Reclaim the Buses demo and rally

(Hey, it’s amazing what gets you posting to a neglected weblog again after a few months – and in the end it wasn’t until well after the Spring Equinox. Oh well, on to the matter in hand, and this time I’m not even going to suggest when I next expect to post.)

Polly and I went along to the demo with Uma and a couple of friends; since we all sit around bitching about the terrible bus service in the city it seemed right to support a group that aims to improve matters. I was curious, too, as I’ve never been to a demo or rally in Bristol and was interested to see who and how many would turn up. I was a bit concerned that there’d only be a handful of us and that the event would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the ones that turn up to any and every protest event with an agenda of their own and a load of branded publicity materials, and for a while it seemed my fears might be realised: we arrived at Castle Park to be greeted by a line of comrades thrusting newspapers and petitions at anyone who looked even slightly interested in the motley gang of activists preparing their banners and placards in the background. At this stage the gathering looked less like a protest at the state of the bus service in Bristol and more like a recruitment drive for any number of local left-wing political factions.

For a while this annoyed me so I’m going to indulge in a minor rant. At larger, better attended events the presence of these guys peddling their papers and ideas has less impact as they tend to fade into the background and help bulk up the numbers, but at smaller event like saturday’s demo they can end up dominating proceedings. This is a real problem for a group that wants to build up a broad base of support as they tend to warp the agenda and put people off. Pretty much every sane person in Bristol would agree that First provide an unreliable and massively overpriced bus service that falls way short of meeting the needs of the population, but this does not mean that they want to sign SWP petitions tenuously linking the war in Iraq to the issue of the day, call for more general re-nationalisation programs, abandon capitalism altogether for some unlikely socialist utopia or even become associated with these views by attending events where they appear to be the dominant ideology.

Anyway, I digress. Having successfully avoided paying money for party political propaganda from the paper sellers we made it over to the gathering crowd where eventually a Marshall gave us a bunch of leaflets and a hand-made placard to carry. As time went on the crowd grew until there were around a hundred or so people armed with Reclaim the Buses banners headed-up by two large cardboard buses parodying First’s livery. As this was Uma’s first demo, we thought she might appreciate the chance to join in so we gave her the placard to carry. (I’m not sure whether she approved – for all I know she might wholeheartedly support privatisation – but being only one year old and unable to speak she was left with little choice.)

[Uma in pushchair with placard]

She didn’t follow the march all the way round the city centre anyway, as despite having been told by one of the marshalls that we were going to go along the river on a quieter, more pedestrianised route we ended up wandering down the middle of the road through central Bristol while the traffic piled up behind us (including, amusingly, a line of First buses that looked for all the world like part of the procession). Mark and I took Uma and left the march after a while when it became obvious that some of the drivers were becoming annoyed with the protest and getting aggressive towards the demonstrators. We watched from the sidelines as the parade moved through the city centre and up and down Park Street before gathering on College Green for a rally. At this point we decided we’d done our bit and went to a nearby cafe for tea and sandwiches.

[The protestors marching through the city centre]

I reckon the organisers can count the event a success. The props were eye-catching and the volunteers handing out leaflets friendly and enthusiastic. Apart from a handful of idiots in their cars most people treated us all with good humour. The city was busy so a lot of people will have seen the demo and been given a leaflet, boosting the profile of the campaign. Despite the relatively low numbers and my initial fears I don’t think the event suffered too much from hijacking by opportunistic political activists as most of the banners and leaflets distributed during the actual march were fairly non-partisan.

As I mention above, I don’t think that anyone in Bristol is going to seriously argue against the proposition that the bus service is very poor. There may be some debate over how to deal with this and not everyone might agree with public ownership, but the presence of a campaign trying to focus some attention on the problem has to be a good thing if it inspires more people to actually do something rather than glumly accept the status quo. Even if that’s just giving a local councillor an earful on the issue over the coming weeks as they campaign for votes in the upcoming election it’ll be worthwhile.

