taking a look at all things transport

The first bus went through John's father's village in 1921.
The first bus went through John's father's village in 1921.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have mentioned public transport in the form of trains and buses, and also private transport principally in the form of cars, with a sideways nod to cycling.

As we are faced with the paradox of local services such as shops and public transport declining and private transport becoming more expensive and yet more necessary, the question of how we get around is becoming ever more pressing.

Such huge changes in our lifestyle occurred during the 20th century that we have become accustomed to our lives actually being very much easier than those who lived a hundred years ago. We have adjusted to the idea of being able to do everything we want so much more quickly, cheaply and easily than they could.

They had to walk more. When my father was a child, the only person in the village to have a car was the doctor, otherwise the gentry still had horse-drawn private transport. Petrol was obtained in two-gallon cans and had to be collected from the railway station. Many people had bicycles. Some wag suggested that the bicycle was an immoral invention because, for the first time in history, a man who could not afford a horse could sleep in the next parish and be home in time for breakfast.

There was a small collection of shops in the village selling bread, meat and fish, and a general grocer’s. The dairyman called daily with his horse and cart and ladled milk from a churn into each householder’s jug. An ironmonger’s shop was attached to the village smithy, where the blacksmith was a pivotal figure.

The railway station was a mile away. The first bus came into the village in 1921, when my father was 23 years old. Radio broadcasts began a year later and the cinema, known as the flea-pit, opened at about the same time. There were few private telephones and one public telephone, outside the post office. Local calls cost two pence without time limit.

The average wage was less than £3 per week and the working week was usually 60 hours. The introduction of paid holidays was still many years in the future. Pensions were introduced for people over 70 by the Liberal government from January 1, 1909, on the assumption that the expectation of life thereafter was about a year. The pension was five shillings per week, 50 per cent higher for a married couple, and was means-tested.

Leisure time, which was very much less than it is now, was spent at the clubs and societies attached to the various churches, which viewed each other with suspicion. It was not until 1932, when the two branches of Methodism amalgamated, that they stopped throwing stones through each other’s windows. City cycling clubs rode into the countryside at the weekends.

The availability and affordability of cars increased after the First World War, which also resulted in the expansion of commercial road transport as young men leaving the Armed Forces, where they had been taught to drive, bought redundant Army vehicles. Each chassis often had two bodies – a lorry for carrying goods during the week and a char-a-banc for use at the weekends.

Some had permanent omnibus bodies and were used to develop regular bus services.

The increase in public transport changed society fundamentally. People were no longer restricted to their local area. The outspoken writer Mary Wesley declared that rural bus services were a good thing because they reduced incest, which was more common than we realise.

As the century progressed, transport in its various forms progressed to meet changing needs. Railways were electrified in suburban areas, electric tramways developed in the cities, reaching a peak around 1930 and then declined. Bus services intensified until motor cars began to rob them of their traffic in the 1950s. To meet the needs of the car, roads were widened and straightened and motorways built; goods traffic was increasingly catered for by lorries rather than the railways, and many lines were closed.

Before the end of the 20th century, the balance was changing again. The car became the victim of its own success – roads became so congested that driving became slow and frustrating rather than a pleasurable time-saver.

One of the most significant reasons for this was that women, most of whom in the first half of the century had not driven cars, started to learn to drive when they were young at the time that cars became available after the Second World War.

It was when they reached retirement age that buses lost their core patronage and were rapidly withdrawn through lack of demand, and there were often too many cars on the road for comfort.

There were still some people who could not drive and so local authorities were given the responsibility of keeping some essential bus services going for social reasons. Now even these are declining as the local authorities are being squeezed for cash. The next step was to give the elderly free travel on buses, but the operators complain that they are not sufficiently recompensed for carrying them. The coalition government is committed to retaining the free passes until the next election, but what will the next government do?

If we could overcome our reluctance to use buses, we might find that we have more of them. What can be done? I shall make some suggestions next time.