Imagine a gate at the end of your driveway that opens only once every 30 minutes.
“Sorry, I’ve got to dash, the driveway gate is opening in a moment, and I don’t want to sit in the car for 30 minutes, waiting for the next opportunity to get on the road.”
I’ll come back to that in a bit, once we’ve thought about how inconvenient it would be.
Meanwhile, let’s admit that one of the problems with public transport is that many of the policymakers who shape it, don’t use it. Apart from an occasional train ride to London, they drive everywhere, probably for sensible reasons. So they instinctively know how roads work, and what motorists need. But they don’t feel what public transport users feel.
You cannot apply a private motorist’s mentality to shaping public transport policy.
What motorists have, by default, is freedom. Very few of us even think about that. I can get in my car now, or in five minutes’ time, or in an hour when the family is finally ready. That luxury is not available to me if I want to use public transport. As author Jarrett Walker says, motorists would only know what that was like if they had a gate at the end of their driveway that opened once or twice an hour.
Freedom with public transport is about frequency. When Stagecoach introduced its Citi-branded routes in 2001, I lived near Cherry Hinton Hall, on a stretch of road served by the 1, 2 and 3 services, each of which ran into the city centre every 10 minutes. That meant we had a bus almost every 3 minutes. It was rare to walk to the bus stop and not see one coming in the distance, and you never needed to consult a timetable.
That was exceptional, but the result was that almost nobody in the area ever drove a car into the city. We could use public transport without having to wait – the same freedom which is taken for granted by car drivers.
Higher frequency means less waiting, probably the worst part of using urban public transport. Increasing frequency may be the best investment we can make to get people out of their cars.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 21 February 2018.