Get on your bus

The message of the UK government's new transport policy: if the 'socially excluded' want to travel, they'd better have a good reason.

Austin Williams

Topics Science & Tech

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At the UK government’s last Urban Summit – a forum supposedly designed to examine how best to transform the decrepit state of urban Britain – chancellor Gordon Brown gave his vision of the much-vaunted Urban Renaissance.

While many of us expected to hear proposals for street cafes, boulevards and loft-style apartments, Brown launched a tirade against ‘joblessness’ as a barrier to regeneration. Why is it, he asked, that the number of unemployed people in Birmingham (the venue for the Urban Summit) far exceeded the number of job vacancies advertised in the city’s job centres?

Now, three months after that speech, Brown’s wish to tackle what he perceives as civic fecklessness has found its expression in transport policy. The government’s report on Transport and Social Exclusion released at the end of February 2003 (1), examines the problems that some people – designated as socially excluded – have in key services.

The Job Centre has been included as a key location for targeted public transport provision, so that the Department for Work and Pensions will now provide help to the jobless to enable them to reach work. ‘In return’, the report says, ‘individuals will be expected to review their travel horizons and be prepared to look for and take up work within a reasonable travel distance’. So whereas former Tory trade and industry secretary Norman Tebbit famously suggested – much to the Labour Party’s outrage – that the unemployed should get on their bikes, this report simply insists that the unemployed hop on a bus.

In fact, the report does nothing to improve transport provision. Instead, it simply examines the transport needs of the socially excluded (people on low incomes, those suffering disability, the unemployed, and so on), and suggests that public transport investment is justified only when the socially excluded are being conveyed to essential locations. As well as Job Centres, key locations are trips to school, college or hospital.

From now on, priority allocation will go to these routes. So for the first time, transport planners will want to know why you want to travel – not whether you want to travel. They will pose the tacit question: is it a ‘necessary’ trip? Since challenging the notion of the ‘need’ to travel in its 1998 Transport White Paper (2), this is arguably the nearest that the government has come to explaining what it means by ‘necessary’ travel.

On the basis of this policy paper, instead of providing a decent public transport network so that people can make their own individual choices about where they are to be conveyed, the government will now say that unless your trip is to an officially designated key service then certain transport provision will receive lower assistance.

Universal provision and personal choice seem to be things of the past. Travelling for aimless pleasure, spontaneous desire or just to be sociable will be deemed, by implication, for the socially excluded, to be inessential. Transport opportunities for the poorer and less able-bodied sections of society will be rationed according to how purposeful the journey is – a term defined by the government rather than the user. Hardly the most socially inclusive strategy, I would have thought.

Unfortunately, this is a transport policy that is more concerned with providing information about going places than actually taking you there. For example, £3million will be allocated to improve travel information in Job Centres. State-sponsored quangos like Action Teams for Jobs will now receive an additional £5million to explore ‘transport solutions’. A new breed of Accessibility Planners will be created to ‘ensure that there is a clear responsibility for identifying accessibility problems and deciding how to tackle them’.

But if the physical transport doesn’t exist for a particular journey, it is unclear what purpose Accessibility Planners could serve – other than being glorified guides, ready to help people come to terms with the fact that they’ll have to walk – or to counsel people that they need to set aside a long time for their journey.

Those socially excluded from further and higher education face a similar problem. The report states that transport costs were cited as the biggest expenditure for those attending post-16 education. (In my day it was beer, but that’s another story.) But with travel costs reported to be only £10 per week on average, surely a bigger problem is students’ pitiful income levels? But no; large amounts of money will be spent to ensure, as the report decrees, that local education authorities (LEAs) and colleges will get together to ‘assess the accessibility of further education institutions’. More paper solutions for paper tigers.

Similarly, logic is turned on its head in the section of the report concerned with access to healthcare. The inability to get an appointment at a hospital due to waiting lists and bureaucratic prioritisation policies is transformed into a transport issue. The reality of patients being turfed out of hospital due to bed shortages becomes a story of patients being discharged late because of the poor availability of public transport.

Even if this really was a transport issue, you might think that more ambulances were the way forward. But the right solutions, apparently, are for healthcare facilities to be built nearer public transport routes (isn’t re-routing a bus easier?); ‘reducing the need to travel’ through Personal Medical Services (home helps); using ‘volunteer car schemes’ (getting your neighbour to drive you); or the IT solution (log on to see how to treat yourself).

Throughout the report, the aspiration for car ownership doesn’t get a look in. The report reluctantly condones car sharing, provided that the subjects of this report – the so-called socially excluded – don’t own one themselves. That would be irresponsible.

As it happens, perhaps the authors of this report should reflect on the fact that, in an age when the car is the most popular mode of transport, people will always feel socially excluded if they haven’t got one. Indeed, this single majoritarian democratic principle could inform transport policy rather better than creating an army of accessibility mentors and encouraging an apartheid culture of bussing people to work.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion, Report by the Social Exclusion Unit, 26 February 2003, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(2) A New Deal for Transport – Better for Everyone, Department for Transport, July 1998

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Topics Science & Tech


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