I’m not sure what “Bus Back Better” – the title of the Government’s new National Bus Strategy for England – means. Better adverts on the rear end of double deckers instead of those that advertise local car dealerships?
Apart from the strange title, I’ve not been so excited about a bus plan since John Prescott wooed us all back in the 90s from the back of one of his Jags – and that sadly went up in diesel smoke. Yet I’m strangely optimistic about this vision. Boris loves buses. He inspired a new icon for London in Routemaster form (and if you want to argue about that, I’ll free up some spare dates in my diary), and he paints models of them, created out of old wine cases. So there’s something there, I think….
Despite the long-running saga of deregulation versus franchising, which, as a box set, has been running for around 200-plus series, it was, even before Covid, evident that a new game was required. Thatcher and Ridley’s free market economy was beginning to date, like hearing The Pet Shop Boys on an oldies radio station – something that was fresh and exciting thirty-odd years ago, but now consigned to fond nostalgia.
Enter “Bus Back Better”.
If nothing, it’s hugely ambitious. Whether it’s Johnson’s love of buses or a wider Tory plan to “level up” (another phrase that baffles me) particular Northern areas, three-billion quid is not to be sniffed at.
Much of what is suggested is a step-change in bus service provision that bus fans like me have waited probably most of our lives for. Working with Local Authorities to provide “ambitious bus priority schemes” is mentioned as the main course, and it is what, of course, every expert and bus passenger will mention – bus priority equals reliability, equals better buses. What will become a fascinating spectator sport is observing what will happen when we get to the coalface of this. And it strikes at the heart of whether this vision will succeed. Local Councils (and, more specifically, Councillors), will need to upset motorists.
We’ve probably reached the moment whereby bus lanes exist without too much controversy. An extra lane added so that buses can have their own bit of tarmac, without taking away road space. But I’m sure we can all name roads where meaningful bus priority could exist – but only by taking away road space from other motorists. This is the moment of truth, and we’ll see if nerves are held.
National newspaper columnists, no doubt grateful to drag themselves away from Coronavirus pontifications, have unusually turned to buses. A recent Rod Liddle piece in The Sunday Times contains the following;
“I cannot remember what a bus looks like…big slow things full of poor people, as I vaguely recall”.
Matthew Parris in The Spectator does slightly better, admitting to using Hulley’s 172 from Bakewell to Matlock, but declares that the document
“Suffers from one big blind spot…Buses are uncool. That’s the double-decker in the room”.
Consider also another seemingly unrelated story on the BBC News website, entitled
“City drivers ‘should think twice’ before buying SUVs”
The article discusses the prevalence of sports utility vehicles, and their effect on crowded streets. Any cursory view of your average urban car park will also reveal just how much bigger cars have gotten in recent years. What’s all this got to do with Boris’s bus strategy?
Britain’s golden era for buses was probably during the 50s. Since then, the motor car, and it’s associated kudos when assessing where someone is on the league table of life has been to the bus’s detriment. You might consider Rod Liddle the archetypal gob on a stick and provocative column writer, but you can easily see what he’s banging on about. And it resonates with large numbers of people.
Bus Back Better comes at a crucial moment. A probable once-in-a-lifetime moment to elevate buses right up the social ladder. If we thought the pandemic was a crisis, we ain’t seen nothing yet, when we consider the environmental challenge facing mankind. But because global warming is a slow-moving car crash, we don’t overly fret about it. But the (awful for some) truth is that we seriously have to curtail driving our fossil fuel vehicles around so much. And even the advent of environmentally-friendly vehicles won’t help congestion. Buses are centrally placed to herald a new long-term mobility era, but only a part of it. We have to walk more, cycle more and get out of our tin boxes more to tackle this, but the question of tackling the aspirations of regular motorists – and their voting intentions – is a bigger challenge than anything mentioned in the Government’s new bus strategy.
It also needs to be long-term. If deregulation is outdated and “failing” as a concept, what might more political control mean?
A graph contained in the bus strategy is a tad misleading. It shows a wavy line, which meanders slightly up from 1982, then falls like a stone from 1986 onwards. It purports to show how badly deregulation performed, but students of road passenger transport will also note that, if you moved the graph slightly to the left, into the seventies, you would have seen an equally spectacular fall, in what was effectively a publicly-controlled system. We may have moved on, and times have changed, and who knows how Manchester’s huge experiment with franchising will progress, but it will surely need very long-term political support and funding – as London’s has. And those same road passenger transport students will also note the political shenanigans in our capital City over the years when it comes to transport as well.
The other option open to most other areas apart from franchising is an “Enhanced Partnership”. It’s not to be sniffed at, and passengers stand to gain a lot, in theory, from this arrangement. In some areas, the bus operator and local authority are already doing great things. Look at any winners in recent years from the UK Bus Awards to see that top class partnerships already exist. But listen also to the groans from many a Town Hall – and indeed bus operator bus board room – at the prospect of being forced to bang heads together and work as one. It’s absolutely what is long overdue, but it’s another episode in another long-running box set to see how this is going to progress in some areas.
Some of the proposals in Bus Back Better are so obvious; it’s exasperating that they still haven’t happened over many years. Multi-operator ticketing, more evening services, and simple to find information has had me gnashing my teeth for so long, my dentist sees me on a monthly basis.
