Ministers and their shadows pretend not to notice a problem that is choking off buses, because they’re afraid of upsetting motorists

 

One bus can replace well over 70 cars. There is no downside

 

The latest figures show a continuing and concerning decline in the number of bus passenger journeys. And the standard responses – higher fares and reduced services – will at best bring short-term financial relief but at the cost of further decline and long-term damage.

Yet the options available to bus companies are limited, and we need to look more widely if this trend is to be reversed.

The reasons for the decline, and its parallel on the railways, are many and varied, as recent contributions to Passenger Transport have identified – among them a sluggish economy, an increase in home working, and for buses, big cuts to council-supported services.

There is one central cause that dare not speak its name, at least as far as politicians from the main two parties are concerned. So let’s say it loud and clear here: CONGESTION

But there is one central cause that dare not speak its name, at least as far as politicians from the main two parties are concerned. So let’s say it loud and clear here: CONGESTION.

That bus use should be encouraged by central and local government is generally accepted. As the excellent work done by Greener Journeys over the years has proven beyond doubt, increasing passenger numbers on buses helps the local economy by providing more, and more frequent, connectivity, by cutting air pollution and carbon emissions, and by freeing up the roads for those still in their personal metal boxes. After all, one bus can replace well over 70 cars. There is no downside.

Where local councils have introduced bus priority measures, often supported by the Department for Transport through policy vehicles such as the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which I introduced, this has given an edge to bus travel that has persuaded motorists out of their cars.

Congestion erodes these advantages. It is no coincidence that bus usage is dropping as congestion increases. If the time advantage of the bus over the car disappears, so does a key reason for taking the bus.

I used to be a regular bus user in London. I still do use the bus, but increasingly I take the Tube or indeed walk. Westminster to Leicester Square is now nearly always quicker on foot than on the 24. On the occasions when the bus does have a free run, it is invariably held at a bus stop for an interminable time so as to “regulate the service”. If there isn’t a delay, London Buses creates one.

In my own part of the world, Brighton and Hove Buses runs a 29X whose route from Brighton misses out the slow haul through Lewes, instead using the Lewes bypass to drop passengers directly in Lewes town centre. Except that the bypass is now so chock-a-block that the bus drivers often take the slow route through Lewes on the basis that it is quicker than the bypass alternative, one that, when the timetable was set, would have saved passengers up to 20 minutes. No more.

Martijn Gilbert, as reported in the last edition of Passenger Transport (PT181), is absolutely right to call on central government to face up to this problem. Yet the response from ministers and indeed their wishy-washy Labour party shadows, has been to pretend not to notice.

So money is provided to clean up buses and bus companies are exhorted to do more to attract passengers. But nothing, no nothing, must be done to upset the motorist.

Instead, ministers blithely tell bus companies to improve punctuality, as if it is their fault that the streets are clogged up with private cars and white vans.

And of course, to deal with the rampant congestion, bus journey times have to be lengthened, making them less attractive and building in extra costs as bus companies have to put on more and more vehicles just to maintain the same frequency.

Yet where public authorities have been brave enough to take on the car, their areas have benefitted and the doom-mongers have been proved hopelessly wrong. Has London suffered from the Congestion Charge? No. Has the economy of Nottingham collapsed, as we were told it would, after the introduction of workplace charging? No. Have high parking charges dealt a body blow to Brighton or to Oxford? No. All these places have benefitted from these policies and are actually doing rather well economically.

Further afield, just look at all those prosperous European cities where cars have been effectively banned: Dutch cities, heaving with cyclists, or German cities heaving with pedestrians, all with vibrant shopping centres full of people happily spending their Euros.

The motoring lobby in this country may not be as powerful as the National Rifle Association in the United States, but it is powerful nevertheless. So we have had fuel duty frozen since 2011, even though falling oil prices would have allowed relatively painless increases. We have embarked on another big round of expensive road-building when often investment in public transport along the corridors in question would tackle the congestion problems at a fraction of the cost. And we have seen a whole swathe of unhelpful planning changes from the Communities and Local Government department, stroking the motorist and undermining public transport.

It seems ministers and their empty shadows are prepared to adopt progressive policies only provided the motorist is not roused to object.

So yes, there is a cross-party consensus that climate change is real and needs to be tackled, and it is right that there is a drive to increase the uptake of electric vehicles. But in terms of congestion, an electric vehicle occupies the same space as a polluting one and indeed by cleaning up the image of the car and thereby incentivising its uptake, this can actually make the problem of congestion worse. That is why it is a nonsense in London to exempt non-polluting cars from the Congestion Charge.

And a fortune is presently being spent on the development of autonomous vehicles, the successful production of which can only make congestion worse. Just think of the huge positive difference that could be made if just 10% of the money spent in this area were spent on buses.

The simple truth is that unless congestion is tackled, all those other policies to deal with air pollution, cut carbon emissions, and help local economies, are hugely undermined.

I accept that any strategy to tackle congestion that is in any way meaningful requires political courage, but that phrase need not be a contradiction in terms. After all, it is in the interests of everyone, motorists included, that our air is clean, our public transport attractive, and that vehicles, including private cars, can move freely on our roads.

In other words, ministers should lead the way by explaining that tackling congestion actually helps the motorist, whereas caving in to demands on, for example, fuel duty, simply lengthens the queues.

Depressingly, ministers and some councils seem to think they can build their way out of congestion. They have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. It was officially recognised as far back as 1994 in the government SACTRA report (the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment) that building more roads axiomatically attracts more, new traffic and at best buys you a few years, or simply moves the pinch point some miles down the road.

Bluntly, we need to make the cost of using public transport much cheaper relative to car use – and to do that by making car use dearer

But you can address congestion by encouraging modal shift. Yes bus lanes will help, but we need more than a few bus lanes. Bluntly, we need to make the cost of using public transport much cheaper relative to car use – and to do that by making car use dearer.

In Germany they are toying with the radical idea of making public transport free. I do not personally think this is sensible, for all sorts of reasons, not least the cost and the fact that people do not value what is free.

There are still steps that can be taken, even with the present levels of congestion, that will help reduce journey times and so make buses in particular more attractive and to that extent, ministers are right that the bus industry can do more.

I recall some time back ticking off Giles Fearnley about the painfully slow boarding times in Bristol, so I am delighted to see that First has introduced modern methods here to pay for your journey. Their new m-ticketing arrangements have been very successful in speeding up journey times and in this case have allowed the operator to remove 13 buses from the schedule. More initiatives like this will help.

And yes we need more bus priority measures from local councils, and other steps to roll out real-time information.

But for the big gains, we need the chancellor to have the courage to raise fuel duty. We need the introduction of more schemes like Nottingham’s workplace charging. We need higher parking charges in our towns and cities.

Congestion is not going to go away. Indeed, with an increasing population, and a more affluent one, it can only get worse. This is not in doubt. The question is whether politicians intend to pander indefinitely to the motorist or whether they have the guts to introduce the measures they know in their hearts are necessary and will work.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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