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Bring back the buses   March 2005

 

BRING BACK THE BUSES

A New Deal for Transport: The UK's Struggle with the Sustainable Transport Agenda Jenny Lucas on life in the country

Several times a week I walk fast for seven minutes up a narrow green lane, past cows and sheep, past the Mill house, some red and blue flecked brick cottages, along a narrow footpath, through the pub car park. I then make a sharp left turn onto the main London to Eastbourne road, and about twenty yards further past the vandalised bus shelter to the bus stop.

That twenty yards has, in recent years, become one of the least happy experiences of my pedestrian life. I am forced to walk barely two feet from cars, lorries, motor bikes, roaring nose to tail so close that when a towering, juggernaut thunders by I am almost sucked into its after-tow like flotsam on a motorway. 

 

I hurry on past a small cottage with a low wall of gapped bricks. This is the point when I remember that the openwork wall was once solid brick, until so many speeding cars crashed through it that the owners decided on a more easily rebuilt version.
I am relieved to reach the lay-by and wait for my rural bus to appear.

How I travelled

I do not hate the motor car. Far from it, I positively love the beauty of its fine engineering, the space-ship allure of dashboard dials and gauges, headlights sweeping a night-time lane, the red dash of a fox transfixed in pencil beams. I loved reading my brother’s Boys’ Annuals, with pictures of gorgeous sports cars in madcap pursuit of adventure on the open road.
My only problem with the motor car is that I cannot actually drive one. Because I grew up in London with a choice of bus or tube or train close by, I have always taken it for granted that I can go anywhere and everywhere under my own steam. This held true for most of my thirty-year career as a film-maker, travelling all over Britain and abroad. But now, in retirement, and in spite of a husband who drives and the kindness of friends, my independence in this rural area is threatened by shrinking transport services and a world dominated by the private car.

Life as a non-driver

When we moved here in the nineteen sixties, it was easier to be a non-driver. The buses at the end of the lane were frequent and I had no problem loading myself, kids and pushchair onto the friendly bus. In the days of one-car families, there was even a volunteer lift to the baby clinic that met once a month in the back room of the Foresters’ Arms.

The big road at the end of the lane was hectic in summertime. Our neighbour Fred, who has farmed down our lane for nearly half a century, remembers the summer Sunday ritual of neighbours leaning over their cottage gates to marvel at the parade of motors toiling back to London on the A22 after a day at the seaside. Winter days were eerily quiet.
Forty years on, with mushrooming development along the London to Eastbourne corridor, the A22 is dense with traffic every single day of the year. Attempting to cross by foot or car in rush- hour is hair-raising. How long before every rural junction will have its own mini roundabout or lights?

My double decker taxi

And the buses? Most services going my way have been reduced to four a day (nothing at night or on Sundays), and as you wait and wait, there’s ample time to ruminate on a system that can no longer attract customers. In my neck of the woods there are virtually no other customers. My bus, when it eventually arrives, often amounts to a double decker taxi just for me.

Friends equally concerned about choked roads and polluted air are hardly likely to leave the convenience of their cars and stand in wind and rain for buses that can be up to 25 minutes late. Nor could they tolerate the prospect of it tearing along five minutes early, only to sail by oblivious of the contract between company and customer that we call a timetable.

Horror stories

I cannot bear to see friends’ eyes glaze as I recount travellers’ tales fit only to be shared by those of us stamping numbed feet and turning leeward from the freezing rain. Horror stories of buses seen disappearing down the wrong road or the driver who asked his passengers the way home have become part of our bus stop repertoire.

Believing in rural transport is like believing in fairies, and yet I do so want it to be happy ever after. I’ve seen it work elsewhere. In Sweden, buses are on time and they connect with trains. Most working people we knew kept their cars for long journeys. They used buses, trains or bikes (on bike lanes) for daily business and shopping without feeling any loss of status.

Brave or mad?

Bus travel round here in Sussex is viewed as a Third World experience. It is as if that sleek metal box has begun to insulate us from life beyond the windscreen. Someone said to me recently: “Jenny, you are so brave! I simply wouldn’t know what to do if I got on a bus”.

Thirty-eight years ago, returning from four happy years in America, I wrote about America’s fatal love affair with the car; the drive-in society where the car seemed like an extension of the body, where taking your baby for a walk appeared eccentric, even irresponsible. I saw an advert in Chicago for a machine to enable you to “walk in the privacy of your home”. What an uproarious
concept that seemed – then!

Now the madness is literally on my own doorstep. Sometimes I wake from dark dreams of a time when you and I are grid-locked into a world in which our grandchildren can no longer breathe what we still call the “open air” or walk in safety down a country lane. Please please get on a bus and campaign for more transport options for those of us living in the country.

  


   

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