So there I was last Monday at 12.20, standing outside All Saints Church in Elton, in the Peak District of Derbyshire where I live, with a small suitcase, on my way to London. The bus to Matlock meets the train, and a No. 172 Hulley’s bus was due at 12.22. It’s a five-mile journey.
Silly as it may sound, the new green edge to David Cameron’s blue has caused me, as a Conservative, to think a bit more before I drive. We really do have to rescue the ideal of environmental responsibility from the left-tinged puritans for whom threats about global warming are just a weapon with which to beat free-market economics. Be under no illusions: these eco-apocalypticists don’t want there to be any way we could carry on living as we do. They would be positively disappointed if a carbon-neutral 4×4 were invented. They bridle when research suggests that washable nappies consume as much energy as the disposable kind. Their thinking is a cul-de-sac for environmentalism, which must start from the understanding that people are prepared to modify but not to revolutionise the way they live.
Yet I have to confess to a soft spot for buses. The bus is such a cheap and efficient way of moving people. I got to know quite a bit about the industry as an MP, and am impressed at how it is adapting, particularly in the cities. The Tories’ new obsession with trams is as idiotic as it is fashionable; trams were abandoned because buses do the same job more flexibly and cheaply. But buses have a big part to play in the city transport of the future, where they should and probably will — eventually — be free of charge.
I’ve always wanted to be as optimistic for rural buses. As an East Midlands MP I was sympathetic to petitions to keep our village bus services. We were largely successful, and to this day I look up hopefully whenever a Hulley’s bus, brightly lit, looms out of the Peak District night, lumbering from Bakewell to Matlock via Stanton-in-Peak, Birchover, Elton, Winster and Darley Dale. The 172 is a good, friendly and reliable service.
And, time and again, my heart sinks as I realise the bus is empty. Villagers will sign petitions to save a bus service, but they will not use it.
I know the counter-argument: that if the services are not frequent enough to be convenient, people make other arrangements. This is always an argument against the reduction in any service, but I have to report that the decline in rural bus provision has followed, not led, the decline in occupancy; and if the case for rural public transport means that regular, frequent services must run almost empty during off-peak times and at night, then the environmental argument for public transport is much undermined.
Still, I keep hoping that more people in the country will go back to buses, and have recently resolved to try to use them more often myself. So I turned down the offer of a friend in the village at whose house I had left my gas-guzzling pick-up truck. ‘Why don’t I run you down to Matlock?’ he had asked. ‘Kind,’ I replied, ‘but there’s a convenient bus, so I’ll use it.’ And I had walked up the hill to the bus stop. It was raining.
Within about 30 seconds a car pulled up beside me, driven by a couple I know. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ they said, ‘hop in. We’ll take you. We’re going that way.’
Stupid, I know, but I had got it into my head that I would use the bus, I was pretty confident it would be on its way and almost empty, and I felt it would somehow be betraying my principles — and the bus driver — to climb into a white Volvo estate. So I explained (or tried to) that I wanted to patronise the bus, and my friends drove off, bemused if not offended.
A minute later a big 4×4 shot past, screeched to a halt, and reversed back to me. A farmer friend leaned over to the passenger window. ‘Matlock?’ he said. ‘I’m going. Hop in.’ It was now 12.23. What if the bus doesn’t come? I thought. I’d look pretty stupid, wouldn’t I? My resolve crumbled and I climbed in, desperately hoping we didn’t overtake the couple whose offer I had just turned down. Twenty seconds later we passed the bus coming up into the village. I felt ashamed, and avoided the bus driver’s eyes. The bus was empty.
Well, let’s be realistic. Everyone in Elton knows everyone else. Few who were driving away would leave a neighbour standing at a bus stop, and a car goes down to Matlock or Bakewell at least every five minutes. Few are full. Most carry only the driver. There would be absolutely no need to lay on a bus service if we could find a meeting-point between car owners’ undoubted willingness to take passengers and the needs of the minority who have no transport of their own.
For many years I have been racking my brains for a solution to this. I do recognise the problems, of course: insurance; indemnity from being sued in the event of an accident; the greater difficulty (for instance) of arranging a lift back from the town, where pensioners would not want to solicit lifts on a busy main road. I served on the parliamentary standing committee on a transport Bill which made provision for passengers queueing for a taxi to share a cab where their destinations coincided, and it is still in force. But it proved (as I suspected) a dead letter. People in queues who are unacquainted with each other don’t importune like that. Likewise in Elton, car-less people would often be too proud to ask.
Perhaps the internet holds out possibilities for co-ordinating demand with supply, though at present the people most likely to need a lift are least likely to be at ease with the technology. My guess is that so long as rides are offered in a spirit of charity alone, stigma will attach to soliciting them. I have tried to think my way through schemes in which passengers have fuel coupons or Green-Shield-style stamps to offer drivers, but there are difficulties.
Yet there must an answer. In three minutes I was offered three lifts to Matlock by people who knew me. Yet we won’t ask strangers, and — at the very time when hitchhiking should be coming back for excellent environmental reasons — it is almost dead. The potential supply is there. The potential demand is there. Can nobody think of a way of introducing them to each other?
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.