How to Make Buses Sexy
by Adrian Jones (@jonestheplanner) on November 29, 2018



Buses are really important but largely ignored by politicians. Trains are more exciting and being mostly used by the more affluent and particularly men they naturally get attention and big public subsidy. Buses carry three times more passengers than trains but are predominantly used by women, the poor, young people and the old. Attitudes to buses are a flagrant example of class prejudice, as captured in Thatcher’s alleged pronouncement that ‘for a man to be seen on a bus after the age of 25 is a sign of failure’. Her deregulation of buses against all experience and evidence has been catastrophic. Since 1985 bus use has halved in the big conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and West and South Yorkshire where previously Passenger Transport Authorities had been increasing ridership. Yet over the same period passengers doubled in London which remained regulated. Thatcher was too canny to unleash free market chaos on the capital, which would have inconvenienced our rulers and the establishment.

A new Transport Act in 2000 sought to deal with the worst excesses of deregulation and privatisation through ‘Partnership Working’, but without fundamentally changing anything. Meanwhile the big bus companies were raking in profits of 18-20% on what are effectively monopolies. In the northern conurbations bus fares have gone up 59% since 1995 compared with 36% in London, effectively representing a regressive tax on the poorest in society. A further Act in 2008 theoretically allowed for TfL style franchising, but as big bus companies could claim for loss of profits if their routes were tendered, this was unaffordable. The rules were changed to enable Osborne’s ‘City Deal’ commitment to bus franchising in Manchester but establishing local control over bus services and fares remains fraught with huge difficulty and endless delay.

Now Labour is taking buses seriously and some interesting ideas are emerging. New policies will need to tackle three key objectives. Most important is to help address poverty and to promote opportunity and social inclusion. The next is to contribute significantly to sustainability and the green agenda by encouraging modal shift from cars and particularly to help improve air quality and the local environment. Then it is key to give back power to communities and help revive local democracy which has been stifled by central control under both Tory and Labour governments.

However new policies need to be realistic. Free buses for everyone need not be a priority. And nationalisation would be a sledge hammer solution; ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. Places like Brighton, Reading, Oxford, Nottingham and Edinburgh already have good networks, although better integration is still needed. But in Leeds and Swansea (to shame just a few) buses are dire whilst in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire buses hardly happen. We need to concentrate on problem solving and local solutions, not massive re-structures. However Manchester is definitely broke and TfL-style franchising for England’s second city has to be a top priority and will serve as an exemplar for other big cities. The point here is much more about effective control than ownership, and this effective control is what is vital to thinking about, as Labour have been doing, municipalisation of bus services.

What is crucial is that responsibility for bus policy is transferred to local councils, not held by the Department for Transport and the Treasury in Whitehall. Local authorities need the opportunity and the finance to shape their local services. And they need to be clearly accountable for them. Rather than unelected Traffic Commissioners, transport authorities should be responsible for registering bus services. This would allow for an effective but more flexible form of franchising. For example bus companies could be required to provide evening buses and not leave communities stranded as happens now, even in big cities.

Most importantly, Councils should be able to set fares at a reasonable level. The increasingly high cost of fares is the biggest issue by far. Labour’s plan to give free travel to the under 25s is a really excellent idea – it will be genuinely redistributive and provide some generational justice as well as encouraging more sustainable lifestyles. But we will also need to target support on poor parents and those in low paid jobs or on benefits. General fares need to be frozen and over time brought down to be lower than the marginal costs of commuting by car.

Another big priority is to fully integrate public transport. At present multi-operator tickets and cards are sabotaged as bus companies require these be more expensive than their own tickets, so most passengers can’t just get on the first bus as you do in London. And finding out about bus services is also a problem with passengers having to make sense of different information for each company. Comprehensive and fully integrated information is a prerequisite of an efficient public transport system.

Councils are also highway authorities – they provide the ‘track’ for buses, but all too often buses don’t get sufficient priority, making services slower, less attractive and more expensive to run. Giving transport authorities much more control over buses will be a big incentive to better transport policy integration. And councils are responsible for air quality management. Buses play a big part in this. On competing routes there are often too many dirty, smelly buses clogging up city centre streets – Manchester’s Oxford Road being a prime example.

The way forward is clear. Regulation will allow cities to reduce the number of unnecessary buses and reclaim the environment of their streets. A Labour government should also spearhead a programme to roll out efficient non-polluting electric and biogas buses as is already happening in some places, like Nottingham.

Despite the well rehearsed failures of deregulation and privatisation, most towns do have a reasonable network of daytime buses on main roads. But the big boys long ago scrapped less well-used services to local shops and facilities. This compounds existing inequalities and ways in which people are isolated. Councils pay for some socially necessary buses but these are often infrequent and of poor quality. Now austerity cuts means buses are being reduced or cut completely, especially in rural areas.

In Nottingham an extensive ‘Locallink’ network has been developed to complement the ‘main line’ services. It is run by a not for profit company and the fleet is all electric. This is a model which other cities need to consider. It is not the same as a municipal bus company – Nottingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff and a few other cities have these and they are very successful because they retain a public service ethos and reinvest profits. But they are not the only model – one size does not fit all. Community run companies providing bespoke local services offer many opportunities for the future.

Funding improved bus services and lower fares will be a challenge. Reducing costs by targeting excessive profits and getting rid of wasteful competition is a good place to start. By growing the market, costs per passenger can be reduced. But councils are going to need significant new funding. In part this can be met by introducing a Workplace Parking Levy, as has been done in Nottingham, or a London style Congestion Charge, measures which also promote traffic reduction and improved air quality. Air Quality Management Zones could also raise funding for sustainable transport and on street parking charges could also be hypothecated. The technical solutions needed for better bus services are all there – it needs political will.


author

Adrian Jones (@jonestheplanner)

Adrian Jones is former Director of Planning and Transport for Nottingham City. With Chris Matthews he writes and blogs as www.jonestheplanner.co.uk including a more detailed critique of buses.

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