Putting buses on the map

Despite the title having the overtones of a pandemic slogan, the first ever national bus strategy for England (Bus Back Better) is a breath of fresh air, awash with high ambitions. It sets out that the Government wants to see:

  • More services, serving more places and for longer hours
  • More bus priority measures
  • Cheaper and simpler fares (flat fares, price capping and integration across services)
  • Better, more easily understandable information, readily available
  • Cleaner high-quality buses – it will consult on banning the sale of diesel buses from 2030

It recognises that buses have a significant role to play in our economic recovery stating: “Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport. Building a new railway or road takes years, if not decades. Better bus services can be delivered in months.”

It recognises the value of buses in levelling up given that “77% of jobseekers do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike” and that “disabled people rely on buses more than most”. While acknowledging that “local bus fares have risen by 1.4% a year in real terms since 2010” and this is an impediment to greater bus use.

Yet, some of its content was perhaps less expected:

  • It effectively acknowledges that bus de-regulation hasn’t worked
  • It will review the ban on local authorities setting up their own bus companies
  • It will support any local transport authority that wants franchising powers (providing it can show it is capable)
  • It will review bus subsidies including the reimbursement rates for concessionary fares

It’s also reassuring that in the Government’s haste to encourage people to buy electric vehicles it “will not support opening bus lanes to electric cars or vans, which would quickly erode their benefits to bus users.”

The ambition is there but how does the Government see this being delivered? Well, it’s setting a series of very challenging targets and timeframes for authorities to:

  • Commit to establishing enhanced partnerships by the end of June 2021 (even those wanting to explore franchising) – otherwise there will be no more Covid bus support grant or bus funding
  • Agree Bus Service Improvement Plans by October 2021 (updated annually and reflected in the Local Transport Plan) with targets for passenger growth and customer satisfaction reported publicly every 6 months at least
  • Have an enhanced partnership agreed by April 2022 or there won’t be any funding

So will this make any difference? Undoubtedly this strategy will help elevate buses front and centre of local transport policy, rather than the afterthought they’ve too often been. However, there will be significant challenges going forward. With capacity in local authorities having been drastically cut after years of austerity, delivering the above agenda and at speed, could be challenging. Then there’s the focus on local transport authority areas with less clarity about cross-border connectivity, often a weakness in the system. Finally, will this strategy address the needs of rural areas which have always been more problematic? The investment in demand responsive services is welcome but can only go so far in providing rural services.

Then you come to the issue of money. £3 billion is just a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to deliver the above agenda and without greater long-term commitment, private operators won’t invest either. Compare this to the £27 billion roads programme and the millions regularly doled out for roads serving new housing developments and you get sense of where priorities really lie.

For this comes down to the crux of the issue. Is this the start of real change or mere window dressing? For while the fuel duty continues to be cut, driving up traffic and congestion and undermining buses, much of the above is going to be hard to achieve. It’s great to have an ambition for more bus lanes, where there is space to install one, but with higher traffic levels caused by Government policy on fuel duty and road building, that space becomes harder to find.

We shall have to wait and see whether the Government will deliver on the strategy but a clue to its long term commitment will perhaps be demonstrated shortly by what it prioritises in the Autumn Spending Review.

Photo: meandering images / Shutterstock.com


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