You only have to marvel as to what has brought about such a turnaround. The operators will tell you that lack of priority has always been a huge problem. Councils bemoan their ever-decreasing budget as to why evening and Sunday services have been decimated. Now they’re being invited to sit around the table and draw up a golden new era in which the bus regains it’s status as the true King of the road. Can you believe it?
I want to believe it. And I think much of it will happen. Because, given funds and goodwill, such a transformation can be achieved quickly – and before the next General Election. But two things need to happen overall.
The cash flow for this new era needs to be there for the long-term. Not just £3bn over the next few years, but dedicated investment for the next twenty years-plus. It really would be a tragedy to watch the huge uplift the bus world so sorely needs, only to watch it fall back as a new political whim takes the fancy of Ministers.
Secondly, the greater good of “net zero” and the climate emergency – again over the long-term – must take precedence over the short-term local political arguing about road space. And with more delivery vans on the road than ever, coupled with negative messaging over the use of public transport during the pandemic, that will be no mean feat.
So, for the coming years, the vision must be aspiration buses. To make the offer irresistible, for the option of using the bus to be simple and to work every time, and to shift that aspiration of car ownership to the greater good of green mobility.
It won’t be easy, but it’s surely the bus’s final chance.
Calling Points on the Journey
“Ambitious Bus Priority Schemes”…
The one thing bus operators and passengers point to. But just how easy will it be to bring in miles of new bus lanes, when howls of derision from motorists will be heard from all over the nation – and opposition politicians? We’ve seen the ferocity with which low traffic neighbourhoods have been greeted – will local Councillors have the stomach for the fight?
“4000 new zero emission buses”…
A real statement of intent, but takes up a lot of the promised money. A strange decision by Government to exclude minibuses below 23 seat capacity in it’s ZEBRA plan (Zero emission buses regional area), given that much emphasis is placed on demand responsive operations, especially during evening/Sunday operations.
Everyone wants cheaper fares, but how realistic can this commercially be? We can all name a perceived expensive bus fare, but are we going to effectively see some fares subsidised to make them cheaper?
“More Comprehensive Networks”…
Again, everyone wants their bus to go from their front door directly to where they want to go, but buses aren’t taxis. There are plenty of ideas from passengers regarding new and better links, but commercial bus companies are savvy operators. They know what usually works and what doesn’t. Demand responsive minibuses have long been floated as an idea, but they rarely work as a commercial operation. So a subsidised operation may be desirable socially, but who will be the first person to comment about minibuses floating around on a rainy February night with no one using them? And at what publicly-funded price? Are we about to see a “chicken/egg” scenario whereby new links pop up to see if they work?
“Easier to Understand”…
One of the most brought-up topics when both existing and current non-users are surveyed. And with honourable exceptions, it is beyond me why the industry hasn’t gotten to grips with this a long time ago. Friends and family still regularly question me on what should be the simplest of queries regarding bus travel, but it often remains an enigma that is usually resolved with a sigh and the use of a car or taxi. An opportunity missed, literally for years.
“Seen as a Safe Mode of Transport”…
Regular users know that bus travel is incredibly safe, but the perception of current non-users counts for a lot, especially if travelling late at night. Rowdy elements in bus stations, coupled with low frequencies often lead to the taxi option being more attractive and even a necessity. Higher frequencies or pre-bookable demand responsive options may improve matters, but user safety is a fundamental thing. Perhaps the increased involvement of subtle police patrols needs to be an early priority?
“Taking into Account the Views of Local People”…
My time at Bus Users UK over 10 years ago saw many a Bus Users Surgery (or “Your Bus Matters”) event. They weren’t always a moan-fest (!) and we and the operators/Local Authority gained a lot of insight into how people viewed their local services. Today, working with the likes of Transport Focus, there should be a lot of opportunity to involve local people, either via similar events or increased use of technology, to submit their thoughts. The views of non-users are equally crucial to understanding what doesn’t attract them to public transport.
“The Franchise Option”…
Here’s another double-decker in the room. Who else might put their head above the parapet and declare this option? I suspect many of us will watch intently to see how Manchester progresses, and how it compares, say, to somewhere like the West Midlands, where the partnership approach has been quietly but effectively progressing. Ultimately, what might a franchising arrangement achieve that an Enhanced Partnership might not? Jersey is held up as a good example of franchising, but is it too small and unique as an operation to give a meaningful comparison compared to, say, Manchester or London?
“More Bus Rapid Transit”…
Could this finally be the time for Bus Rapid Transit? The “bus that looks like a tram” is lauded in the example given of Belfast’s Glider operation, and it certainly might tackle Matthew Parris’s accusation that buses are “uncool”. Users really do have to feel that BRT is more akin to the tram experience than the bus one. In the West Midlands, the forthcoming Sprint scheme begins to address a BRT experience, although it will initially operate with hydrogen double deckers, which, although to operator National Express West Midlands’ “Platinum” specification, will still arguably look like conventional “buses”, and like vehicles they can already see on West Midlands roads. First pioneered “FTR” as a concept over ten years ago using futuristic articulated tram-style vehicles, but it petered out. Other more successful schemes, such as the Cambridge Guided Busway, and the Manchester – Leigh Vantage operation have been positive, but took a long time to build. BRT is an exciting idea that may well work in some areas, although the emergence of VLR (Very Light Rail) as a cheaper version of traditional more expensive light rail tram schemes is another option gaining traction.