The pandemic experience will require major changes to the draft strategy

 
Transport minister Baroness Vere announced the first national bus strategy last year

 
England’s national bus strategy has long been talked about but has yet to appear. Bus services need a strategy – alongside those for other modes – but the draft must be changed in the light of recent events in which the pandemic has changed everything. There have been calls for someone to champion the cause of local bus services together with a campaign to reignite interest in bus services to recover from the massive blow dealt by the pandemic when the great majority of demand disappeared. The point is that reinstating what went before, with or without the same users, is not what is needed because it wasn’t working very well. Going back to a market in decline for many years, with notable exceptions, should have raised enough alarm bells by now. Something with greater ambition is needed.

The superseded strategy

We can speculate what is in the draft national bus strategy for England (but also having significant relevance in Scotland and Wales). This would be lots of platitudes about how useful buses are, how people might be encouraged to use them more, some hopes for alternative fuels particularly electrification and the rather stale arguments about how services are provided. Essentially, deciding how networks are managed and operated is less important than building up a demand base that makes it all worthwhile.

I would imagine that the strategy as drafted is rather lacking on certain fundamental issues

I would imagine that the strategy as drafted is rather lacking on certain fundamental issues such as dealing with traffic delays (caused by excessive car use), urban pollution (largely car emissions), equitable pricing (with car users paying differently to use the roads and consume fuel), car parking capacity and related matters – spot the common theme! There could be a call to support sustainability by promoting bus use but this touches only the surface of what is a compelling issue that won’t go away. Fundamentally, if more people are to use buses in future, then they will be people who do not regularly use buses now i.e. car users. Unless the strategy faces up to all of this, then it isn’t much help.

Creating a new strategy

That was all very well for the pre-Covid world but now the context is very different. The calls for a nationwide promotional scheme to get people onto buses could have some short term impacts in recovering users who have been frightened away by government and others. The bus offer would be just the same as before but not tempting anyone beyond regular users. Post-Covid, the landscape has changed and efforts to create growth in the use of bus services needs to be re-thought fundamentally.

Firstly, there is the scope question – should ‘bus’ include all local and inter-urban services, scheduled coaches, home to school transport, community transport and other aspects of local and inter-urban transport? Secondly, a strategy needs to deal with issues head on (rather than passing the buck or hoping all will be well) and be linked to a meaningful funding programme. Thirdly, the spatial aspects must be considered such as rural areas and smaller towns as well as larger conurbations, changing land uses and new developments.

On top of this there are huge unknowns surrounding the number and location of workers, a changed retail scene and personal behaviours. To date, although some travel trends are re-emerging, notably traffic levels, the morning peak is not what it was; this presents an unusual opportunity to make buses work efficiently. Having virtually no passengers during the pandemic showed what can be achieved when the roads are largely empty with services running on time and grateful customers, although excluding everyone except key workers.

What is needed

  • Among the list of issues to be addressed in a revised strategy should be the following:
  • Dealing with planning proposals that perpetuate car-dependency i.e. fulfilling rather than ignoring current government guidance;
  • Address why people do not want to use buses – there is research explaining why so no excuses here;
  • Re-designing networks that address people’s travel needs including evenings and weekends – research and collaborative working is needed to target specific demands;
  • Getting to grips with the fundamentals of how car use has become most people’s choice of transport (pricing, parking, etc) and how to manage it better;
  • Directing highway authorities to introduce bus priority measures even where local councillors express unfounded concerns about upsetting car users or local businesses;
  • Removing the counter-productive elements of competition as applied to bus services;
  • Understanding that buses are part of the pollution solution;
  • Being realistic about fleet electrification and other fuel options;
  • Sensible cooperation to create better links between rail, tram, bus and other services plus walking and cycling last mile options;
  • Incentivising new bus operators to enter the market;
  • Mandate the full involvement of operators, highway authorities, Traffic Commissioners and other key stakeholders to create better services;
  • Introduce five year funding programmes (in the same way that Highways England, Network Rail and others benefit from commitment) for vehicles, infrastructure, services, innovation and improvement; and
  • First/last mile options such as better walking routes, reliable and comprehensive service information (not just apps and journey finders), new fare options that suit new ways of working, proper marketing, collaboration with users and potential sources of demand.

Need for a bolder approach

Simply restoring what went before will be a poor marketing tool, not least because there is less emphasis needed on ‘old’ journeys to work and shop and an understanding of new demands which will affect routes, service frequencies, times of operation and involve far more collaboration with consumers. For some areas this may mean defending territory but the real opportunities require some speculative moves based on analysis of when and where people want to travel to provide services that meet their needs. A new initiative, ‘Stagecoach Solutions’ has recognized this and is showing how bus services can be flexible in their response to changing circumstances.

Awareness of bus services is generally limited to those who need to know but there should be no household anywhere that isn’t familiar with what is available to them

Awareness of bus services is generally limited to those who need to know but there should be no household anywhere that isn’t familiar with what is available to them. The starting point, reinforced by recent events, is that the majority of people don’t know or care about what bus services operate near them; now is the time to change all that with careful and holistic planning. We know that the market has been shrinking for years and we also know that the past few months have been disastrous so fresh approaches are a necessity. The reinstatement of some services, with new initiatives, will be welcomed but there also needs to be action in the realisation that some longstanding services cannot be propped up forever. Resources can be redeployed more productively, particularly if the costs are underwritten by internal or government means.

The national bus strategy is worthless if it is limited to promoting new vehicles plus a few bits and pieces, condemning it to be toothless and irrelevant. Perhaps the current draft is more than that but has yet to see the light of day. It needs to include all the elements of a good service that I have set out above (and possibly more besides) – if government doesn’t quite understand it all then I could write the strategy for a very reasonable fee! If the bus strategy doesn’t deliver, then it will be an opportunity squandered.

Super networks
Having got the key elements in place, we can start to think about how we sell the bus offer to tempt people into using them including those new to buses. The ‘superbus’ concept, which government thinks is new, is achievable if this route is taken because all services will be ‘superbus’. Better services are all about a range of initiatives, not just shiny new vehicles. This is all about enabling journeys not just encouraging them and will fail if measures influencing car use are not included. This is a big agenda but it needs to be if the problems we face are to be addressed successfully rather than tinkering at the margins and living in hope. Only then can we expect bus use to grow and funding commitment will have generated a stable return on investment, not just propping up services unsuited for the future. Step change is possible and feasible provided that the right objectives are set out and addressed comprehensively.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

 
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