Laddismo foot on the clutch

May 22, 1998

DURING a seminar on transport and society in 1993 three of my students worked out a project that had us hastening two kilometres across town to a pub called the Graf Eberhard, named after the 15th-century founder of Tubingen University. Five went on foot, five by car, five by bus, and five on bikes, timing themselves and noting traffic conditions, expense and environmental impact.

Three groups turned up at the Graf Eberhard within two minutes of each other - 21 to 23 minutes for the trip. The others had been there for seven minutes already. No prizes for guessing who. Twenty-three minutes is as fast as you can do it on foot without busting a gut; the bus people had to change at the central bus station; the motorists had to walk about 300 metres to the car park, and 100 metres at the other end. The winners were, naturally, the bikers. In 1993, eight of my 20 students were coming into university by car. A recent head count showed this had dropped to three. And I guess now, if we re-ran the Graf Eberhard caper, the bus people would be hot on the heels of the cyclists.

Why? In the past five years, public transport in Tubingen has changed radically. Tubingen is about the size of Exeter, with 80,000 inhabitants, 20,000 of whom are connected with the university and its research outfits and hospitals. In 1986, Tubingen people made 53 journeys a year on eight bus routes, now they make 135 on 23. There are five-minute frequencies on the main drag from station/bus station to the university, hospitals and main housing scheme. The other lines are mainly on 15-minute frequencies, but even low-density developments have a minibus an hour plus an evening dial-a-bus that connects with the main trains into town.

Buses have lanes on all the main roads and keep to the timetable (shown at every stop) through a cab computer. All tickets are priced from DM2.40 (80p) and give 40 minutes' ride, but timekeeping stems from the fact that about 80 per cent of passengers actually travel on season tickets valid for a month (DM45) or more and can board the bus at any of its doors. A year's travel costs DM400: 12 months for the price of nine. But not if you are a student. For Tubingen Town Transport (the local-authority company that coordinates half-a-dozen private operators) has managed to win over more than half the students (about 10,000) to a semester season-ticket. This costs only DM45 for six months' travel, with the university contributing a further DM25. For this, students also get free rides on the dial-a-buses and on the all-night Sammeltaxis. (These timetabled taxis were started through feminist pressure in the 1980s, in response to assaults on women students going home late at night; they are now open to all, and have been a great success.) As a result there are several new shuttle lines, connecting the various university sites, and an increase in patronage of per cent in the past two years. This is despite a concurrent policy of encouraging cyclists with reserved cycleways and a pedestrianised town centre. More than 35 per cent of Tubingers now travel by bus and car drivers are down from over 50 per cent to about 30 per cent. The rest cycle or walk; although with much of the town perched on hillsides 300 feet above the centre and station, these modes have their limits.

Certain things have accelerated change. First, pollution in Baden-Wurttemberg is bad and getting worse. This is because of windlessness and rising temperature, as well as motor exhaust. Ozone levels of 40 milligrams per cubic metre are common even in winter, and breathing difficulties widespread in summer, when ozone is regularly above the critical level of 120 milligrams and temperatures can be above 30oC, making walking or cycling difficult. In winter I walk three kilometres a day to and from work, but in summer the bus is essential.

Second, passengers are "caught young". Driving kids to school is discouraged (it is made difficult to reach most Tubingen schools by car) and where not bussed, kids are encouraged to walk or bike. This approach is now spreading to other major traffic-attractors: factories, hospitals, local government.

The object is to take whole commuting categories away from private transport by making them offers they cannot refuse.

Compare this with Britain. The stocks of privatised concerns such as First Bus and Stagecoach may be darlings in the City, but the number of British bus passengers is 20 per cent down over a decade. Even use by Scots, bus-friendly according to Mr Stagecoach, Brian Souter, fell in 1995-96 by 4 per cent. This has happened while passenger numbers in most European countries have risen about 10 per cent over the decade and has not much to do with national wealth or level of car ownership. The citizens of rich Zurich have the record with more than 400 trips a year. The Brits look like joining the South American scenario, where gridlock, laddismo and poverty go hand-in-hand with foot on the clutch.

The lesson seems to be that control and planning is more important than ownership, that speed and reliability count, and that the best strategy is to bind passengers in by attractive long-term savings, both individually and by agreement with employers in "people-intensive" industries. Of these, the universities, with staff, students, visitors and tourists, must be a key operation. Corporate mobility plans, aimed at maximising "green routes" around university towns and sharing these with other institutions, might also mean that much of the campus land now used for roads and car parking could be redeveloped for academic buildings and brownfield housing.

The other week I was lecturing in Oxford. There seemed to be at least three competing local bus companies (though it was difficult to find who was running what and where) - there were timetables, but no route maps.

With Oxford Tube and City Express buses leaving for London at quarter-hour intervals, there was a bus to London almost every seven-and-a-half minutes. But on the 5.10pm bus to London I was one of nine passengers, and the trip to Marble Arch took 100 minutes. In British university towns, it seems, coordination and planning cannot come quickly enough.

Christopher Harvie is professor of British and Irish studies at the University of Tubingen.

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