Author of new report on the impact of congestion on bus passengers says Bus Services Bill should encourage setting of targets for average bus speeds


manchester_congestionBuses in rush hour in Manchester city centre


“Traffic congestion is a disease which if left unchecked will destroy the bus sector,” warns Professor David Begg in a new report for the pan-industry Greener Journeys campaign group.

“This is a dire and sensational prediction, but the evidence uncovered in this research leads to no other conclusion,” the former chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport writes in his report, The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers. “On historical, current and future trends it’s a question of when, not if.”

The report is an attempt to quantify the corrosive effect that congestion has on bus services, a problem that Begg says that everyone in the bus industry, local government and Whitehall is aware of. However, Begg says it’s a problem that the Bus Services Bill does nothing to address.

He proposes that the bill should set out guidance encouraging local authorities and bus operators to set targets for average bus speeds. The minimum requirement should be for bus speeds to stop declining. This would force local authorities to give priority on roads and at junctions to buses.

Begg’s research has found that bus journey times are rising by – on average – almost 1% per annum across the UK’s most congested urban conurbations.

He writes: “Over the last 50 years, bus journey times have increased by almost 50% in the more congested urban areas. If we had protected bus passengers from the growth in congestion there would arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today.

“If the trend is allowed to continue, then our urban buses will no longer represent a viable mode of transport for the majority of their customers and will be populated largely by people with mobility difficulties.”

Bus operators respond to congestion by either maintaining or reducing service frequencies.

If they decide to maintain frequency, then every 10% fall in operating speeds leads to an 8% rise in operating costs. If this is passed on to passengers through higher fares it results in a 5.6% fall in patronage (based on a fares elasticity of 0.7).

The result is similar if they instead respond to reduce service frequency. A 10% deterioration in operating speeds would lead to a 10% reduction in frequency and 5% fewer passengers (based on a frequency elasticity of 0.5).

In addition, it is necessary to add the response passengers have to spending longer on board buses. This would lead to a further 5% fall in passengers (because of an in-vehicle elasticity of 0.5).

Begg concludes: “The net result is a direct correlation between operating speeds and patronage: a 10% decrease in speeds reduces patronage by at least 10%.”


London’s ‘crisis’

Begg says that London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, must prioritise actions to address falling bus speeds, which he describes as “a crisis for the capital”. Some buses on some bus routes in London already run at close to walking speed, he observes.

Years of sustained growth in bus patronage have recently halted and there has been a loss in momentum in new measures to protect bus speeds – which have previously included red routes and the introduction of the central congestion charging zone in 2003.

“If the average bus speed in the UK’s congested urban areas has historically been decreasing
by almost 1% per annum, then for one-third of London bus routes the decline has been more than five times this average over the past year,” Begg observes.

Khan faces a difficult challenge. He has pledged to freeze fares over his four-year mayoralty, a period that will see Transport for London face swingeing cuts to its revenue budget.

“The solution is to operate buses more efficiently by improving their speed,” Begg suggests.
“If London is to eliminate the £461m per annum subsidy to its bus network then bus speeds would have to improve by 24%.”

This view is endorsed by Sir Peter Hendy, Transport for London’s commissioner between 2006 and 2015, who provides the foreword to the report.


What’s the cure?

As a politician in the mid-1990s, Begg championed Edinburgh’s controversial ‘Greenways’ bus priority initiative to protect buses from the impact of congestion. In contrast, he says the mantra from too many other decision-makers at local and national level has been to give the public “choice”, and this means that all road users have to put up with chronic traffic congestion which will continue to grow.

He writes: “The way our road system is managed in urban areas could be argued to resemble the tools used by Communist-era countries to control production: traffic volumes are regulated by congestion (queuing) in the same way the former Soviet Union used to ration bread. It is bad for urban economies and their environment. Without road pricing there is no solution to urban congestion.”

He calls for a return to the ethos of the 1998 white paper on transport which recognised the necessity of changing travel behaviour and the importance of demand management.

“More cities need to follow the lead of London, with the implementation of congestion charging; Nottingham, with its workplace parking levy; and Bristol, with essential car parking restraint measures,” he argues.

“All three cities have been prepared to use both the carrot (improved sustainable transport) and the stick (car restraint).

“Public transport improvements on their own are not a panacea for urban congestion. They have to be accompanied by traffic restraint measures.”

However, Begg also urges bus operators to do more to tackle bus stop dwell times. In urban conditions, research shows that dwell time makes up between 25% and 33% of total journey time.

Begg claims that rolling out London-style contactless payment and smart ticketing could halve bus stop dwell times, speeding up overall journey times by 10%. The ‘big five’ bus operators in the UK – Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach – have set a target to introduce contactless bus transactions outside London by 2022 (PT126).

“They should do everything possible to accelerate this, and it is realistic for them to achieve this goal in the large conurbations within three years,” writes Begg.

Begg also urges bus operators to get better at communicating with their customers, claiming that this would help them to mobilise support for pro-bus measures.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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