Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stuck with the traffic

Hot off the presses of Lonely Planet comes a new guide to the West Country, which rather cheekily suggests that Bath, despite its spectacular architecture, cultural sophistication and culinary savoir-faire, will have you, the tourist, “weeping into your steering wheel” as you try to negotiate the rush-hour traffic.

And there was a telling comment about the article from a reader on : “You’re not stuck in traffic; you are the traffic.”

It’s a tricky one. Visitors to Bath have the option of arriving by car, train, coach, bus or bike. Each has its pros and cons, but for most people the big pro about driving a car is freedom.

Freedom from timetables, freedom from arriving in need of a shower, freedom to enjoy your own space as you travel. And, sadly, freedom to sit in a queue on the London Road pumping exhaust fumes into the skies above the Georgian city.

Those of us who live here often end up being part of the same traffic, but the reasons are a bit different.

In an ideal world there would be no need for cars in Bath. We’d all travel for free, in non-polluting electric monorail pods whose tracks would blend unnoticeably into the honeyed stone background, and which would whisk us silently from our homes on the outskirts to the cultural and retail paradise of the city centre in three minutes flat.

During the brief journey we would be lulled by ambient New Age music and wrapped in an energising cloud of lavender, grapefruit and patchouli essential oils, arriving at the SouthGate transport hub refreshed, envigorated and primed to be gently separated from our money.

In the real world, there’s First Bus.

For which, unlike the mythical monorail, you have to pay.

Of course bus companies have to make money. And of course if the fares were subsidised, we’d end up paying for them through our council tax in any case. There’s no such thing as a free ride.

But there is something a little bit skewed about a city where the most economic way to get your family into the centre is to drive a mile and a half to one of the most expensive car parks in town.

Last Saturday, even before First put its single and return fares up, it was cheaper to park in the Podium for an hour than to take self and young Miss D on the bus from Zone 3 to the bank and shops.

Cycling isn’t an option for us.

Walking in might have been, but walking back – uphill all the way – with the mighty half shoulder of lamb ordered by Mrs D was not.

Even walking there and getting the bus back would have been more expensive than driving and parking.

If we’d wanted to stay in town for longer than an hour, it might have made economic sense to drive half a mile to the Park and Ride, get the bus in and out, and then drive back home. Economic, but logistically bonkers.

We all want our freedom, and we all want our flexibility. But just for once, it would be rather nice to feel you could be part of the solution to transport around Bath, rather than part of the problem.


  1. "...freedom from arriving in need of a shower,..."
    I'm presuming that you are referring to cycling here.
    Why do you think that everyone needs a shower after a short bike ride?
    Do you think that anyone walking a short distance needs a shower afterwards?
    An averagely fit person can cycle three times as far as walking for the same expenditure of energy. That's what bicycles are for.
    There are hills where I live, too, so I know that after a bit a practice hills are not the barrier that builds up in people's minds.
    The message is, don't dismiss the bike as a viable mode of short distance urban transport so lightly.
    Why is using a bike "not an option" to you?

  2. I'm not dismissing the bike as a viable mode of short-distance urban transport.

    At the beginning of the piece I was referring to "visitors to Bath". Tourists who cycle to Bath, or indeed have been squashed on a train for an hour and a half, might well enjoy a shower for their own personal comfort after their journey.

    Our 13-year-old daughter has an autistic spectrum disorder and has to be supervised crossing the road. It's unlikely she will ever ride a bike, let alone drive a car, although it would be great if she could do both.

  3. The perceived effort of cycling is often less than the actual effort - if you imagine walking half a mile, I'd equate that to a 3-5 mile bike ride, dependant on terrain and your fitness. You can make it harder work if you want, but there's no need to. When the wife and I toured Belgium, we did 40 miles a day without breaking a sweat - frequent café stops, and a gentle pace were the key there!

    As for public transport, for me it's a matter of how I want to spend my time. Personally, I'd sooner read, or work, than sit at a steering wheel inching incrementally closer to my place of work for and hour and a half each day, even at the higher cost. If you're sat in traffic, you've made your own choice, I suppose.

    Our own train services (I'm currently in Crewe, commuting to Manchester) are excellent, clean and punctual. I found the same when I lived in Heald Green (near to Manchester Airport) - no shower required!

    "Our 13-year-old daughter has an autistic spectrum disorder and has to be supervised crossing the road. It's unlikely she will ever ride a bike, let alone drive a car, although it would be great if she could do both."

    Ah, understood. Roads in the UK aren't very friendly to experienced, confident adult cyclists, let alone children. I must admit that I don't cycle to the town centre locally with mine, (we do take leisure rides on the quiter roads locally) although once they're older, and have had some Bikeability training, I will do.

  4. "...dependent on terrain and your fitness."

    Terrain - in Bath it's hilly, especially on most people's route home. It does put people off, especially those of us a stout and middle-aged persuasion.

    My fitness - see above, although I walk whenever I can.

    But the the article isn't really about cycling. Bus services in Bath are OK-ish, and we're lucky enough to live on a busy route. What I was on about was the disparity in the city between the costs of parking and public transport that forces those of us who'd otherwise be happy to use public transport into our cars.

  5. Hugh: The bulk of the piece was referring to your own local travel issues, which is what I was picking up on.

    As far as tourists and visitors are concerned my own experience suggests that a shower and a kip is welcome after a long journey regardless of mode.

    Understood, re your daughter.

  6. "What I was on about was the disparity in the city between the costs of parking and public transport that forces those of us who'd otherwise be happy to use public transport into our cars."

    Point taken - as I say, I weighed that up, and figured I'd be happier (if slightly poorer) on public transport and the bike. The upside for us is that we can get by running just one car, where many of the other households nearby have two or more (with the attendant costs and hassle parking &c)

    Sadly, I don't think the disparity you write about will change soon, given the upcoming cuts to local budgets.

  7. Yes, the excessively high bus fares are part of the problem. Now that my youngest is past 16 she no longer travels free on the Park & Ride bus. So, now it's cheaper for us to drive into the town centre and park. Daft, really, for then we are effectively encouraged to add to Bath's traffic congestion issues.
    Other towns Park & Ride systems, for example Canterbury, charge for car parking instead of a bus fare, which gets round that issue.
    The whole public transport issue in this country is in a bit of mess and really needs a wholesale rethink.
    There's an interesting project, the so-called "Free Bus" initiative, just starting up in Bristol. It suggests that the taxpayer subsidy to a "free" bus service is less than what is currently being paid to First. It will be interesting to watch its progress.