'Accounting for the customers? A tale of public transport in 1930s Coventry', in Colin Divall and Winstan Bond (eds), Suburbanizing the Masses: Public Transport and Urban Development in Historical Perspective, Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington, 2007. ISBN 0 7546 0775 5
In October 2000 I presented a paper to the ‘Transporting Gender’ conference at the National Railway Museum, organised by Professor Maggie Walsh (Nottingham) in association with the Journal of Transport History. The paper was an offshoot from doctoral work in which I had investigated changes in the processes and practices of shopping in Coventry in the 1930s. Although my particular focus had been gendered aspects of household management and domestic finances, I had gleaned an understanding of the ways in which changing retail locations and habits of provisioning inter-acted with, and were informed by, forms of mobility. As the city experienced explosive population growth, boundary expansion and rapid suburban development at this time, it made an interesting case study.
Immediately following the presentation Professor Colin Divall (York) asked me to develop the paper into a chapter for inclusion in an edited collection scheduled for publication by Ashgate. The intention of this book was to re-investigate some of the accepted thinking about the connection, and cause and effect of public transport development and city enlargement. Originating with a close interest in the texture of the traveling experience, the chapter then developed to incorporate a more conventional appraisal of growth of provision. This nevertheless threw up intriguing new insights.
It drew heavily on a range of local records including the minutes of the local government Transport Committee, which ran the bus service, and visual evidence including photographs, commemorative literature and advertising. JB Priestley’s observation of the city during his English Journey (1934) proved especially salient. Coventry-built buses were a source of local pride, and whilst the growth of technological sophistication was a part of the story, another part was the committee’s conceptualization of the ‘traveling public’. No women councilors were associated with the committee, and it rapidly became clear that the needs of the male workforce far outweighed those of new suburban women. The degree to which the buses were not considered as female spaces was manifest in timetabling, route development, and price structures. The most startling discovery was that, in sharp contradistinction to many accounts, the lower density of suburban housing actually militated against, rather than encouraging the inception of new routes and services. Coventry engineers may have designed better buses, but the city failed to imagine and promote more divergent uses for them.
This contribution fore-grounded interests that were later to lead to the formation of the ‘Gender and Built Space’ research group with colleagues at Brighton. The volume has been positively reviewed by Gregory Lee Thompson in Technology and Culture, 46:3 (2005), pp662-664, and Colin Chant in Journal of Transport History, 25:2 (2004), pp140-159.