I saw a job advert recently for Isle of Wight Travel Ambassadors, paid for by government money set aside to get us all out of stinky cars and onto bikes, trains and (admittedly stinky) buses. It also involved giving visitors a warm welcome and speaking enthusiastically about attractions on the Island.
The latter bit particularly appealed, seeing as this website is one big advert for my favourite place in the world. If I wasn’t in possession of the wondrous gift of responsibility, or if I could have had a few more weeks/months to get my ducks in a row, then I would have given up my real job and applied, even for a 12 month contract.
The job itself would have been a tantalising challenge. The bit about showing enthusiasm and informing people about accommodation and attractions would have been a doddle – in fact, the interviewers would have ended up pinning me down and sticking a tourism brochure in my mouth to stop me talking.
I suspect that my muffled voice would still be ranting about the best place to see red squirrels or the best beach for bodyboarding as a burly bouncer dragged me out of the interview and booted me out the front door (I’m not exactly sure why there was a bouncer in my imaginary job interview).
Anyway, whilst that bit would have been easy, the bit about getting people out of their cars on the Isle of Wight would have required a fair bit of creative thinking.
It is certainly a worthy cause. In the summer school holidays, the Isle of Wight’s roads groan with traffic. You can still get about OK and I don’t find I am often sat in queues, but you do trundle along at a pretty slow pace because there’s always someone in front of you who is driving at a ‘holiday pace’.
And it doesn’t take much for the whole thing to turn into carmageddon (by which I mean gridlock, rather than people running each other over). On one occasion I remember a lorry overturning at an inconvenient spot somewhere in Newport. The result was that every road we tried to take from the ferry was blocked. In the end we gave up and spent a lovely week in a farmer’s field by the side of the road.
The problems as I see them are that:
1) the Isle of Wight is very rural in places so it is difficult for public transport to cover the whole area very well
2) taking a car can be cheaper than using greener options
3) cars are useful for filling up with all the baggage that comes with children
Let’s briefly tackle each point:
Firstly, there is the challenge of the Isle of Wight’s rurality.
The populated towns of Sandown, Shanklin and Ryde are pretty well served by public transport, mostly because of the former tube train which links up with Wightlink’s Cat at Ryde Pierhead and whooshes down the coast. There’s also a summertime bus which does a little circle of Shanklin (presumably it is quite a short journey as it’s not a huge place) and there are also the other Southern Vectis buses which link up the towns with Newport.
However, the North, West and South coast (towns like Cowes, Yarmouth and Ventnor) don’t have any trains at all – and neither does Newport despite being the county capital. So, you are reliant on buses or bikes.
The buses tend to go via Newport - in a similar way that most British train journeys go via London – so you’ll often end up taking quite an indirect and slow route to get somewhere.
Driving from Cowes to Freshwater will take 35 minutes. The bus journey takes about 90 – 105 minutes, with a change in Newport.
This isn’t the fault of Southern Vectis (the bus company), it is just the normal challenge of public transport in rural locations.
Secondly, I often find that if you own a car and aren’t travelling alone it is generally cheaper to use it.
Typically, you would expect to pay about £40 - £180 for the car ferry, depending on the time of year, time of day, how long you stay for and how early you book (see our guide to cheap ferry travel). However, the price with Wightlink or Red Funnel is the same whether you travel alone or with a car full as it’s the cars that fill up spaces on the ferry rather than the passengers. So, a family of five will only pay about £10 - £35 each (which I think is reasonable compared to air fares).
If the same group travelled as foot passengers, it would cost about £50 with Red Funnel or about £75 with Wightlink.
You then need to pay for bus or train travel of course.
Southern Vectis do a very reasonable 7 day freedom pass for the buses, which at the moment is £55 for up to 5 people travelling together. I’d say that is a bargain, as it is £11 per day, or about £2.20 per person for unlimited travel. Even so, it wouldn’t be enough to persuade me to leave the car at home.
Admittedly, you will need pay for petrol and parking as a driver (perhaps £50 in petrol for a week plus £20 in parking), but the total costs are not different enough to change habits. Very roughly, taking a car would cost perhaps £170 for the week, compared to £110 if you don’t. I’d spend the £60 for the third reason…
Thirdly, a car is practical for a family
This is the clincher for many people.
