Stop the bus – it’s time for a new era of public transport

busesI HAD the coins in my paw and an air of determination when I boarded the bus and said “£1.40 please”.

“Where you gaun?” came the quick reply.
“Scotstoun,” I said, my hand now positioned above the money vault.
“Where abouts in Scotstoun?”
Hand still hovering, I provided the address.
“Where’s that?”

I glanced to my right at the seated passengers waiting for departure, fearing some glares. These people all had somewhere to be. They wanted to go home for their tea, or get to their work to start a backshift, or fleetingly visit Yoker just to see what it was like there.

“Just after the roundabout,” I offered.
“£2.15,” he said.
I only had £1.40. I had £1.40 because every other time it had been £1.40.“I only have £1.40”.
A beat.
“That’ll take you to the garage.”
“I’ll go to the garage.”

The life of a bus driver can’t be easy. Not only are there bosses to deal with and timetables to follow, but there’s a steady stream of grumbling, moaning and sometimes downright scary passengers to contend with too. A few years ago I was travelling on a Paisley-bound nightbus when a fellow whipped off his belt and began beating someone about the head with the buckle. A couple of weeks ago a wild-eyed rocket boarded a number 3 and promptly threatened to rip the driver’s effing beard off in response to some perceived slight. When I went to disembark I noted that the driver didn’t even have an effing beard.

Complaining about public transport is regarded as a quaint British hobby, but for many people it’s a much more serious matter

Complaining about public transport is regarded as a quaint British hobby – an inoffensive form of social glue that bonds shivering strangers. But for many people, particularly those on low incomes and without the option of taking the car, it’s a much more serious matter. Their grievances aren’t about a five-minute delay or a driver’s poor clutch control, but about life-blighting service cuts, streets choked with pollution, and fare hikes that mean choosing between transport and other essentials like food and electricity.

These issues are nothing new, and campaigners have been plugging away for years trying to raise awareness and garner political support. But it’s probably fair to say that the activist group “F*** First Buses” was never going to be offered a seat at the negotiating table, and many of the hyper-local campaigns in Glasgow were just too small to effectively challenge the city’s main bus company.

Now, however, they’ve all joined forces and upped the ante, and on December 9th Get Glasgow Moving launches its manifesto with a lobbying event at the offices of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. Describing itself as a “people-led campaign demanding cross-party support”, it sets out five key aims: public ownership of public transport; smart ticketing across trains, buses, the Subway and bike hire stations; a boost to cycle hire provision; a new transport authority for the city; and the development of a long-term transport vision.

The plan to join up Glasgow’s transport systems was hatched nearly 40 years ago but never implemented

These aren’t pie-in-the-sky ideas from a bunch of lefty idealists. They are credible proposals that take inspiration from elsewhere in Scotland, the UK and Europe, and are underpinned by a social justice agenda that corresponds with the words – if not necessarily the actions or policy promises – of both the SNP and Labour. The plan to join up the city’s transport systems was in fact hatched nearly 40 years ago but never implemented. Look up “Trans-Clyde” on YouTube and you’ll find a frankly glorious TV advert promoting linked transport services in Glasgow, with rhymes to make Rabbie Burns proud and a rousing choral climax that will burrow its way into your subconscious and never leave.

“Trans-Clyde!
Brand-new trains at brand-new stations on the brand-new underground,
Interchange with trains and buses, ride the brand-new cars around,
Trans-Clyde!

Take the brand-new British Rail line, Partick down to Rutherglen,
Connecting up your inner-belt lines, north to south and back again,
Trans-Clyde!

The under, over, inner, outer way to get about Strathclyde,
Link up! Link up! Link up! Link up!
Trans-Clyde links you Clyde-wide!”

Not only does Get Glasgow Moving have a ready-made theme song, there was even a board game – that’s how passionate the good folks of the Great Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive were about integrating services. But fast-forward to 2016 and things have barely moved forward at all; in fact, we’ve slid down snakes instead of climbing up ladders. First is able to cut lifeline services that prove unprofitable, despite receiving hefty subsidies from the public purse, while charging £2.15 for a “long hop” of barely two miles. Transport providers compete rather than complement each other, to the detriment of passengers. And despite repeated promises of extensions, the Glasgow Subway still only serves a single tight circle of stations.

So what can be done? Get Glasgow Moving is calling on candidates in next year’s council elections to back its action plan, but in the meantime you can get involved by signing a petition on the Scottish Parliament website calling for an inquiry into the benefits of bringing all Scottish bus services into public ownership, following the example of Lothian Buses in Edinburgh. This might feel like a baby step, but who knows where it might lead?

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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