Confessions of a car driver

I work in the bus and coach industry. I’m passionate about smarter travel modes and encouraging active travel. I believe that transport industry professionals should use public transport as much as possible in order to understand the needs of their customers. And yet, despite all this, I own and run a car and use it for the majority of my journeys (albeit probably not the majority of my miles traveled because I do a lot of long distance travel by train or coach). But over the past 48 hours, I have experienced an enforced car-free existence whilst said vehicle is in the garage for some minor electrical repairs, and this has led me on a self-reflective voyage of discovery in relation to my travel habits and how well the local bus network meets my mobility needs.

Firstly - I recognise that I appear to be playing the part of the typical motorist, only daring to consider a non-car mode when forced to by circumstance. This isn’t quite true, because I do use public transport for some of my journeys, alongside walking and cycling, but certainly the lack of access to a car has led me to use the bus more. My car-free existence started at approximately 09:45 yesterday morning, when I dropped the car off at the garage. Conveniently there is a direct bus from said garage to close to our Loughborough office, which I made use of.

The bus, operated by Wellglade Group operator Kinchbus, was a few minutes late. I was expecting this because I was able to track the bus in real time - very useful. The driver was profusely apologetic, blaming unspecified “problems in the town centre”, and this was appreciated; Kinchbus and fellow Wellglade operator Trent Barton drivers are well known for their excellent customer service. The bus was warm and clean, but lacked any of the sparkle or extra amenities that more modern vehicles have because it was quite an elderly vehicle. It was perfectly adequate, however, for a short journey.

The problem with using the bus for this journey is that during the 10 minutes I spent waiting at the bus stop, I could have driven in to work, parked my car, gone into the office and made a cup of tea. Instead, I went nowhere and spent a cold and unproductive ten minutes stood at a shelter-less bus stop. In addition, the fare of £2, whilst standard for a local town service, is uncompetitive with the marginal cost of motoring.

After a circuitous loop through Loughborough’s housing estate (which I was quite happy with from an interest point of view, but which also added time to the journey), I got off the bus in sight of the office. So far, so good. Except I couldn’t find a direct walking route out of the housing estate where I had got off the bus to the main road on which the office is situated, so I spent a further ten minutes getting my shoes muddy as I walked cross-country over a playing field, crossed a 4 lane dual carriageway and eventually made it to the office via the back entrance.

The remainder of the working day passed with no further need of transport, until the time came to head home. I am lucky to live a 15 minute walk from work, but I confess that despite this, I find myself making the journey by car more often than not. I enjoyed the walk home; I listen to music as I walk and always enjoy seeing my surroundings at a slower pace. Would I want to do it every day? Probably not in the rain, but apart from that there is really no excuse for not walking.

My final journeys of the day took me to Leicester, for a belated Valentine’s Day dinner date. Had the car been available, we would have probably used an informal “park and ride” arrangement involving driving to somewhere in Loughborough where we could catch Kinchbus’ Skylink service, which runs non-stop from Loughborough to Leicester. As it was, we instead took Arriva’s 127 service from just outside our house - double the journey time but much more convenient.

I was unsure of the fare, so took three £5 notes with me and a couple of pound coins. The bus driver was friendly and, in response to my query about the best fare option, informed us that because it was the school holidays (I hadn’t realised), we were travelling there and back together (assuming the date wasn’t a total disaster!), we would be returning before midnight (not that there are any buses back after midnight) and there was a full moon (OK not this one), he could sell us a ZonePlus Family Day Saver for £7.00.

This was a good value fare; probably cheaper than fuel and parking would have been had we driven to Leicester, and far more cost effective than taxis. However, at no point in the three and a half years that I have lived along this route have I seen any printed or digital media advertising these good value prices, and nor is there any fare information on bus stop posters. This is a missed opportunity to promote good value leisure travel in an area that is full of students and lower income families; very much a demographic in which additional travel demand can be induced by attractive fares.

I feel unqualified to comment on the journey itself, because I was happy sat at the front of the double decker bus. However, my girlfriend, who has no connection with the bus industry whatsoever, commented on the bumpy ride as the vehicle negotiated speedbumps, and unfortunately the return journey was soured by a passenger using extremely offensive language during a telephone call - only once, but once would have been enough, I suspect, had a family taking advantage of the discounted ticket been present, to deter the parents from potentially exposing their children to such behaviour.

So, overall a good experience of using buses, with drivers leaving a positive impression but work for management to do in ensuring that bus travel offers an attractive journey experience. In a later post I’ll discuss some of these factors more in terms of how a small town’s bus network should look - but for now, I have the choice of a 15 minute walk home through deserted streets late at night, or a 5 minute walk at each end and a 3 minute bus journey in between. Let’s see what happens…!