What if ... we had the right to public transport?

I'm standing at a particularly unglamorous bus stop in Glasgow's city centre.

It's the second time I've been found feeling rather sorry for myself here, at this mid-evening hour, in the past month. In both cases it's been after getting a train to my home city.

The last leg should be simple enough. It's just one 10-minute train home, followed by a 10-minute walk. But then I've been thwarted time and time again by the wait of half an hour or more between trains. So it's on to the 'Four Corners' bus stop, awaiting a privately-operated number 75 bus for a fare of £2.70 ($3.40) single.

Then again, perhaps I have it lucky. For many communities, in Scotland and across the world, a half-hourly train service within walking distance is but a pipe dream. Just 37 per cent of urban areas globally, and just 52 per cent of the urban population, have convenient access to public transport. 

That's not to mention those living in rural areas: it might not be realistic to provide smaller settlements with buses, trains and ferries at the same frequency as cities, but nor should cars be the only option.

It is clear that the markets have failed to address this problem: private transport giants know all too well that 'cherry-picking' profitable routes in areas that are already well-served will always return a better bang for their buck.

 

Governments have failed too.

Public transport is rarely an election issue, and politicians know that big schemes like Britain's High Speed 2 train line – recently truncated to a shuttle between West London and Birmingham – will always grab headlines in a way that rural bus services won't.

Many of those who rely the most on public transport are living on the margins of society, and they are less likely to have the voting and lobbying power required to influence the corridors of power. And when large-scale improvements are made, they are often quickly undone.

Many of those who rely the most on public transport are living on the margins of society, and they are less likely to have the voting and lobbying power required to influence the corridors of power.

There's one approach, however, which has a proven record of safeguarding public transport for citizens.

In Switzerland, minimum frequency standards for public transport are enshrined in law – meaning each citizen can expect regular provision of bus and train services, even in rural areas. It is administrated at local level, with each of the country's 'cantons' setting out a framework for delivery.

In the Zurich canton, for instance, which is roughly comparable with South Yorkshire, England, and includes both urban and rural areas, villages of 300 people or more are guaranteed a bus service at least every hour. In the Bern canton, which is less densely populated than Devon, small villages get at least four and up to 15 return bus services each day.

In both places, schedules are aligned with railway timetables to ensure citizens can travel short or long distances with ease. Accessibility for disabled passengers is also a legal requirement.

'I'm really inspired by the Swiss model and what they're able to achieve in very rural parts of the country,' says Ellie Harrison, co-founder of Get Glasgow Moving, which campaigns for integrated and accessible transport in Scotland's largest city. 'I think that would be a real gamechanger... It's obvious you need an [integrated] system.'

Demand is growing for a rights-based approach in India too; S Raja Sethu Durai, an economics professor at the University of Hyderabad, notes that India's constitution already offers citizens the right 'to move freely throughout the territory of India', but argues that 'this "freedom" would be reduced to a mere nominal right without adequate and affordable modes of transportation'.

It follows, he says, that public transport 'plays an "enabling" function to the state's political obligation to ensure that all the rights provided by it translate to the empowerment of all its peoples, in particular the marginalized and vulnerable sections'.

Public transport plays an 'enabling' function to the state's political obligation to ensure ... the empowerment of all its peoples.

Enshrining rights in legal systems and international conventions is the easy bit. Turning those rights into reality – especially in the Global South – will come at a huge cost. But the cost of failing to provide public transport is the continued expansion of private car ownership, which means massive carbon emissions and, increasingly, exploitation of finite natural resources.

When the powers that be retort that we can't afford to have a right to public transport, the answer is simple: we can't afford not to.