Palermo's Buses Are Driving Me Mad A Letter From Ashley Hames ...

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Palermo’s Buses Are Driving Me Mad
A letter from Ashley Hames, an English teacher in Palermo
Ashley Hames is 44 years old and was born in London. He has worked in television and
radio, and is a regular blogger for the Huffington Post. He has been teaching English in
Palermo since last year. Familiar with using public transport, he sees our public services as a
nightmare - and in this letter to the editors of MeridioNews he expresses his dissent and
disapproval as a "citizen" of the city.
TEXT
I came to Palermo a year ago having found work as an English teacher. After swiftly falling in
love with the place, I am now, just as swiftly, sadly falling out of love with it, simply because,
as the title of this piece suggests, I’m not a fan of its bus service.
I accept that waiting for a bus is one of the drag-backs of being a normal, everyday citizen.
But if I actually counted the cumulative hours I had spent waiting at bus stops here, no one
would seriously believe me. Unless they were Palermitan.
Those who try to defend the current state of affairs claim that if Palermitans forsook their
vehicles and instead took public transport, then the roads would be clearer and all would be
revealed – hey presto, a perfectly adequate bus service.
“You other road users are ruining the public transport by clogging up our roads”, runs their
chicken and the egg argument.
What the authorities need to consider instead, is the fact that when public transport service
is so dire, there is simply no credible alternative but to go private and take the car or moped.
Lives are at stake here. People are being killed on Palermo’s packed roads at a rate that
brings shame on this city - shame I hasten to add, not on its drivers, but on the public
authorities that are failing to properly address a flawed system that has forced its public to
stay put in their vehicles.
My only surprise is that drivers here even bother to respect the bus lane, given that it must
be so tempting, amid torrid congestion, to occupy what is so often a barren, deserted strip of
land, embarrassingly silent amid the madness of the daily traffic carnage. Void of movement,
the bus lane serves only as a symbol of State inertia – an ever-present empty reminder of
what should – and could - be a busy stretch of road, but punctuated most frequently by
ambulances attending the latest casualties of yet another disastrous road accident.
And I haven’t even mentioned drink-driving. But suffice to say that the night service here is
like waiting for Godot.
Of course, the Town Hall will try and distract us from the immediate crisis by pointing to
several ambitious works-in-progress – a new tram system, a new over-ground metro, blimey,
even an underground. And the Palermitan public – for generations habitually shafted by
ruling powers – simply rolls its eyes in collective resignation at the transport equivalent of an
illusory pot of gold at the end of a particularly shabby and corrupt rainbow.
The city’s bus service provider, AMAT, might counter that services would be better if
everyone paid their fares, allowing them more profit for investment. I would counter that if
they actually took an afternoon off work and spent it standing at a bus stop, they might start
to wonder if its services are in fact vastly over-priced.
Besides, most of us do want to pay our fare, but anyone with experience of the abysmal bus
service here knows this is often physically impossible - sometimes miracles happen, our
prayers are answered, and a bus will finally arrive. Of course, it’s likely the first bus for an
age so it’s rammed full. You literally squeeze your way on board and join the fight for space
in which to breathe. You may have paid for your ticket but you can’t actually move amidst the
crush to validate it in one of the on-board machines that, hmm, may or may not work.
On a good day you might clamber on board and find yourself a seat, only to be confronted by
three or four ticket inspectors (they seem only to hunt in packs) and you find yourself
thinking that if they spent more money on providing a successful service rather than on
enforcing a failing one, then it might be one actually worth paying for.
Economically, having a useless bus service is a disaster. Take tourism, an industry which
brings in millions to the region - how many foreign visitors choose to prolong their stay in
Palermo having decided one day to quickly hop onto a bus for a fun trip down to Mondello?
Most people waiting at bus stops are among the most vulnerable in society –those who can’t
afford a car or a motorbike, namely, the poor and hard-up, those struggling to get to work to
pay their bills and provide for their families. These are the people that need help the most,
and yet they are being treated by the State with utter contempt. They are not just being
shunned and ignored, left to rot at the roadside, they are being consciously insulted by those
with the power to implement real and meaningful change.
This is the real tragedy and is something we should all be angry about. By failing to invest in
a service that can help normal people live ordinary lives, the State has made its feelings clear
– these are lives that do not matter.
Is it facetious of me to suggest that were Palermo’s bus stops inhabited more frequently by
the rich and the influential, rather than by the ordinary and the poor, that services would
swiftly be improved?
Perhaps, therein, lies a solution.
Italy has a large number of well-remunerated public servants within its transport
department. How about those responsible for our bus service show the rest of us the way and
lead by example? Let’s kick things off by making it compulsory for all AMAT executives to
take themselves off the roads, to get the bus into work and free up some of the space which
they’re telling us is part of the problem. They can hand in their ticket as they clock in on a
daily basis, and then settle down to actually solving a crisis which will, after just a couple of
days, have become blindingly obvious.
Somehow, however, I doubt this will happen.

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