‘Modal Shift’ – to what?

The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) argues for every scheme that it wants to achieve ‘modal shift’ – getting people out of their cars, not using cars, and onto public transport.  So far so good, if ambitious.  But the Cambridgeshire County Council Transport Officers behind the GCP want public transport to be buses. Is that the right solution to a problem that is changing by the day?

I have always tried to use public transport when it is convenient.  Moving into Coton 15 years ago I was surprised there was no easy way to get to Cambridge Rail Station without a long walk, changing buses, and typically allowing an hour to get 5 miles.  The Park+Ride bus beckons to access the City Centre, which involves a drive to park, but the service stops mid-evening (earlier on Sundays).  However, this January 2018, as a New Year’s Resolution, I decided to use public transport as a preference around Cambridge to see what GCP wanted me to experience from ‘modal shift’.  Frankly, it has been appalling.

experience ‘modal shift’

Cambridge is one of those places where most bus trips involve two journeys, so, just accessing the station, you need to first get a bus to Drummer Street, the central Bus Station, and then a bus to the Rail Station.

Problems start at the Park+Ride.  Both at Madingley Road and Babraham I have witnessed the bus closing the doors as passengers walked up to them, pulling away to leave them behind.  Complaining to the County staff in the waiting rooms gets the patient explanation that they run the buses like trains and they depart at the appointed time and you need to be on the bus before that.  Except that, like the other people left behind, I didn’t know the appointed time, and the electronic display intended to show services was blank, and I was about to board.  Ten minutes unnecessarily added.  (And the fortunately now redundant Car Park Ticket machines were the slowest in the world).

Drummer Street and its surrounding roads is chaotic, frequently jammed with buses, especially if the exits to St Andrews Street, north and south, are blocked by queuing buses (I counted 14 buses in the queue on one journey).  The Madingley Road Park+Ride bus has to get through this to set down, extending the journey time further.  There is an absence of helpful information to advise where to go to catch buses to different destinations (or indeed what the routes and destinations of the buses might be) though electronic displays in real time tell you when the next numbered bus is arriving at a stop.  You would think services to the rail station would be especially indicated, with a dedicated stop, but no: they go from different stops it seems, though fortunately some do mention the station on the bus front.

buses unhelpfully whizz past

At the Rail Station the buses unhelpfully whizz past it.  There is a large space as the buses turn the corner in front of the station where they could stop and set down passengers, but it is apparently better for us – people with luggage, buggies, in wheelchairs, etc. – to be taken a couple of hundred yards down the road and left to walk back to the station, rain or shine.    Is the service run for the convenience of the public – obviously not.

The return from the Rail Station involves a game of chance.  Those in the know, lurk near the Park+Ride bus stop ready to sprint to a further stop depending on which service first appears, but will it wait as they run up?  There is not just one pick-up point for all buses into the centre, but separate stops, each with a separate display of their services, so you need to walk the length to identify a likely service and wait-time.  Helpfully, the details of the stop and services are unreadable, sited above the canopy of each stop.

transport interchange

I had seen in the promotion for CB1 that we were to have a  transport interchange at the Station, but the most favoured form of transport is the taxi, followed by those being dropped-off or picked-up by car (and cyclists have to go further round the corner).  Bus passengers are especially denied convenience in terms of access and details of services.

Stagecoach of course encourages you to download their Bus App to find out about bus routes and times.  This only provides details of their own services and their mobile tickets.  It thinks Coton Village is a one minute walk from a bus stop on Madingley Road!  So a drive to the Park+Ride is usually necessary.  It does know that what it calls PR4 goes from Drummer Street to the nearest stop at the Rail Station.  Sadly, in my experience, coming back to the station at 20.10 means I will then miss the Park+Ride bus back to Madingley Road!

journeys are made very uncomfortable

The Stagecoach buses, especially the Park+Ride ones, are reasonably comfortable, have wi-fi and even wired connections.  But the journeys are made very uncomfortable by the ride.

We know the County’s roads are very badly maintained, with numerous potholes and broken surfaces, but the buses seem to jolt into every one, with violent rattles and bangs and much jiggling of passengers.  On the Babraham Park+Ride bus down Hills Road, where the join of the cycle lane and road is obviously collapsing, the bus driver actually straddles the cycle lane to avoid the potholes!  I commented to a wheelchair user who was obviously reacting to the rough ride, and to my surprise they asked if I had experienced the Guided Busway, because they would not use it, because of the rough ride.  I decided to take a trip on the famous busway, only to have their experience confirmed.  Is this really the quality of ride that a purpose-built 21st Century guided bus track can achieve? No wonder it is scheduled to cost a fortune to maintain.  Would it, in practice, have been cheaper in the long run as light rail?

I remember that Edinburgh converted their busway to a tram on rails.  I recall my experience in various French and Dutch towns and cities with trams and light rail metros.  Places with historic centres like Montpelier, Tours, Bordeaux, Rheims seem to have managed to install trams with Park+Ride facilities,  and provide both a joined-up travel experience with interchanges and real comfort in terms of ride.

will GCP ever achieve ‘modal shift’

I can’t see how GCP will ever achieve ‘modal shift’ with its present busway-based strategy, apparently reliant on County road maintenance and the eccentricities of Stagecoach services.  The experience (and cost) will not convince anyone.  The insistence on buses and busways flies in the face of other traffic management and transport options, as argued by Smarter Cambridge Transport for example.

I am frankly shocked that the Mayor of the Combined Authority, James Palmer, has apparently so readily endorsed what seems to me to a be a ‘fake metro’ proposal for Cambridge, based on buses running into tunnels under Cambridge.  Even the County’s tame consultants Steer Davies Gleave admit that ride quality will be an issue.  That sounds like something out of the past, instead of a quality plan for the future.  The thinking behind Cambridge Connect seems much more forward-looking, especially if autonomous vehicles are intended.

The argument in most towns and cities is that passengers want and deserve quality as well as convenience and reliability, and that is best achieved by tram or light rail metros.  Rails deliver a much smoother ride if ‘modal shift’ is ever to be achieved.  Don’t deliver yesterday’s solutions tomorrow.

Roger Tomlinson

30 March 2018

 

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