Personally, I think that Bristol is too small for a free-market solution, although my objections are based on practical rather than ideological grounds. The market in Bristol just isn’t big enough to support the kind of competition necessary for this approach to work, so there has to be some level of public control or regulation to ensure the service meets the needs of the city. This isn’t really my field so I don’t have any detailed suggestions about what kind of model we should adopt, but if other cities can find a decent balance then I can’t believe that it’s not possible here – it just needs some political will. Nor do I believe that anyone can seriously argue that this isn’t desirable – Bristol is clogged with traffic but to get people out of their cars there must be a viable alternative, and at the moment there just isn’t.

Bus Journeys

A few brief (ha!) notes on bus journeys here in NZ, since at the moment that’s how we’re getting around. There’s a network of buses operated by what seem to be two separate companies who appear to co-operate rather than compete – InterCity and Newmans. We bought a “Flexi-Pass” ticket, which works by time – you buy a certain number of hours and time is deducted from your pass according to some arcane system that we don’t quite understand, but so far everything is going well.

(The next paragraph is a more detailed rundown on the Flexi-Pass (the Discordian in me keeps wanting to type Flaxi-Pass) intended for anyone surfing by looking for a punters-eye perspective on the ticket. Those visiting for a bit more colour could do worse than skip down to the following paragraph.)

The system works like this: you buy a Flaxi-Pass with a given number of hours (supposedly cheaper the more you buy but the saving seems fairly miniscule and you never know when your plans might change, so I’d recommend not buying too many), then phone the day before you travel to book a seat on a bus. You have to phone, you can’t just turn up or book in an office, but it’s a free call. So far, the buses have been fairly quiet, never more than half full, so we’ve always been able to get on to the buses we’ve wanted. (This may change as the summer arrives – no doubt we’ll find out.) When you book, you provide the serial number from your pass, then the operator is supposed to ask you for the password you choose the first time you called to make a booking. This is obviously designed to discourage pass theft but, since you don’t always get asked for it, seems like a bit of a waste of time. When you roll up (15 minutes early!) at the bus stop, the driver should have your name on his list. Sweet as, as they like to say around here. So far, it’s all been working as advertised, but it’s a fairly new ticket and we get the impression that the whole thing is still in beta, as it were.

Our journeys have all been painless – no hassles, on time, with friendly and helpful drivers. The roads are mostly winding single lane affairs, even on the major routes, but there’s no congestion. Consequently the locals (including heavily loaded logging trucks) like to drive fast, hang off the bumpers of tourist hire-cars and indulge in some shocking overtaking maneouvres. White crosses by the sides of the larger roads mark the locations of some of the nastier head-ons.

The most remarkable thing about the experience has been the staff. The drivers of both companies act more like tour guides than bus drivers. Bear in mind that these coaches are used by locals as well as budget tourists – they are not exclusively aimed at visitors – but nevertheless the drivers provide a running commentary on local attractions to the extent that on one journey (Waitomo to Rotorua) we wondered if we had mistakenly boarded a tour bus rather than our scheduled National Express equivalent. The commentary often includes vast quantities of proudly related details on the local feats of engineering and manufacturing – so far we’ve had glowing accounts of hydroelectric and geothermal power stations of various kinds and of New Zealand’s extensive and huge dairy product processing plants. You just can’t quite imagine getting this sort of commentary back in the UK.

The aforementioned Waitomo to Rotorua journey even included a brief layover at the sight of a large Hydroelectric plant on the Waikato River called, IIRC, Arapuni. The driver enthused over the historic swing-bridge dating back ot the construction of the dam which was used at the time to get the workmen over the gorge separating their quarters from the worksite. To be fair, the bridge and the view it commanded were quite spectacular.

[View of the swing bridge]

[View downriver from the bridge]

The next post on this site should be more visually pleasing – it’ll be all about Rotorua, and there’ll be lots of photos of mental volcanic mudpools and geysers and multicoloured lakes and stuff like that. Not to mention the Zorbing.