One of the greatest conveniences of the modern world is public transport - and making it more available, more accessible, more reliable, more climate-friendly, more joined-up, and more affordable is high on my agenda as leader of the Combined Authority.
Disappointing, then, that one of many casualties of Covid-19 is actually the public’s use of public transport. Under lockdown, stations and services were shut, shuttered, and shunned. But now they’re back on track, Covid-repellent, and ready to roll, yet the public has been slow to return.
That’s bad news.
Use it or lose it. Trains, planes, buses - bums on seats is the bottom line.
If public demand plummets, instead of services improving in quality and quantity, the reverse might happen, with routes falling by the wayside - mostly affecting the people who need public transport the most.
We can’t let this happen.
If we value our public transport, we must use it. We must rise to the challenge of getting out and about. If not now, when? And if not you and me, then who?
It’s about more than public transport. If we’re not taking our usual buses to the shops and markets, it probably means we’re not spending our money here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough where it gets ploughed back into our local economy, our community, our jobs, our prosperity.
I’m worried that people will hang back so long that, when they finally venture out, it’ll be too late to save some of the shops and buses we’ve relied on for decades.
So last week I donned my mask and took to the buses myself, travelling from Newmarket Road Park and Ride to Cambridge’s Drummer Street depot and on to the riverside market town of St Ives. I wanted to see the measures brought in by bus operator Stagecoach to make its vehicles clean and safe, with screening for the driver, and signs indicating which seats to use - airspace generously regimented between every passenger.
It’s a good effort. My bus looked and smelled super hygienic and showed Covid such a clean pair of wheels that no self-respecting bug would want to go anywhere near it. Drivers carry sanitizing kits to ensure handrails, bells, seats, and poles can be regularly spritzed. If I hadn’t already made other plans, I’d have eaten lunch off any part of it. Only thing was, the buses were all a bit empty. And that’s my point.
Some people I spoke to admitted that they won’t use trains or buses because they don’t want to wear a ‘face covering’. Really? From tomorrow, cover-up will be the rule in shops and supermarkets too. Face up to it, and get used to looping on that mask.
It’s just another piece of safety kit, like a cycling helmet, but it’s also a passport to freedom. We shouldn’t think of it self-centredly as Personal Protection Equipment, but more as Public Protection Equipment. We wear it to do our bit for the community and the economy; to keep the buses and trains running, to keep the shops open, the tills ringing, and the virus in retreat.
Let’s not forget that, in a week or so, employers will ask many of us to return to the workplace, and we’ll have to get there. Walking or biking is the ideal ‘active travel’, for our health, safety, and the environment, but a heck of a lot of us will have to jump on public transport to get where we need to be. And we’ll want to pop into shops and takeaways in our lunch hours – so let’s be sure we’ve got a mask, unless exemptions apply.
Don’t leave home without it.