Travelling with even one child is akin to transporting a circus of moody animals across the Andes.
I am constantly impressed with anyone who uses public transport with young children, even if they are just going to Morrison’s. Our car is bursting when we go on holiday and it’s not much better once we’ve unpacked. We might be able to unpack the cot, but we still carry around bodyboards, swimming things, lunch, a dozen change of clothes, trikes, bats and balls and a donkey just in case we fancy a ride on the beach.
I’m sure we could pack lighter, but it would still be hard work.
Plus, the car provides a wonderful picnic spot when it starts raining and is a useful escape vehicle when you need to get home in a hurry because a nappy has exploded. I wouldn’t fancy sorting that out on a bus, and I doubt the other passengers would be too pleased.
My conclusion for anyone taking on the worthy job of a Travel Ambassador is that you’ll need to pick your battles.
I don’t think you will persuade loads of families to leave the car behind and come across as foot passengers. It won’t save them enough money for the added inconvenience and getting around will eat up the few hours in the day when young children have enough energy to actually do anything without throwing a tantrum. Yes, the scenery is nice from the bus, but children are more interested in getting to Blackgang Chine than looking at the beautiful views around it.
I think you will have more luck in encouraging people to bring the car but to spend a day or two ‘car free’ (I’m working on a name for the campaign – Bus n’ Bike? Car Free-Day Fri-Day? Pollution Solution? Isle get the bus? Wight then, let's stop being lazy and cycle instead?). Families could be persuaded to get an all-in-one ticket which includes an open top bus ride (far more romantic and exciting than the bottom deck of a normal diesel belcher) and then cycle hire somewhere along the route. Or even better would be some London-style Boris Bikes which are sitting at bus stops ready for you to hop on and pedal away to the next stop - or a novelty form of transport like a tandem or the ChuckMobile. Leaflets with suggested cycle routes could be placed at bus stops or on an App, if there’s any mobile reception.
There are numerous locations which would be ideal for Bus n’ Bike (yes, the name needs work) – Parkhurst Forest, the Military Road, the former train lines which are now cycle tracks. Or you could follow one of the existing circular 'breezer routes'.
But it needs to be a genuinely good deal - our guides to free days out and discounts to Isle of Wight attractions are two of our most popular guides because taking a rabble on holiday is expensive, however many vouchers and discount codes you use.
Another battle which the Travel Ambassadors might win is with day trippers, who I think are more inclined to leave the car behind. There was talk recently of a Hovercraft journey linking Sandown with Southsea, whilst Red Funnel has recently done a bike hire and ferry ticket.
I would also encourage Travel Ambassadors to look beyond family visitors. There’s an assumption that all older visitors want to arrive on a coach and stay in Sandown or Shanklin, but I don’t think that’s true. Many couples in their 60s and 70s would much rather travel independently or with another couple and their free bus travel and OAP ferry discount means they are more likely to be persuaded to leave the car behind.
The circular coastal path is gorgeous and would appeal to lots of older ramblers but I suspect many people don’t know about it or don't fancy booking 6 different hotels. How about a package holiday which includes one night in six locations, starting from a foot passenger ferry port with someone to take your bags on to the next stop?
Similarly, travellers coming across for big events should be easier to persuade as they don’t really need a car once they get to the Isle of Wight Festival, Bestival or Cowes Week. Big events are already pretty on the ball with such things, but a lot of people do still choose to drive.
For those travelling without children, I would want to look into partnerships between Southern Vectis and accommodation providers. If your accommodation included unlimited bus travel for the week I think you’d be more inclined to use it, even if you decided you’d rather get there by car. Hoteliers can be primed with bus route leaflets and will have good knowledge of which attractions are en route. Or they could be paid a small commission to sell week-long bus tickets at a reduced rate.
And I'd let people know about it all by putting the Ambassadors on the car ferries, when holidaymakers are a captive audience, hungry for information and with nothing to do except look out the window and stop their child/pet from annoying other passengers. Or, I'd put them at big events like Cowes Week, the Garlic Festival or Ryde Carnival when tens of thousands turn up.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. Future travel ambassadors are welcome to steal them – unless I decide to abandon my real job and apply myself. In which case, hands off.
Isle of Wight Guru's Blog