Why is it that in 21st century Bristol we don’t have reliable public transport? Its no accident says Matthew Hollinshead.
Illustration: Gordy Wright
Standing in the rain is bad enough, but standing in the rain in Yate is uniquely dismal. Although I do have to admit, there is an anxious beauty in not knowing if the bus you desperately need to get out has been cancelled or not. In many ways, it’s the closest most of us will get to relating to a quantum state – you are both stranded and commuting, but never quite sure which.
For over a year, I and a handful of other soggy grey wretches waited for the Number 47 to turn up on time, if at all. I would leave home at 6:30 am to be sure to catch a bus in time to be at my desk and on the phone by 9 am. The journey would have taken at most half an hour by car. Not only that, but it meant that every day began with the blind panic that the bus would mess up again and take my job with it.
Chronic job insecurity and the risk of being sacked out of nowhere meant the awful bus service was not just inconvenient, it became another mechanism that gave the manager extra power over us.
Despite the horrors of both commuting and capitalism, my story is not even close to the worst anyone is Bristol has heard. The situation has got so bad in Bristol that Lilian Greenwood, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, investigated the state of buses earlier this month. And a protest has been organised for Saturday 24th November.
It’s no accident we have crap buses
So why is it, that in 21st century Bristol we don’t have reliable public transport? Fundamentally, it’s because our legal system enforces artificial systems to maximise opportunities to get rich off the public, and bans us from having a democratic say in how transportation is run.
In theory, these markets work when you can get the same product or service from two different places, and the consumer can choose which to use. Eventually, people will cotton on which one is better, the rubbish companies are out-competed, and the “best” product or service thrives.
The problem with private bus services is this: you can’t have two competing buses in the same place at the same time – they would get in each other’s way and produce chaos. People like me simply can’t make a “consumer choice” to be late. At the end of the day, you can’t choose between bus companies.
I had to use the First Bus service to get to work, or not get a bus at all and lose my job and tenancy. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to pay the fare increases, or that I can’t get a seat. Like the railways, its what’s called a ‘natural monopoly’, meaning that a company has no rivals and people still need the service, so they can afford to give terrible service and make money off us anyway. This has long been confirmed by none other than the Competition Commission, that well known radical government body…
Yet municipal bus companies (services owned and managed by a local authority), which we can hold to account through democratic means, have been banned by the Bus Services Act 2017. Never mind that privatised services are consistently outperformed by municipal bus services like Nottingham City Transport – the only service to have won UK Bus Operator of the Year four times.
No more corporate welfare
That’s not the only part of the scam, even if we get rid of private bus companies, public transport should be free.
Much like how in-work benefits are taxpayer subsidies for low wages, when you pay to travel to work, you are subsidising your employer the cost of getting you there. They absolutely can’t make money without their staff, so why should staff have to pay for that themselves?
It’s already the law that in some industries that if you travel for work in the EU you should be paid from when you leave your house. Travelling is part of your working day, and the employer should cover the cost. To extend this logic, the same applies to those travelling to the shops. If shoppers don’t travel, the shops go out of business, so why should we have to subsidise them too?
Its corporate welfare, and we shouldn’t be encouraging this kind of scrounging. Public transport should be free at the point of use and covered by taxes on businesses.
This might sound a bit far-fetched, but Labour has already pledged to scrap the laws prohibiting municipal bus services, and with enough political pressure, free local buses aren’t impossible. They already run on a small scale in cities across Europe and even on limited lines in towns like Manchester. This can speed up journeys and get people out of their cars – something desperately needed to tackle poor air quality in Bristol.
You buy in
So we can't sell out
Become a memberJoin the Cable
We need to exert political pressure to turn this radical vision into reality. This weekend political pressure is being put on Bristol City Council, and the Metro Mayor, who is equipped with new powers to influence operators. Hundreds of people are expected to protest on College Green from 12pm on Saturday 24th November.
For now, demands are limited to just getting us a decent bus service which doesn’t make us sick with stress, and a new model of franchising similar to that in London where there is more control over schedules and services. But the future could be so much better – if we fight for it.