The recent announcement by the chancellor Sajid Javid of a National Bus Strategy for England is welcome, if long overdue. For too long buses have been an afterthought as politicians have focused on road building and grandiose rail schemes such as HS2 and Crossrail. So could the tide have finally turned after years of austerity which have seen many rural services decimated, while rising congestion has undermined the viability, or increased the cost, of many commercial services?
The pledge of an extra £200 million for bus services in 2020/21 is also welcome but it should be noted it is less than the cost of a medium sized bypass and is for one year only. If buses are to fulfil the role we need them to, to get people out of their cars, to reduce congestion and pollution, particularly carbon emissions, they need long term investment and greater prioritisation.
Funding will be key. While the Government continues to plough money into new roads, which increase traffic, congestion and carbon emissions, other areas such as buses will continue to struggle. A National Strategy will help but as we have seen with the Cycling, Walking and Investment Strategy, this means little unless it is backed up with hard cash.
A key issue which the Government has not acknowledged in relation to buses and climate change is its continued subsidising of road transport, with hints of further cuts in fuel duty. According to Greener Journeys the freeze on fuel duty since 2011 has led to a 4% increase in road traffic; an additional 4.5 million tonnes of CO2; an additional 12 thousand tonnes of harmful NOx and 816 tonnes of PM10s; up to 200 million fewer bus journeys; and 60 million fewer rail journeys. The freeze in fuel duty since 2011 has also cost the Treasury more than £50 billion.
But it’s not just that making driving cheaper that encourages people to abandon the bus, it’s also that buses become more unreliable and cost more as the roads become increasingly clogged with cars. To compensate, bus operators have to add additional buses to a route just to maintain its service frequency. This can add up to £250,000 to a service’s running costs for no extra benefit and is one of the reasons why bus fares have risen so much.
Until the Government can overcome its addiction with the car, pledging money for fare reduction schemes is in effect throwing good money after bad; firstly through the loss of fuel duty revenue (which is creating the problem) and then needing to provide extra support for buses (to correct the problem). Rather than trying to address the symptom, the Government needs to tackle the cause which is excessive car use, fuelled by its policies and spending priorities.
Raising pollution taxes on cars would bring in extra income, reduce road traffic and help reverse the decline of buses. Money then invested in buses would be fully funded (through the increased taxes) and would actually stand a chance of making real and significant improvements. As a result, both the treasury and the environment would be better off.
Until the Government becomes serious about cutting climate change emissions from surface transport, pronouncements about buses, while welcome, will only ever appear to be half-hearted.