Mobility and immobility: the unequal politics of transportation

Treacle Market Macclesfied
Treacle Market Macclesfield

By Prof Ares Kalandides

A version of this blog post has been submitted as written evidence to the ‘Health of the bus market’ inquiry currently being run by UK Parliament’s Transport Committee

The Treacle Market takes place on the last Sunday of each month in the Cheshire town of Macclesfield, UK. Over 160 stalls sell local delicacies, vintage clothes, antiques and handicrafts. The streets of Macclesfield bustle with life, attracting people from towns and villages in the area. However, this regionally important event recently received a serious blow: in April 2018 the partly subsided bus services in Cheshire East – run by Arriva, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn (German Rail), the latter property of the German state[1] – were reorganized, with the result that villages were left without connecting buses on week-day evenings and all day on Sunday.

“As IPM research has shown, accessibility is the number 1 factor affecting town centre vitality and viability. For many communities, the local bus service is imperative. Especially for people with mobility issues. What may be considered as edge of town to someone who is able-bodied is not walkable for others.”

Of course, not everybody relies on buses. This is a car country and a car region. Towns and villages, houses and retail are organized around the private car. For those without one, there is high reliance on buses and taxis.

A  view of Macclesfield from the train station

Macclesfield itself is an important hub with a train station, links both to Manchester and London and, according to The Office of Rail and Road[2], a weekly footfall of 30,000. But even the uphill walk from the train to the bus station is a strenuous – even impossible walk – for people with limited mobility. And it is of course the elderly, the under-age, people with little money and people with disabilities who mostly rely on buses. And it is those who are already mostly affected by the cuts.

“Public transportation is a community building practice: repeated transient encounters create familiarity and social contacts.“

I am a regular user of those buses myself. As my work at Manchester Metropolitan University does not require me to be there daily, I prefer to stay in Bollington, a small town 3.5 miles from Macclesfield. I am able-bodied and healthy, I can afford a car, but I choose not to have one.  Whereas my reasoning is mostly due to environmental awareness, it also has a strong social element: Rubbing shoulders with others in public transport, however exasperating it may sometimes be, is an important social experience. Where else do we get out of our bubble (home-car-work-entertainment) otherwise? Public transport is a community building practice: repeated transient encounters create familiarity and social contacts. And if we take the demographics of bus-users into account, it is precisely those who need such community-building spaces most.

Buses are mostly used by senior citizens

Socially, the destruction of public transport discriminates against already vulnerable groups, in particular the elderly, people with disabilities, the under-age and the poor. The political decision to fund a motorway instead of subsidising public means of mobility affects society’s weakest. It disconnects places and damages communities – including the transient yet important encounters of the bus space itself. Economically, it affects accessibility for towns and villages that depend on footfall. As for the environmental costs of making people depend on private cars, affecting everything from regional planning, down to the individual house design, those are almost incalculable.

“One person’s mobility can mean another’s immobility.”

There is a lot of talk about the age of mobility, but this seems to be a very unequal concept. One person’s mobility can easily mean another’s immobility. If we accept that there is social, economic and environmental value in mobility – and that value cannot be measured only in terms of generated income for the bus company – then we need to rethink how we plan transportation in general and public transport in particular.

Whilst the Department of Transport has strategies for all other modes of transport, it does not have one for bus travel[3]. Therefore, it is too easy for local transport authorities to continue to undermine local bus services. The authority responsible for public transport in Bollington and Macclesfield is Cheshire East. They have recently run a public consultation for a new Local Transport Plan which closed at the end of June 2018[4]. Let’s hope that bus transport is given more support.

[1] According to Arriva’s annual report, the company generated a profit of £13,045,000 In 2017 (up from £10,006,000 in 2016)