Decision makers are waking up to the important role that buses can play. We must make the most of this window of opportunity


Everyone is talking about buses. Could it be that we have a window of opportunity to do something transformative for our most essential mode of public transport?

Prime minister Boris Johnson has declared that he will “begin as a matter of urgency the transformation of local bus services”. He wants local leaders to make the most of the powers in the Bus Services Act. He wants local partnerships between the private sector, which operates the buses, and a public body, which coordinates them. He wants “higher frequency, low emission or zero emission buses, more bus priority corridors, a network that’s easier to understand and use”.

Echoing the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), he has said that we need to improve “services within cities, not just between cities”, “services that mean people don’t have to drive”. He wants to give communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth. The NIC previously recommended that the next big wave of infrastructure funding should focus on improving transport within rather than between regions, and that local transport authorities outside London should have stable, devolved budgets to invest in transport, employment, housing and growth.

It is reasonable to take what the PM says on local transport at least at face value. His time as mayor of London has clearly shaped his vision. We’ve possibly never had a prime minister more in tune with the vital role that buses play in supporting the economy, reducing congestion and pollution, and providing essential access to work, education and opportunities for all in society. Do we finally have a prime minister willing to support a national bus strategy?

Towards a national bus strategy

Calls for a national bus strategy have been growing from MPs across the political spectrum. It was indeed the Transport Select Committee’s central recommendation following its recent inquiry into the health of the bus market. The Committee on Climate Change has highlighted the urgent need for a bus strategy to support the decarbonisation of surface transport. The need for a bus strategy is now a theme that comes up regularly in the national media.

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 buses. So why isn’t there a strategy for our predominant mode of public transport, when all other forms of transport, including even walking and cycling, have national strategies? Part of the reason may be that it could be challenging to develop a bus strategy.

A meaningful bus strategy will require direct input from several departments and is likely to be something the Cabinet Office would be best placed to take forward

Investment in bus has the potential to deliver on a wide range of government objectives across housing, communities and local government, environment, business and industrial strategy, work and pensions, health, education, trade and investment. Ownership of a national bus strategy cannot therefore sit within transport alone. A meaningful bus strategy will require direct input from several departments and is likely to be something the Cabinet Office would be best placed to take forward.

A national bus strategy will also require the input and involvement of local decision makers at all levels from across the public and private sectors. 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 bus strategy, as well as bus operators, bus manufacturers, major employers, Business Improvement Districts and town centre managers. The list goes on.

The scale of the challenge should not act as an impediment, however, given the value the bus to society delivers. The primary objective of a national bus strategy should be to create a framework to maximise the wider social, economic and environmental benefits of bus.

Maximising the benefits

A national strategy focused on maximising the benefits of bus would support central government priorities such as the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges: Clean Growth and Future of Mobility, the Clean Air Strategy and the Road to Zero, as well as efforts to tackle the housing crisis, to reinvigorate our towns and city centres, even to tackle loneliness. It would strengthen local economies, reduce pollution and congestion, tackle social exclusion and build more cohesive communities.

A national strategy focused on maximising the wider benefits of bus would support devolution by providing local transport authorities with the necessary funding and powers to invest for inclusive and sustainable growth in their local areas. It would help decision makers identify the costs, benefits and risks associated with different interventions. It would provide a framework for local decision makers to make the most of the powers in the Bus Services Act to maximise the wider benefits of bus.

Investing in bus networks creates jobs, improves productivity and supports UK manufacturing. A 10% improvement in bus journey times would mean 50,000 more people in work. Some 400,000 bus commuters are in better more productive jobs as a direct result of their bus service. 80% of urban buses sold in the UK are built in the UK, compared with just 13% of new cars. A bus strategy would enhance opportunities for UK manufacturing. The challenges currently faced by Wrightbus bring this into sharp focus.

Buses are key to unlocking the benefits of new housing. New developments in urban centres well connected by mass transit can stimulate 50% more growth than similar developments at the fringe. Bus investment delivers significant returns for local economies. The bus facilitates 29% of city centre expenditure, and 22% of town centre expenditure. Expenditure on bus capital projects generates £4.90-£8.10 of wider social, economic and environmental benefits for every £1 invested.

A strategy focused on maximising the benefits of bus would ensure that buses play a central role in reducing emissions. Air pollution has been linked to 40,000 early deaths a year. A modern diesel bus produces fewer harmful NOx emissions overall than a modern diesel car despite having 15 to 20 times the carrying capacity. Buses are leading the way on the road to zero. Last year over 80% of new buses registered in the UK had Low Carbon Emission Bus certification and 4.2% were zero emission at the tailpipe, compared with 0.6% of pure battery electric cars.

A bus strategy would protect the vital role buses play in creating a fairer and more inclusive society. A 10% improvement in bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation. Bus travel supports education, training and employment and provides access to opportunities for all. More than 50% of students over 16 are frequent bus users. Bus also strengthens the fabric of society. Two thirds of bus users say that the bus creates strong community ties. A third of people in the UK have deliberately caught the bus to have some human contact.

Turning the tide

A national strategy for buses will need to focus on addressing factors contributing to the decline in patronage. Some of these factors, such as long-term structural changes in the economy and labour market, increases in online shopping and other disruptive changes, may be beyond the scope of transport policy. However, factors such as rising congestion, bus journey times and bus fares; increase in private hire vehicles, and the relatively low costs of motoring compared to public transport will need to be addressed.

If a national bus strategy is to be effective in reversing the decline in bus patronage it must necessarily complement wider transport policy. Bus policy cannot sit in isolation to policies for roads, parking, traffic management and fiscal measures. Building new roads will not reduce traffic congestion, we must make better use of existing road capacity. A bus strategy will require demand management measures to reduce traffic such as workplace parking levy and road pricing.

Turning the tide will require a major refocusing of government priorities. Currently the price signals point the wrong way

Turning the tide will require a major refocusing of government priorities. Currently the price signals point the wrong way. The freeze in fuel duty since 2011, for example, has caused a 4% 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% more dependent on their cars and a quarter of these blaming a deterioration in public transport.

A national bus strategy will need to help the sector ride the wave of change in the new fast evolving urban mobility landscape. The emergence of countless new players providing new dynamic on demand services brings both challenges and opportunities for traditional bus services. In a radically changing environment public transport needs to be not just operations-cultured but needs to bring new products and services to market that will enhance the customer experience. The strategy will need to create an environment where innovation can thrive.

The bus presents a major underexploited opportunity to reduce emissions, grow our economy and support everyone in our society. Decision makers at the highest level seem to realise this. We must make the most of this window of opportunity.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Claire Haigh is chief executive of Greener Journeys, which specialises in quantifying the wider benefits of sustainable transport. Its research enables positive and evidence-based decisions about how people travel –

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!