Jenny Dowell at the Transit Centre in Lismore.
Jenny Dowell at the Transit Centre in Lismore. Northern

We're riding a bus to nowhere

THE cost of fuel keeps rising, we are being pressured to reduce our carbon footprints and the purse strings are getting tighter, so it would make sense to use public transport.

But how can we be more pro-active when there is a severe lack of public transport on the Northern Rivers.

We are not alone. Many regional areas in NSW suffer from a lack of public transport, but a few groups on the Northern Rivers are trying to make a change.

A lot of public transport is not relevant, effective or accessible to the majority of residents and major urban centres of Lismore, Ballina, Byron Bay and Casino have limited weekend services. Town-to-town services are non-existent except through the Kirklands and Blanch's bus services.

The Northern Rivers Social Development Council is looking at the issues we face with public transport and president Jenny Dowell is aware of the problems residents face when they need to catch a bus or train.

“Basically there is not enough public transport on the Northern Rivers,” Ms Dowell said.

“When there is, it is not when people want it and not where people want to go.”

Ms Dowell said the first step to fixing the public transport shortfall was a regional integrated transport plan.

“Public transport is everyone's responsibility - the providers, local governments and the transport working parties that are in each local government area,” she said.

“Certainly a regional transport plan is on the highest agenda when we've talked to State or Federal governments about funding needs for public transport and it is something that has been pushed for from the Northern Rivers Social Development Council.

“At this stage, though, we are not really being listened to.

“It is fair to say whenever we hear of multi-million dollar expenditure for new rail infrastructure in Sydney it is very upsetting for people in this area. The funds aren't being spent here in regional areas.”

Ms Dowell said funding was a major problem.

“There is nowhere near enough spending on public transport,” she said.

“However, the new Pension Exclusion Tickets, where people who are on pensions can travel anywhere on public transport in Sydney for $2.50 a day, is expected to be rolled out in regional areas in the next several months which is a good step forward.

“But they still have to line this up with the private bus companies.”

Another issue is residents on the Northern Rivers are recorded among the lowest income earners in the state.

“Our income is about two-thirds of the state average so our communities are already disadvantaged,” Ms Dowell said.

“The added disadvantage of expensive bus fares, compared to Sydney prices, is almost crippling.

“Many people cannot find affordable accommodation in our communities and they are forced to live outside the major towns and further away from work, education and health services and then they can't get access to public transport.”

Ms Dowell said a worrying trend was people hitch-hiking to fill in the public transport gap.

“Just the other morning I picked up a woman about 50-years-old hitch-hiking from out Dunoon way to Ballina,” Ms Dowell said.

“I picked her up at Goonellabah and dropped her off at Alstonville. She told me she hitch-hikes regularly, about three to six times a week, as there is no public transport when she needs it and she can't afford to buy and maintain a car.”

Lismore Police crime prevention officer Senior Constable Michael Hogan said hitch-hiking should be avoided at all costs.

“With hitch-hiking there is a high possibility of being a victim of crime,” Snr Const Hogan said.

“There are buses available and they may not be at appropriate times, but they are safer.

“There is both historical and anecdotal evidence where hitch-hikers have been a victim of crime and for some, unfortunately, it has ended in a loss of life.”

A lot of Northern Rivers residents also rely on public transport to get to and from local health services.

Northern Rivers Community Transport Inc is a non-profit organisation funded by the Department of Aging, Disability and Home Care and other government bodies.

It provides a range of services for people who do not have their own transport or who have difficulty using regular public transport.

Passengers are asked to simply make a small contribution.

The indigenous community, elderly people, young people with disabilities and their carers who reside in Ballina, Byron, Lismore, Casino, Kyogle and the Richmond Valley areas all benefit from the service, which can include individual transport to medical appointments, transport to respite day care centres or even door-to-door shopping bus services.

The group also has a network of volunteers who provide individual transport in their own vehicles.

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