It is time something is done for buses

In taking forward a national bus strategy the key question is not ‘what can our country do for our buses?’ but ‘what can our buses do for our country?’. Claire Haigh, chief executive of Greener Journeys, explains why

It seems everyone is now talking about the need for a national bus strategy. It was the Transport Select Committee’s central recommendation following its recent inquiry into the health of the bus market. Calls for a national bus strategy are also growing from MPs across the political spectrum, as well as influential bodies like the Committee on Climate Change. The National Infrastructure Commission has consistently highlighted the vital importance of mass transit.

The chorus is getting louder, but too often the focus is on reversing the decline in bus patronage, as if there is justification in that for its own sake. Whilst a worthy objective, it is the wrong starting point, and ironically it does the sector no favours. The way to make the case for a national bus strategy, with the requisite funding commitment from central government, is to start by identifying which policy objectives bus networks serve. Here we are spoilt for choice.

Investment in buses has the potential to deliver on a whole range of government objectives across housing, communities and local government, environment, business and industrial strategy, work and pensions, health, education, trade and investment. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why a national strategy for buses has not been hitherto forthcoming is that it could potentially be very challenging politically to deliver across Whitehall.

Ownership of a national bus strategy cannot sit within transport alone. A meaningful bus strategy will require direct input from a range of departments. As a minimum, a cross-departmental policy statement will be needed. And as if the role of central government departments isn’t already extensive enough, a national bus strategy will also require the input and involvement of local decision makers at all levels from across the public and private sector.  

Bus is a quintessentially local product. Sub-national Transport Bodies, Combined Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and all other tiers of local government will need to be involved in the development of a national bus strategy, as well as bus operators, bus manufacturers, major employers, Business Improvement Districts, town centre managers etc. The list goes on. This is no small task, but the scale of the challenge must not be an impediment. The wider social, economic and environmental benefits of bus are irrefutable.

A 10 per cent improvement in bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6 per cent reduction in social deprivation. £1 invested in local bus infrastructure can deliver £8 of wider benefit to local economies. A modern diesel bus produces fewer emissions than a modern diesel car despite having 15-20 times the carrying capacity. And according to the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, buses are leading the way on the road to zero. Last year, 4.2 per cent of new buses were zero emission at the tailpipe compared with just 0.6 per cent of pure battery electric cars.

The sector has worked hard to develop a powerful evidence base which has helped to convince politicians and key decision makers on the value of bus investment and the need for government to have a bus strategy. The task now for the sector is to develop a common position on bus strategy which moves beyond polarising debates around ownership and control, and which will cut through in spending decisions.

There may be different views about the shape and form a bus strategy should take, but there is little disagreement with the principle that something must be done for our predominant mode of public transport.

The wider benefits of bus
The primary objective of a national bus strategy should be to create a policy framework to realise the wider benefits of bus. The strategy should focus on supporting local economies, reducing pollution and congestion, tackling social exclusion and building more cohesive communities. Importantly, the strategy should be underpinned by some core principles:

Firstly, a national bus strategy should not in any way obstruct or reverse the course of devolution. The strategy should support devolution by providing local transport authorities with the necessary funding and resources to invest for inclusive and sustainable growth in their local areas.  

A national bus strategy should also support key government policies including Clean Growth, Future of Mobility, Clean Air Strategy, Road to Zero, reinvigorating our high streets and town centres, even Loneliness Strategy – a third of people in the UK have deliberately caught the bus to have some human contact.  

Due consideration should be given to all forms of road mass and shared transit, latest technological innovations and changes to the market, in all areas including urban, peri-urban and rural areas. Bus operators, technology firms and local authorities should be encouraged to form alliances to develop service and product innovations to increase access for all whilst reducing car dependency.  

A national bus strategy should provide a framework for local decision makers to use the powers in the Bus Services Act to maximise the wider social, economic and environmental benefits of bus. It should also help decision makers identify the costs, benefits and risks associated with alternative interventions.

A national bus strategy
Finally, a national bus strategy should complement wider transport policy. Bus policy cannot sit in isolation to policies for roads, parking, traffic management and fiscal measures. A bus strategy will require demand management measures to reduce traffic such as workplace parking levy and road pricing. Building new roads will not reduce traffic congestion. We need to make better use of existing road capacity.

A national bus strategy will require a major refocusing of government priorities. Currently the price signals are pointing the wrong way. The freeze in fuel duty since 2011, for example, has caused a four per cent increase in traffic, 200 million fewer bus journeys, 4.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions and 12,000 tonnes of NOx. The 2018 RAC Annual Report on Motoring has shown that drivers’ dependency on the car has increased, with 33 per cent more dependent on their cars and a quarter of these blaming a deterioration in public transport.

A national bus strategy needs to provide a framework to support local decision makers in running bus networks that are directly relevant to the communities they serve. Bus operators and local authorities need to be inextricably linked, and buses need to be fully aligned with local plans for growth, land use planning, new housing, and plans to tackle air quality and congestion.  

We need to maximise the massive value that bus networks can deliver. The absence of a strategy for our predominant mode of public transport is impossible to justify, especially given that other forms of transport, including even walking and cycling, have national strategies. It is high time something is done for bus. 

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