This is a letter to the Swindon Advertiser, not yet published.
A Municipal Bus Service or a “fully commercial service”?
In Keith Williams comments to the Advertiser we can catch a glimpse of the future and it doesn’t look very pretty. He told bus users “to expect to walk further to catch a bus in future”. Unfortunately you cannot “protect services” as Keith says he wants to do by reducing the quality of them. If you are fit and active then a short walk will not be a problem to you. However, if you are aged, infirmed, or suffering from a chronic illness, then seemingly minor alterations to a bus service can adversely affect the quality of your life.
Take the example of the alteration to the Number 18 bus which goes to Park South. The ending of the short trip from there to the hospital has presented a problem to elderly people who travel to GWH. If they can’t manage the walk to Queens Drive, they have to catch a Number 30 from Cavendish Square (only an hourly service) and either get one back, or else catch a number 16 to the New College and walk to the Number 17 bus stop to pick up a bus home. Since the Number 30 is only hourly they may have a long wait before and/or after their appointment. If as Keith says we can expect more buses travelling down “the main roads” we face potentially damaging social consequences for elderly, ill and disabled people. Keith gave the example of Penhill and Parks having “several buses covering the same route”. He called this “inefficient”. Actually, this is accurate only insofar as the 17 and 18 both end up in Parks, but they go there via different routes, and go to different parts of the estate. The only part of the route they share is Whitbourne Avenue.
Is the fact that both of these estates, which have high levels of poverty and more than 35% of the population who don’t own cars, an irrelevance? Or is it a consideration in determining what service is provided? If you ran a bus which just went to Cavendish Square it would make it impossible for elderly and frail people to use the service. For instance, I can think of a woman of 89 years, who, by the standards of younger and fitter people has a short walk to visit her doctor. But because she has limited mobility she catches the 17 to the surgery and back home. If the bus didn’t go round Welcombe Avenue she wouldn’t be able to do that.
Apparently a “One Swindon Priority” is “living independently”. A great many older residents are able to live independently, in part because they have a free bus service which enables them to get out and about. If the bus service is “fully commercial” then these social concerns will at best be a secondary consideration or at worst an irrelevance.
It would appear that the Council is thinking that other services such as Dial-a-ride will take up some of the slack as a result of a worsening bus service. Of course, for retired people this is an extra expense for a service that they can currently get for free, and if they are under financial pressure, as many are, then they may not be able to afford to use these services, even if it was possible for Dial-A-Ride to provide them.
The deregulation of bus services in the 1980s was a disaster. The “competition” which was supposed to improve services saw many of them wiped out. The big fish ate the small fish and we ended up with bus monopolies, with a small number of companies dominating the ‘market’, just like the gas and electricity ‘markets’. We are lucky in Swindon to have a municipal bus service which survived deregulation. There aren’t many left nationally. It’s one thing to talk about the need to deal with the financial pressures which the service is being put under by government policy, but turning our service into “a fully commercial” service will lead to abandoning the social and environmental purpose of a municipal bus service.
Swindon cannot ignore the national policy context in which it has to operate its service, but it can play a part in challenging government policy and defending the social and environmental purpose of our bus service, and campaigning for a saner policy instead of supporting the subordination of more and more services to the profit motive.
Chair, Parks & East Walcot Forum