The title ‘Public Transport’ will conjure up all sorts of different images in our minds. Happy childhood excursions to visit distant resorts or relations, to disorderly, unpleasant behaviour of drunken louts.
In many cases, it was inconvenience and unpleasantness, which led people to aspire to car ownership from the 1950s and ’60s.
I remember my father coming home one evening determined to buy a car. He had been sitting beside a woman with a child on her knee who was sucking a lollipop. My father was wearing his new camel- hair coat, (a Christmas present from my mother), when he heard the woman say, “Keep your lollipop off that man’s coat, you’ll get it all fluffy”. Next step was a new Ford Prefect, £585.00; three speed, side valve, registration 594501, and I was on the way to becoming a ‘petrolhead’.
Generally speaking, my generation, that is the baby boomers, born after hostilities in 1945, all take it as a human right to be able to go everywhere by private car.
Fifty years ago, we did have an integrated public transport system; the U.T.A. had a monopoly of passenger, and to a large extant, goods carriage. The trains and buses were not state of the art in many cases, but by and large, the whole thing worked. Wanting to restore an attractive, public transport which people will choose to use is not an impossibility.
Where the real problem arises is in convincing a generation of ‘petrolheads’ and their families that commuting in areas of congestion is not in anyone’s best interests, least of all their own.
The environment cannot afford an increase in congestion. The country’s economy cannot justify or afford the continued increase in fossil fuel consumption. The private car owner should not be able to afford to take his motor with at least three empty seats into a town or city centre and leave it there all day until the evening rush hour home.
This is where the unpopular difficulty arises, introducing car restraint. Congestion in Belfast and other towns in N. Ireland is nothing like as severe as in other parts of these islands, but that’s not the point. It must not be allowed to continue at its present level, our whole future prosperity and quality of life depends on measures that have to be taken now.
If we do not commit ourselves to taking the difficult decisions now, the costs in real terms will be at least doubled well within ten years, why wait? Because it is going to be unpopular to tell people, “Do not take your car to work, because we are going to make it very expensive for you to do so”. Parking charges in Belfast are very cheap; in fact, did you know that it is a right for civil and public servants of certain levels to be provided with free car parking?
How can city and town centres survive as viable shopping places if they cannot be accessed by customers, and short term parking made difficult because of commuters who come from the arterial routes and take up most of the parking spaces. We do not want to deprive people of their private cars, but I do believe that the costs of car owning should reflect more closely the laws of supply and demand. If you insist on taking a car into areas of congestion, it is going to cost you more, and this extra money should be spent on contributing to a first class public transport system.
At the present time, the government is seriously considering closing more than one third of the railway system because it is afraid of the costs of minor upgrading. Railway lines built one hundred and fifty years ago to Derry/ Londonderry, Coleraine, Ballymoney, Limavady, Larne, are now under threat of closure. Almost one hundred years ago, the journey time to these places was the same by train as it is today. Railway, which is the most environmentally friendly way of moving people in significant numbers could be non-existent by this time next year. John Spellar, catch yourself on!
We need a public transport system in N. Ireland capable of attracting all sections of society, whether they are businessmen, or on the ‘Bru, whether they are people going to Bingo or the Ballet. We need a public transport system, especially in rural areas that is sufficiently flexible to give our people the freedom of travel and the option of being able to exist without a car at the door.
The Department of Regional Development has produced its Regional Transportation Strategy, a very good document, involving £3.5 billion over ten years. At present, the split between ‘core money’, i.e., public funds is 65%-35% in favour of road improvements.
Conference proposes that N. Ireland would be better served if this split was adjusted to 50%-50% in favour of public transport.