Stop the Bus, I Want to Get Off!

Last week I was visiting a friend. When I arrived he asked how I'd got there. I told him I'd come on the bus. He was perplexed. Where did I catch a bus? I told him there was a stop 50 yards from my house and that the service that stopped there every 10 minutes also stopped at the bus stop around the corner from his house. And then he looked even more perplexed. It turned out that, despite living in the same house for 20 years, he had never noticed the bus stop just around the corner and mere moments from his front garden. He'd never noticed it or, apparently, the large red bus that plied that route, because he'd never ventured past the end of his street on foot. For a journey of any distance beyond that, he got in his car and drove. Now I was the one who was perplexed. Despite complaining regularly about the high cost of parking in our city centre, he had never bothered to find out whether he might be able to use the bus.

"Didn't you wonder," I asked, "what all those people queuing up in neat lines behind that tall pole with a sign saying 'bus stop' were doing every morning?". He didn't really have an answer. Presumably he thought they were performing some sort of strange ritual. And I could tell he thought I must have been crazy to use such an outmoded method of transport.

"Leather, cushioned seats? Laminate flooring? Satellite technology? Charge-card ticketing?" I queried, "Because that's what our service has. Some services even offer wi-fi!". He looked at me strangely as if it was some kind of trick and I left it at that.

As a non driver I've always used public transport. My parents have never had a car and even my Granddad Buckler, who owned the only car in the family, rarely used it. Indeed, as I recall, when he was forced to get it out of the garage for a day out, his nerves took a real bashing. Not natural drivers, my family.  Both my parents did attempt to learn to drive, although having said all the apologies after my Dad has negotiated a luggage trolley through a packed airport terminal, I'm not that surprised that he didn't really take to the skill. My Mum was taught by Granddad and so was probably doomed never to enjoy the experience. With all this unpromising genetic programming, and the fact that I get brain ache just imagining all the things that could go wrong with a car engine, I never bothered to try to learn. I've always lived on a good bus route, so it's never been a problem. I'm lucky. I live in a nice suburb of a decent size city. Nowhere within the city is inaccessible. I can easily get out into the country and to most of the local towns. If I lived in the country, things might well be different.

I know I'm in a minority. I also know that people think you're a little odd if you choose not to drive. If I mention I'm arriving by bus, they usually assume that I just don't have access to the car that day. If I tell them I don't have a car, they seem to assume there is some secret, never-to-be-mentioned reason and they drop the subject rather quickly. Or, increasingly, they assume it's some sort of statement and that I am an eco-warrior or a tree-hugger. Neither of which are true. I do often reflect that if every car carrying one person, at rush-hour, instead carried two there would be less traffic to negotiate, less pollution to inhale and less harmful emissions to add the the planet's woes. But I'm realistic enough to know that people need an awful lot of convincing to give up the convenience of a car and hop on a bus instead.

But it comes to something when able-bodied people are suddenly cancelling arrangements, re-scheduling meetings and booking additional days off work because they have 'car trouble'. In a British city you rarely live that far from a public transport route, and pretty much everywhere you could want to go will also be on one, so a little 'car trouble' shouldn't really put you off your stride. Okay, if it's chucking it down with rain, you might get a bit wet at the bus stop, but at least you'll get to your destination. But not everyone finds inclement weather the ultimate bus turn-off. Some people avoid public transport for the strangest reasons.

I once worked with someone who refused, point-blank, to use public transport of any kind. When her car was rendered undriveable by vandals, rather than risk stepping aboard a bus, she asked another colleage to make a detour of several miles in the opposite direction to bring her to work and back again. She refused to use the bus, not because the journey would take twice as long, or because there was a poor service - in fact a regular bus passed right past the end of her street and deposited her just a few hundred yards from the office. No, she wouldn't use the bus because: "You never know what kind of weirdo will come and sit next to you."

I resisted the temptation to ask what she thought the other passengers thought about having to sit next to her, but only just. I tried to explain to her that I've spent my whole life using buses and I've shared a seat most of that time. Only very rarely have I had to do so with the kind of person I would rather have avoided. And, give or take the odd tipsy traveller, or sticky child, I've rarely found my fellow passengers anything but a delight. I've had lovely conversations with kind-hearted people. Our bus service also happens to be the one that takes visitors and outpatients to the main city hospital, so while you do get a regular clientele, you also get a wider variety of people. From old ladies on their way to Tesco and mums picking tots up from nursery to hospital volunteers and chaps on their way to visit a friend. And hardly ever have they been anything other than clean, sober, intelligent and polite. But she remained unconvinced and to this day is doubtless trapped in her little tin can, battling traffic jams and cursing her fellow travellers.

While my friend who just discovered the bus stop at the bottom of his lane? Well he's promised to give it a try … just for a laugh, you understand.