the nicest possible way - into the Get Glasgow Moving campaign. I’m calling it 'The Ellie Effect'. 

I can also travel to Edinburgh and use their buses. The municipally run Lothian Buses contrasts with First Bus's clapped out service.

Ellie is interested in hearing about people's transport stories as a way of thinking about what can be done better. My bus pass helped me publicise the last meeting; get on a bus, leave leaflets on seats, chat to passengers about them, thank driver and get off, cross the road, repeat until no more leaflets.

I only returned to the 49 per cent last year. I worked on the Broomielaw until my employer relocated to Scotstoun. Suddenly, 25 minutes reading a book on a reliable train became a grim hour and 20 on a train and bus, and a dreich walk. I switched to car. Google Maps told me it was a 25-minute journey. Aye, right. I’d sit on the linear car park that is the M77, spewing out diesel fumes and shouting at Radio 4. 

I couldn’t read. I’d arrive late and stressed and I’d have to leave early again to collect my kids. Lack of a decent public transport route had economic, personal and environmental impacts.

Where I stay now in Govanhill, services are good. There are frequent trains to Central (concessionary fare, 90p). I can get the No  7, 31, 4, 5, or 6 buses within walking distance (sorry if this is getting a bit bus spotter-y). 

Travelling into town is easy. Onward travel - less so. The connections seldom hook up. And don’t even think of going across town. 

If free public transport is good for me, why wouldn't it be for all? Many cities worldwide provide this service, including in Europe, Brazil, the United States, China and Israel. 

Glasgow’s council services have been increasingly centralised to deliver 'efficiency' savings. However - Glasgow City Council and First Bus haven’t got together to join things up. 

So, for example, the trip to the social work office in Govan is a convoluted bus ride away on an infrequent service with quite a walk at the end - inconvenient for, say, a woman with weans.

For me, the biggest hassle is that the timetables are - let’s just say approximations. I am forever either standing waiting at a bus stop - or walking to another bus stop and watching the bus I was originally waiting for zoom past me. 

There is a simple technical improvement that would make Glasgow travel less stressful. In Edinburgh, they have invested in transponders - wee thingummijigs which send out buses’ location via their onboard wifi. 

Then, signs at bus stops can tell folk reliably when the next bus is due. First Bus seemed to be flirting with the idea - it briefly installed a few signs before switching them off - but crucially, they worked by the fictitious timetables, not real time.

There is a simple technical improvement that would make Glasgow travel less stressful. In Edinburgh, they have invested in transponders - wee thingummijigs which send out buses’ location via their onboard wifi. 

But there’s an app for it. Smartphones can take a lot of the stress and planning out of bus journeys - Google Maps works out the route, and you can use Traveline Scotland for the bus times from your nearest stops. 

But the bus stop one never works for me in Glasgow. You might as well just stand at the stop and read the theoretical timetable. It would be nice to know if you have time to buy a can of juice before the bus comes - these little things reduce stress. 

The other week I had to attend a shipping industry event in Clydebank. My apps helped me with some nifty emergency planning to cope with cancelled trains. It’s a long  story - but if Google had known I was on the late-running, earlier bus which took a slightly different route than the timetabled bus, I wouldn’t have arrived at an important meeting late, stressed and dishevelled following a Google-guided adventure involving a canal towpath and a rain-filled tunnel. 

All of this would have been fixable with cheap transponders. Even better, the train I was meant to catch could have been more reliable and more frequent. It’s a good job nobody was docking my pay or sanctioning my benefits.

Glasgow’s public transport system is based around the vestige of a historically much larger system - more buses and trams, cheaper, more frequent, on more routes, running through the night, taking people right to the edge of the countryside. 

But the profit motive has limited investment in a properly planned transport system to meet today’s needs. Contrast this with cities throughout the UK – Nottingham, Newcastle, Manchester, London –  which have invested and take civic pride in their systems, just as Sheffield did when 2p fares were introduced in the 1980s.

If you’re one of the 49 per cent you’ll have your stories and you’ll be able to think of ways in which better, cheaper public transport can improve your wellbeing and help our working and domestic lives.

If you’re one of the 49 per cent you’ll have your stories and you’ll be able to think of ways in which better, cheaper public transport can improve your wellbeing and help our working and domestic lives.

Let’s imagine a young person staying somewhere like Darnley, a housing scheme to Glasgow’s south. She has to take the bus all around the houses to the shops at nearby Silverburn shopping mall. 

But as Greens co-convenor Patrick Harvie pointed out at a recent Get Glasgow Moving meeting, improving her buses might not be the whole answer. If shops and services were closer - perhaps in some of the derelict local shops - there would be benefits for the local economy, community cohesion and the environment.

But people will still need to travel. Where might she want to reach daily, quickly, reliably and cheaply, sometimes coming back at night? Glasgow University, perhaps. That would be mobility. 

She’d want to change from the bus to the underground at St Enoch’s, but her bus pass would only give her a concession, and it wouldn't be easy to get her wheelchair down to the platform. 

It’s that wee bit harder to get to university from Darnley than from nearby, leafy Giffnock, so let’s not put barriers in anybody’s way.

Picture courtesy of David Carr

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