Monday, 21 October 2013

Liverpool Singing The Bus Lane Blues

Where to even start with the news of the suspension of Liverpool's bus lanes by the Mayor?
Despair at such a crass decision is as good as any, but there'll be plenty of time for hand-wringing over the next few months.
But you really have to wonder at such an amateurish decision by the man in charge of one of our great northern Cities. Apparently there wasn't even a consultation with Arriva, one of the biggest bus operators in Liverpool about this. Of course some will argue that any such discussion would have been a waste of time - vested interests and all that - but surely we can do better than this?
The Mayor hasn't got much data either. Again, it can be argued that lots of figures can be arranged to give you whatever picture you like, but bus lanes in congested Cities doesn't need to be backed up with endless reports - it ought to be obvious that, as part of a comprehensive transport strategy, buses have priority.
And so we tiresomely return to the politics of the selfish.
This isn't about creating a scheme that keeps a City moving. It is all about pandering to a vocal group of motorists who (as usual) don't give a monkeys about a functioning City with lots of people wanting to get from A to B, with a plan that gives priority to the mode of transport that makes the most efficient use of road space.
And shamefully, the Mayor has taken a short-term, populist decision that sends out a really negative view.
I've been to many a European City and what strikes you in most of them is the natural way that public transport is respected and used as part of City life. Whether buses or trams, it naturally has priority and weaves its way around the conurbation. It has been this way for years, but, with a few honourable exceptions, Britain sadly lags behind. We'd rather follow "the American way".
It isn't just shameful short-term pandering to the motorist that the Mayor ought to be thinking about.
Air pollution in our Cities continues to concern us. What does this decision do? It simply encourages more people to drive into an already congested, air polluted City. All the evidence shows that if you provide more road space, it quickly fills up with cars. Buses now have no advantage, so will become less reliable. So more people will drive. And so the ever-diminishing circle downwards continues.
The transport campaigner Ray Wilkes also makes an important observation. Bus lanes are incredibly useful for emergency response vehicles. With all lanes of traffic congested, will fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles take longer to get to an emergency? Has the Mayor consulted with these organisations?
This is all elementary stuff. But I find it fascinating just how blinkered people in high office can sometimes be.
From the barmy suggestion of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to allow people to park for 15 minutes on double yellow lines (what does Eric think might happen to traffic congestion in City Centres if ever that came to fruition, not to mention who polices the inevitable abuse of the suggestion) to comments about "handing over road space to private bus operators to make money" (I've heard this bizarre thought several times) we really are so far behind in our thoughts on suburban transport planning in this country.
I'd like to think a grown-up discussion between the Mayor and interested parties (such as bus operators) long before this was implemented might have saved my despair at today's news. But seeing as he appears not to have even contemplated such an obvious starting point leaves me with the conclusion that this is a "trial" based on a huge abuse of power.
Who has persuaded the Mayor that this is good decision? Business? Motoring lobby? Surely it hasn't been taken on a whim by the man himself wandering around the City looking at lines of traffic whilst buses are whizzing past?
And what does this do for good long-term governance of movement in Liverpool City Centre?
The best schemes run on partnership where various partners know their role and everyone works to the common good.
The Mayor of Liverpool has damaged this trust for reasons not easily understood. And for what? A few populist votes and comments?
If getting people moving around Liverpool City Centre is the aim, why hasn't the City taken a look across to it's near northern neighbour Manchester, where trams patrol the City streets and buses and bus lanes play a vital role in suburban life. If the politicians have failed over the years to build a public transport system that serves the City effectively, what is the point of cutting loose and creating a free-for-all that threatens to paralyse the arteries further?
For a City famous for it's musical heritage, singing the bus lane blues seems appropriate right now....

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Yes, Minister - The Politics of Reshuffle

Ahh, the political "reshuffle".
The attempt to "freshen up" the party scene, give some Departments new impetus, and conveniently remove some awkward ongoing scenarios.
Some view this as inevitable. In Government, as in working life, it can seem like time is a continuous revolving door - the "reorganisation" in companies is often for similar reasons as political reshuffles.
That's as maybe. But sometimes you simply find the right person for the right job. And when you have that spark, and the person themselves is happy in the role, good things happen.
Take Roger French at Brighton & Hove. Until his recent retirement he'd been there donkeys years. But what us transport observers saw on the south coast was inspirational. The company was - and still is - almost always quoted in the list of how to "do" buses right. A little bit of magic whereby the parent company, Go Ahead, let him get on with it. Buses in Brighton are much more than "buses" - they are a real part of the fabric of society there, with Mr French involved in local business groups, etc. The list goes on. Having one of the best local bus operations in the country isn't down to one man, of course. But such leadership - and longevity in the role - creates confidence for the longer term; a block to build on. The bus users of Brighton are reaping the benefits of this little bit of magic.
Which brings me onto Norman Baker - now former Transport Minister.
Like many who take a keen interest in the public transport scene, I've seen many a Transport Minister and Secretary come and go. Many are unmemorable - Transport is often said to be a Department for those on the up, or on the way back down the greasy pole. But Norman Baker struck me as someone "in tune" with transport, and buses in particular. In the latest "reshuffle", he's gone to the Home Office after 3 and a half years in Transport. One of the longest-serving Transport Ministers I can recall. And yet really, it's no time at all.
Transport is a long-term thing. We all collectively sigh that some projects take too long to do - that is often the nature of the beast. But maybe the usual (apart from Norman) revolving of the door at DfT doesn't help. Transport needs long-term plans, and they need to be seen through. Change the politician and there is an excuse to change the policy. Norman Baker seemed to understand the bus industry, and the bus industry seemed to respect him.
Not to be outdone, Ed Miliband also had a go at shuffling his pack on the Labour benches too. Here, Maria Eagle has departed to pastures new and is replaced by Mary Creagh. This has made minimal news, but could prove to be very interesting in the World of transport - especially in the run up to the General Election in around 19 months time. Maria Eagle had made previous rumblings about making Quality Contracts easier to implement, and a few railway-related ideas in her time as Shadow to suggest that, should Labour win the 2015 General Election, we may see significant change to the way the UK's public transport is structured. Will that message change with Mary Creagh?
It's all "short termism" and for an industry like buses, it means that we never achieve full potential. We get the likes of Eric Pickles' knee-jerk ideas like cramming more cars into town centres. Populist? Maybe. But he obviously never even thought to discuss them with the likes of Norman Baker and others at DfT. Result? A complete lack of joined-up thinking that gives little confidence in transport governance for the longer term.
Oh to have political figures with a real passion and understanding of the brief kept in position for the long term! Norman Baker was an extremely rare example, and now he's gone. Lord Andrew Adonis is another political figure who has transport nous. He needs a real political transport role with teeth.
In the meantime, the transport industry must again keep one eye on the messages coming out of politicians with the transport brief. Will they have real passion for the role, or for them is it just another career fare-stage?