It is the biggest transport cliché of all time, and one that has become applicable to almost every and any facet of modern life. You wait ages for a bus and then three turn up at once. And as a confirmed public transportophile, I must confess that there is a certain amount of truth in there.
It must first, perhaps, be acknowledged that I use public transport because a) I am not currently residing in my native country, nor indeed in one in which I have a permanent residence (I’m in the south of France for four months, and I flew here), and b) I haven’t learnt to drive yet. Not just not passed my test, but never taken a lesson, not sat my theory test, not got a provisional licence, not even sure I’ve even ever sat in the driver’s seat of a car. Yes, I really am that far off being let loose on the roads. This is one of my constant personal dilemmas. Driving would be easy. I would be able to get anywhere. I would get there quickly. I wouldn’t have to dodge awkward questions about why I have yet to grow up and get a car. And yet, I hesitate, and not just because I don’t have the time or money and am in the wrong country.
Quite simply, I am not sure that it would be moral to drive. I like to think of myself as environmentally conscious, and driving is certainly not that. Petrol is not. Carbon emissions are not. Roads are not. And anyway, cycling is cooler, no?
But anyway, the fact is, that I do not have a car at my disposal, and the automatic consequence of this is that I have a pretty good knowledge of public transport systems. In La Paz, you can get wherever you want to go, since every other vehicle is either a bus or a taxi (I mean, come on, we wrote an entire magazine issue about the topic). In Paris you have the Métro, London the Underground, New York the Subway (not to be confused with the place that prepares baffling butties and smells like piped-in bread scent). And Manchester has GMPTE.
The 135 was the bane of my life for just over a year, as I got up before 7 every morning to get to college for 9, and desperately wished it wouldn’t get stuck in traffic or stop at too many of the points designated every fifty metres or so. Returning from South America, I simply couldn’t bear taking it, not least because it would be by far the slowest and least cost-efficient leg of the whole mammoth journey. It isn’t just the lack of speed, or the incredibly high-pitched beep every time someone requests a stop (I’m sure it’s one of those anti-young people devices), or the drunks or the smelly people or the overcrowding or the buggies full of shopping (but not children) or the ridiculous design that means there are no seats or the way they charge significantly more to go into Manchester than Bury, even though Bury is cheaper. It’s also just the sense that you, as a passenger, are somehow making unreasonable demands upon the system.
The fact is, that not everyone has a car. In many places, that is acceptable. In rural Bolivia, if a vehicle is heading where you want to go, you flag it down and they give you a lift for a nominal price (or, if they’re excited to have a Spanish-speaking foreigner in the car, they’ll let you off for free). If you tried to do that in Europe, you’d be either ignored, run over, reported to the police or kidnapped, robbed and/or murdered. It is your decision, is the assumption, you chose not to join the automobile club, and so you obviously want to walk. The assessment of the circumstances goes no deeper.
Biarritz is a small town of narrow streets and a limited number of key attractions. It has a large seasonal influx of holidaymakers. It is, therefore, surely perfect for an efficient bus service, thus cutting down congestion and easing the pressure on limited parking spaces. (And trust me, two months of living by the beach and, more significantly, the beach car park, means that I can affirm with complete authority that if you arrive any time between 10am and midnight on a sunny day and/or a weekend/bank holiday, you have absolutely no chance of even getting a dodgy double-parking-on-the-kerb spot). There is a bus system here, and quite a cheap one too, as well as a free shuttle bus linking town centre car parks to the beach. Unfortunately, the buses of the BAB agglomeration (as the Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne area is not-so-affectionately known) take utterly illogical routes that go, quite literally, round the houses. There’s weaving around housing estates, impossibly tight left turns, roads that are quite simply not wide enough for a bus to drive down (even when there’s no illegal parking going on) and one rather odd stop that involves the bus driving all the way past, looping around the roundabout to get on the opposite side of the road, driving back the way it came and ultimately carrying on in its original direction. I have never seen anyone get on or off at the stop, thus rendering this palaver utterly pointless. A single journey only costs €1, but is also highly likely to endanger your sanity. Because if the bus wasn’t bad enough, there’s the cheerful voice telling you the number, route and next stop every 30 seconds (because yes, the stops are that close together). There’s a very good reason I walk to work.
It is a generally accepted fact that we cannot continue to use energy and fuels at our current rate. We cannot sustain a society in which every adult has and drives a car. But we do not make it easy for those who do not drive. Some places are simply inaccesible by bus, or are at least very complicated: transport stops running for a lunch break, or on a Sunday, and basically shuts down for Christmas and/or the summer holidays. Websites for tourist sites offer detailed information about car parking, and utterly uselessly inform you that the nearest train station is 30km away. It is as though we cannot imagine that someone would choose not to have a car, and so we simply choose not to cater for them. And yet it seems increasingly probable that at some point in the not-too-distant future, being a non-driver will not just be a choice, it will be a necessity. Maybe then, when we who walk and cycle and ride buses, trams and trains are in the majority, we will finally have a public transport system that makes sense.