The WiFi solution to traffic congestion
The Scottish Labour Party has come up with another planet-saving idea to get people out of their cars and onto public transport by calling for buses and trains in Scotland to offer free WiFi to their passengers.
John Park, Economy and Skills spokesman for Scottish Labour, told the BBC: "This is a sensible measure that would be good for the economy and good for the environment" but as is often the case with suggestions made by parties which are not in a position to carry them out, this plan sounds like a good deal for the voter but overlooks the practicalities and economics of making it happen. Public transport in Scotland is run by private companies. If some of them want to provide WiFi connectivity to their passengers then they will make that decision based on likely demand and on whether or not it gives them competitive advantage over rival bus and train companies. If it was mandated that all bus and train services in Scotland must provide free WiFi then the cost would be enormous and the only way that bus companies could recoup that cost would be by increasing prices, whether or not the bus passengers wanted to use WiFi when popping down to the shops.
Is it possible to provide WiFi from a moving bus or train? Yes, it is. For example, the coach service between Oxford and London has long had free WiFi for its passengers, and even has 240V mains sockets by each seat so you can plug in your laptop and recharge the batteries. The bus makes its connection to the internet using the 3G mobile phone system. Inevitably, the internet connection drops out from time to time and the bandwidth is limited, so its okay for checking email but not for watching an episode of Doctor Who on the BBC iPlayer, and that's with just a handful of passengers using it.
So it is technically possible, but would it work in Scotland? Surprisingly enough, it is already does. Perhaps Mr Park was unaware that the CityLink buses from Glasgow to Edinburgh have been offering the same service since 2007, and CityLink has also begun deploying it on other services such as those in Fife. And if Mr Park were to use the train to travel from London to Edinburgh he would know that the whole of the east coast mainline has had WiFi available for several years. Outside of the main conurbations, 3G telephone signal coverage in rural Scotland is patchy, and ordering bus companies to provide WiFi access to passengers isn't going to change that.
Politically though, this was a clever move. He has "proposed" something that is already being developed and deployed by private companies at their own expense and on their own initiative. The credit for this should go to those companies, not to the politicians. But if it was made compulsory in Scotland, would it reduce our carbon footprint by getting people out of cars and onto buses? The answer to that is no. If anything, the opposite might be true. Sitting next to someone on a train who has commandeered the table space for his laptop so he can surf the web and answer his emails is almost as irritating as sitting next to someone who plays music on his headphones and makes mobile phone calls. If anything, WiFi on buses and trains is even more excuse to use the car.
If politicians really want to get more people out of cars and onto trains they should be asking more pertinent questions like why, given that the trains have a rail network all to themselves, do we still get so many delays? And why, given the economy of scale they must enjoy, does it cost me more to go from London to Glasgow by train than it would cost to drive there in my car? And why, given the cost of tickets, can I still not find a seat?
29th September 2009
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