An opinion piece by Growth Deal Programme Manager, Robyn Lovelock
When the electrics on our nearly-new car recently failed without warning, I took the opportunity to test life without a car for the first time in my adult life. I’m committed to active travel even when we do have a car – we cycle or walk the school run most days, I use my bike for short journeys around town and commute to work once a week by bike and train.
However, my work with Ambition North Wales regularly takes me across the whole region – an area rightly better known for its scenic beauty and mountainous roads rather than for its public transport connectivity.
For those in a hurry:
- The highlights were: relaxed travel on public transport with time for online working and offline reflection; a health boost from walking and cycling more; and lovely connections made with people I encountered on my travels that I’d have missed in my car.
- The downsides? Some relatively short routes made impossible by multiple bus changes; changes to bus timetables and substantial additional expense.
- In summary: public transport needs to be made affordable while people build new habits; we need to make sure buses and trains can easily carry bikes so journeys link better; and we need better routes that work for residents and visitors to our beautiful region.
For those happy to take the scenic route:
Thankfully the first week of the breakdown, I only needed to get to the office on Monday – a journey I’m familiar with: a 7 mile route, mostly along the beautiful Llangollen Canal to get to Ruabon station. It takes about 35 minutes at a steady pace, but I give myself 50 minutes so I don’t get stressed worrying about being late for the train. Trains in Wales have 2 spaces available for bikes, but invariably there are between 3 and 6 of us on sections of the commute to Llandudno Junction. We all happily juggle the bike stack so fellow cyclists can get their bikes off at the right station. If train-supported cycle travel is going to expand, Transport for Wales needs to reconsider how best to carry bikes on trains. After an hour working on the train, I got my bike off the train at my station, cycle 5 minutes to the office, and grab a quick sink wash as I change into my office clothes, carefully rolled into my backpack. A lick of my Welsh-made deodorant and a re-twist of my hair into a tidier bun and I’m at my desk for a 9:30am meeting. Just over 2 hours door to door versus 1 hour 20 driving in the car… not bad with exercise and an hour of emails already ticked off my to-do list.
No news from the dealership garage feels ominous. I had two days this week traveling out and about. Tuesday back into Llandudno, a repeat of the week 1 journey but with a stunning sunrise and sunset to start and end the day brilliantly. Then, on the Thursday I had a meeting with the regional Farming Connect team in Bala. No problem at all, thanks to the brilliant TrawsCambria bus service. I did the school run with the kids by bike, locked up in Llangollen town centre, grabbed a delicious coffee (in my re-usable glass coffee cup – UK Environment Minister Therese Coffey would have been proud) and jumped on the bus. It’s a winding route along the Dee Valley, through several villages, but only takes 20 minutes longer on the bus than driving – and I whiled away the time watching the scenery and thinking through some challenging aspects of my Growth Deal projects. After a successful meeting, I checked my work emails via my phone at the bus stop and headed home without a hiccup, back at my desk shortly after lunch. This having a car thing isn’t so hard after all.
The dealership garage seems to be experimenting on how to fix the car, having changed the alternator and the CEM without luck, now trying the DEM module. Fingers crossed they fix it soon. I had to face my biggest challenge yet – getting to Glynllifon Agricultural College on the west coast of Gwynedd, south of Caernarfon. And for a meeting I wanted to look particularly tidy for. Rather than cycling to the train, I decided to catch the bus to the station. This left from Llangollen town centre so I headed off from home by foot for the 15- minute walk to the bus stop. Unfortunately, I realised as I got there that the bus timetable had changed since I last took the 7:30 bus – argh! I’ve travelled enough by bus to know I should always double check! Checking the bus timetable on the various company websites, it seemed the only bus that could get me to the station had left 35 minutes earlier. The digital board letting me know bus times was installed, but not yet operational. This left me with two options – wait in a nearby café until the next bus linking to a train or hitch a lift with a passing driver. Ambition North Wales doesn’t promote hitch-hiking for employees so whichever of those options I took was entirely at my own risk, and I got to the office on time, ready to link with a colleague driving the rest of the way to Glynllifon. A successful if challenging week without a car.
As the garage started making more positive noises about the state of our car, I finally faced an insurmountable public transport challenge: how to get from Llangollen to the Optic Centre near St Asaph. Despite the Centre being in the same county as where I live, there was no viable route – especially not to arrive in time for an early meeting. All options took over 2.5 hours and required 3+ changes in buses, always a risk, and none arrived on time. Resigned to failure in my challenge, I borrowed a car from a family member and drove to St Asaph.
Looking back on my month, I really do feel that making public transport accessible is within our grasp!
Although I live in quite a rural town, buses run to the neighbouring town every 30 minutes, passing our nearest train station each time, Bus shelters have been upgraded to include digital timetables. Cycle options are OK and getting better all the time. It’s a great start.
However, we need to see some important and urgent changes if active travel and public transport options are to become the norm. My top three asks are:
- The ability to carry bikes on buses is essential, extending the radius that people use the bus from 1 mile to 3 miles. I’ve written a separate discussion paper on the potential for installing bike carriers on the front of buses – an approach used widely and very successfully across the USA. Space for bikes inside buses is also becoming popular elsewhere – as we were excited to find in York recently! Both buses and trains will need to accommodate more bikes than they do currently.
- A bigger ask is a launch of new routes to make sure key hubs are accessible. People from Llangollen should be able to reach the county town of Ruthin without changing buses, and a mooted route Welshpool > Oswestry > Llangollen > Ruthin > Denbigh > St Asaph> Rhyl would open up beautiful areas of North East Wales for local people and visitors.
- And finally, but most importantly: public transport needs to be affordable. The round trip by car Llangollen to Llandudno Junction costs about £6 in fuel; taking the train costs about £20, plus £2.80 if I take the bus to the station. While this ignores the other costs of owning a car, it’s the calculation that car owners make so the public transport option has to win on costs – at least to help people build new habits. Germany has just announced unlimited public transport for £1.40 per day and Spain has made public transport free until the end of 2023. I’d love to see Wales lead the UK in offering the same. Especially as I’ve just got a bill for over £4,000 for the work on my car.
Photo credit: Drosi Bikes