Email: “Hi Mum. Back in Bristol safe and sound. Hardly had to wait for the bus. Straight on to the train at Barnstaple and next to no waiting at Exeter. Who needs a car? Luv Nicky.”
Confession: I made this up. But wouldn’t any parent be glad to get such an email when daughter or son goes off to work? And wouldn’t it be good if journeys by public transport were always so smooth? I’m an optimist. I see many new buses in and around North Devon. I note how our rail link with Exeter is being improved. I’m sure that we could have a first rate system of public transport. But we haven’t got one yet.
That’s why I’m involved with North Devon Public Transport Users, an organisation which campaigns for better public transport for our area. Later, I’ll outline some of our ideas for bringing this about. First, though, let’s look at some tales people have told us.
For a Bicton College student, bussing home to Torrington each weekend took three hours. For another young person, a change in Sunday bus provision made a job in Barnstaple unsustainable. For people queueing at shelterless bus stops, rain brings misery.
For a Bickington resident, a family funeral near Wadebridge involved more than eleven hours on buses and trains, with many long waits for connections. For an elderly couple returning from Brighton, the last part of their journey, from Exeter to Barnstaple on an overcrowded train, seemed endless: it was just awful.
These experiences, and more, are recounted on our website, www.ndptu.org.uk. They point to shortcomings in northern Devon’s public transport provision. For people without other means of getting about, these deficiences make life hard. They restrict access to jobs and make it harder to get work which is available. For youngsters, attending college courses is made more difficult. For the elderly, getting to health centres and keeping up with friends and family are difficult. In rural areas especially, where services are at their sparsest, there is serious transport poverty.
For the population as a whole, car dependency is reinforced. Of course there is nothing to touch the private motor vehicle for convenience. But at busy times this evaporates. Each additional vehicle adds to congestion. Everything seizes up. Few in northern Devon will be unaware of how increasing traffic means ever earlier starts for work and later homecomings.
The consequences for all are obvious: poorer air quality; noise pollution; environmental damage; more accidents; loss of precious leisure time; economic constraint: readers can make their own further contributions to the list.
What can be done? You can’t force people out of their cars, but you can coax them. That would be for the good of everyone. Nothing less than a radical overhaul of public transport provision is needed.
In spite of northern Devon’s predominantly rural nature, most of its population lives and works (and shops, attends schools and hospitals, and so on) in the towns around the Taw and Torridge estuaries. Better buses already attract new passengers, but substantial improvements in the facilities which support them are urgently needed. All stops need shelters which protect users from rain and wind, and, where space is sufficient, allow them to sit down. All need consistently positioned raised pavements to ease access to buses, prominent route signage and fully legible bus time information.
Rural bus services, too long the poor relation, need substantial upgrading. Proper protection for waiting passengers would be a start. Regularising bus frequencies and introducing at least some evening and Sunday working should follow.
Buses are central to getting people around within northern Devon. Rail is the obvious answer to getting them into and out of it. An end is needed, however, to a great muddle. On the one hand, rail provides the main public transport link between the populous urban areas of northern Devon, Exeter and the rest of the country. On the other, it offers a service to a number of tiny settlements along the line.
These settlements need public transport. Providing it by rail via the minor stations, however, absorbs far more than its fair share of public funds. Buses would reach more people and release funds to support rural services generally. It would also allow a substantial reduction in Barnstaple – Exeter train journey times. With anticipated improvements on the main line, northern Devon could be within three hours reach of London. Moreover, by making an hourly service possible throughout each day, fully integrating bus and rail services would be easier. Northern Devon could, at long last, have the joined-up system of public transport it needs.
Such a system would reduce our abject dependency on cars, improve transport for thousands and the quality of life for everyone. Our county and district councils are key to getting one developed. Do our councillors have the vision, awareness and commitment to press for the radical changes needed? If not, nobody should rest until they do.
For North Devon Public Transport Users
The text of this comment was submitted by invitation to the Opinion section of the North Devon Journal on 22 May 2014.
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