7 December 2023
Jonathan Bray: News and stories of progressive change
I knew when I first heard that there was a Bus Regulation: The Musical (on roller skates!) that the battle to bring the buses home in Manchester was going to be won. Musicals don’t have unhappy endings. The artist Ellie Harrison was the creator of the musical which was was first staged at Manchester Art Gallery in 2019 and was inspired by a childhood memory of watching Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1980s hit Starlight Express. The Musical featured local roller skaters playing superhero ‘buses’, to tell the history of public transport provision in the Greater Manchester area from the post-war period, up to the present day.
The genius of the musical was it brought new energy, and opened up the the topic in a playful and inclusive way. The bus debate can often be a rather stale and technical debate dominated mostly by men who want to keep it as technocratic and as exclusive as possible. One of the enjoyable twists of the musical is that it respected and cherished the history and iconography of specific local public transport networks with a level of knowledge that would elude many of those on the inside of the bus sector. However it could also charm a more regular audience who didn’t know that the Stalybridge, Hyde, Moseley and Dukinfield Joint Transport Board (a municipal bus operator) ever existed before it roller skated past them.
After the success of the Greater Manchester musical in 2019, there were Strathclyde and Merseyside versions before a final presentation and talk by Ellie about the musicals (which was held at the same Manchester Art Gallery where it all began) on the happy night of the official launch of the new Bee Network in Greater Manchester.
We have a tendency in transport to neglect the cultural arena when seeking to bring about progressive change. It needn’t necessarily be so. In the US there is the New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Orientated Teens (NUMTOTs) movement which is fundamentally pro-public transport. Although, with its knowing injokes and sideways social media savvy it’s a world away from the way public transport is usually framed. NUMTOTs’ rapid growth, and backing for progressive transport policy, has given more young people the confidence to make their own way in the transport sector – as well as earning it praise from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (who also joined the group). Meanwhile, a UK transit system that has always understood the importance of the cultural arena is the Tyne and Wear Metro. A recent example is checkies where a graphic artist turned interviews with staff into a wonderful comic of imagery, snippets and stories about the working lives of the system’s frontline staff.
All of which shows that making progressive change happen is an art as well a science.