Saturday, November 07, 2015

The curse of the car

Like it or not, the private car is an essential part of life for many. I've owned a few myself.

The downside is that it's expensive, it causes pollution, our roads and cities are congested, our housing is dominated by the need to store a vehicle (or more than one).

Realistically, though, there isn't much of an alternative.

If it were a reasonable option, I would cycle for many shorter journeys, and I suspect many people would do the same. Unfortunately, our current transport infrastructure is incredibly hostile to cyclists. Even in Cambridge, cycling provision is appalling.  There are a few token on-road cycle lanes that you are forced to share with metal monsters, many off-road paths are unmaintained, shared with pedestrians, narrow, and unlit. Many regular roads are simply too narrow for cyclists and motor vehicles to share safely, and junctions often seem to be designed to maximize the inconvenience and danger to cyclists.

And that's just the start. Woefully inadequate cycle parking and storage provision means that there's unlikely to be anywhere to put your bike when you're not on it, leading to a high likelihood of damage if it doesn't get stolen. Don't even get me started on the all too often farcical nature of cycle infrastructure. Overall, the people planning our infrastructure seem to be either plain ignorant or blatantly anti-cycling, even while paying it plenty of lip service.

So, cycling isn't going to be allowed to have much of an impact. What about public transport.

Now, I have visited places where there's a decent bus service. Cambridge is not one of those places. There's a very limited range of services, so many places aren't on a bus route at all. And you need both ends of the journey to be accessible, so that's even more difficult. Even when there is a possible route, it can take so long as to be simply implausible.

It turns out that where I live is pretty well served by bus routes. We're on 2 separate routes that go into the City Centre, so we even have a choice. It's fine in theory, and there are some days when it works out.

But much of the time, it's a complete disaster. The timetable gives a bus on each route at 10-minute intervals. So, 30 minute waits are not uncommon, over an hour isn't unheard of. The failure to actually provide buses to any meaningful timetable is a joke. Even when a bus does arrive, traffic can mean it takes much longer than the timetable says to make a journey - I've missed several trains, even allowing an hour for what's supposed to be a 20 minute journey to the railway station.

One possible response by the council is to introduce bus lanes, which turn out to do more harm than good. A prerequisite for a separate bus lane is that you have to have a spare lane so that the other traffic still has somewhere to go. So the bus lanes are added on wide, open roads where they don't give much benefit, and can't be added on the congested narrow roads that are actually causing the problem. Worse, on some of the roads (the Newmarket Road is an example here) the bus lane has to be skipped at narrow pinch points; the regular traffic queues are lengthened by the empty bus lanes (which reduce the overall capacity of the road) to the point that they block the pinch points and delay the buses.

So if not the bus, what about the train? We do use the train, on occasion - going into London, for example, or to Beer Festivals where driving isn't an option, or city breaks to avoid the effort of driving and the cost and trouble of parking.

The first snag here is that you have to get to the station. In Cambridge, like many smaller towns, it's been stuck out in the middle of nowhere (one advantage to visiting somewhere like Leeds or Manchester is that the station is conveniently located), so isn't convenient for visitors. Or locals, where you need to use the bus to get to the station - see above for why this is a problem. In fact, it's the difficulty of getting to the station in the first place that has made be reject the idea of commuting into London - the train trip itself would be fine.

Overall, the mesh of railway lines simply isn't dense enough outside some of our major cities. Part of this was Beeching - who essentially destroyed the rail network. (And on false grounds - by considering viability based on what was being achieved with Victorian equipment and working practices, not what could be achieved if run properly.) Decisions such as the misguided busway (that would have been more valuable as a rail line, which would have enlarged the rail mesh and integrated with the larger rail system) mean that the problems with the rail system in the large will persist.

Basically, then, we're cursed with the car not because it's any good but because the alternatives are so crippled by the powers that be that they're made even worse.

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