In this instalment of her bi-weekly column Stephanie Cottle discusses the good, the bad and occasionally ugly realities of public transportation. 

Perceptions of public transport

Cast your mind back, if you can, to life prior to coronavirus. When for most of us, homeworking was a pipe dream and the ritual of the daily commute was an unavoidable fact of life. Pre-corona, most news articles referring to making the commute via public transport were unflattering – often with good cause. As a frequent traveller upon public transport, I can tell you first-hand our British transportation systems can be infuriating at times. Crowded trains, bus service cutbacks, rickety old vehicles, long delays or worse, the potentially day ruining cancellation.

Accounting for 58% of these journeys, the humble bus is often considered public transport enemy number one. It’s got a bad rep. In a world where so many of us strive to avoid direct contact with unknown individuals, limited capacities mean that buses are places where we are in close proximity to strangers. When I discuss my PhD research project, which focuses on the negotiations between individuals on public transport, people usually respond with a shudder, before recanting encounters they have had whilst travelling. Often the stories take a negative tone; experiencing unpleasant odours, witnessing dramas unfold between passengers, sitting in chewing gum kindly left by previous occupants or worse, being touched by a stranger without consent.

Buses also face a plethora of negative pop culture connotations. Terms like ‘loser cruiser’ and the Inbetweeners famous “bus w**kers” must ring like sweet music to the ears of car salespeople. They are terms used by those who are privileged enough to own a car, and they cement the idea that using the bus cannot be a matter of individual preference and ultimately lower the public transport user’s status in society.

In the face of this vast array of issues, statistics show that public transportation ridership has been declining steadily since the 1950s.

Changing perceptions

Despite the issues, I’m a huge advocate of using multi-modal transportation… Okay, hear me out.

Yes, public transport has its problems, there is no way of denying it. However, when the bus is on time and the train isn’t tightly packed, I usually find the experience of travelling on public transport rich and fulfilling. Whilst using public transport I have met some fascinating people, a couple of which I’m still friends with now. I’ve also been able to enjoy 45 minutes of impromptu karaoke all the way from Manchester to Blackpool after a night out in the city. I’ve seen wildlife such as kestrels, deer and bats that I might have missed if my eyes had been on the road. Letting someone else take the wheel, I spend the duration of my travels ‘claiming back’ personal time by doing activities I enjoy –reading, watching Netflix or a mindless scroll through Facebook. Even when the inevitable happens and things go wrong, I always feel part of a collective. Sharing space with others reminds me to try have have more patience. The grumblings of fellow travellers as the ‘expected arrival’ time increasingly creeps upwards on the electronic displays makes me acutely aware that my journey is one of countless, that my experience is one of many.

Letting someone else take the wheel, I spend the duration of my travels ‘claiming back’ personal time by doing activities I enjoy –reading, watching Netflix
or a mindless scroll through Facebook.

Public transportation is never going to tick every box and I also enjoy active ways of being mobile such as cycling and walking. I have a moped which is great for quick dashes on warmer days and sure, I’ll hop in a car if someone is going my way and offering a lift. This flexible way of getting around suits my lifestyle and there is the added bonus of knowing that I’m relying on lower emission travel options. Without the guilt of a monthly expenditure sitting on the road I have the freedom to choose which mode of travel serves the occasion best.

Of course, overcoming the fundamental issues such as scheduling and availability are the sticking points here and perhaps more individuals would look at public transport as a viable option if the right investments were made. I do feel however that the car as a symbol of status has a lot to answer for and changing heavily ingrained perceptions is never going to be an easy task. For public transportation operators, doing exactly that has been high on the agenda for some time now.

Blackpool transport

Here in Blackpool we have a particularly rich public transport history. Our trams have operated consistently since 1885 making it one of the oldest electric tramways in the world. The tramway is operated by Blackpool Transport, an arms-length limited public transport company which is owned by Blackpool Borough Council – another rare thing for the UK.

Over the years BTS has been working to improve the ridership of its buses as well as managing and operating our historic trams. Recently, BTS have equipped the fleet with emissions standards compliant ‘Palladium’ branded vehicles. They are smart, modern and look attractive.

I’ve used these buses often and I have to say, the ride quality is good. E-leather seats take away the prickly discomfort of old standard heavy-duty material that was typically used on traditional bus seats (personally, I miss the colourful patterns). On board there are audible announcements of which stop the bus is approaching, and this removes the anxiety of missing your stop, especially when travelling on unknown routes. There’s also free Wi-Fi (temperamental yes, but so is the Wi-Fi in most public spaces) LED information displays and CCTV.

If you choose to use the BTS smartphone app you are able to purchase a ticket before you board so the need for cash disappears – this means that I can purchase a ticket from bed instead of getting up early to head towards a cash machine. You’ll also find information regarding the bus service and updates on any issues that might impact the routes. There may still be occasions where two buses appear at once but you’re likely to know about it ahead of time with the live updates available. Efforts made by BTS have meant that bus travel has thankfully headed in the right direction.

Women in dual-worker families are twice as likely as men to drop off or pick up children on their commute to work.

Coronavirus and the future of bus services

Unavoidably though, over the past few months public transportation has added another string to it’s bad boy bow. Now we see messages that depict public transport as a space of potential danger, somewhere the virus can spread. Of course, we desperately need to remain safe but there are huge risks involved in the cutback and prolonged avoidances of services that were already struggling. Boris Johnson’s advice make all journeys by car if possible, as if the people who own vehicles wouldn’t be doing that already. The fact of the matter is this, if services were to be permanently affected it would have devastating consequences on the key groups using public transportation – the elderly, lower income individuals, young people and women.

In her book Invisible Women: Exposing the Data Bias in a World Designed for Men Caroline Criado Perez points out that women (who often make up a majority of public transport users) have travel patterns that generally tend to be more complex than those of men. Women in dual-worker families are twice as likely as men to drop off or pick up children on their commute to work. Public transportation systems currently running on reduced services means that connections between services are extraordinarily difficult to make.

Regina Emaike, a Blackpool resident and user of public transport, describes the current service levels as ‘difficult, unreliable and worrying’. Regina is a keyworker who assists those living with mental health conditions. She uses the bus to get to work, pick up her children and do her grocery shopping.

“I have been waiting for the bus for an hour and it never turn-ups, or it turns up and only 12 people are allowed on,” she told me. “While picking the kids from school I have been delayed several times if the bus has arrived already full.”

Regina says she won’t be able to cope if the situation were to continue, adding: “I have been using the taxis quite a lot, which has put a lot of strain on my finances.”

It is vital that now and, in the future, public transportation gets the attention and funding it deserves. Elderly individuals who face lessening availability of public transport tend to require care intervention which removes independence and increases the chances of loneliness. Younger people relying on public transportation to attend school and college could face difficulties as services are stretched beyond their means. Those seeking employment may find their options are further limited, as mobility directly impacts the workplaces you are able to attend. We all know that climate change is a severe and serious threat and decent public transportation means less cars on the road. There are endless reasons to work towards a reliable, usable public service. Blackpool, a town working hard to meet the needs of its residents, needs its public transportation systems to remain viable in order to flourish.

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  • Stephanie Cottle is currently a research student at UCLan working alongside the curatorial partnership In Certain Places. Her practice investigates place & the everyday experiences of the North West of England.

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