What future for BSOG?

DfT have been sending out some clear messages recently that although the funding level for BSOG may be fixed – the way that it’s paid, and what it’s paid for – is not. Public money is a precious commodity these days and although the ‘could have been worse’ reductions in BSOG indicate that the bus is not quite the soft political touch it used to be, Ministers are not convinced that they are getting as much as they might do from a big block of cash that’s paid out on a largely flat and undifferentiated basis.

PPI is now just one of a number of options…

Bus in an urban scene

PPI would shift subsidy towards urban areas and could see Government paying twice for concessionary passengers

Prior to the election a Per Passenger Incentive (PPI) option was where BSOG was headed. The now defunct CfIT were the main cheerleaders for it and threw a lot of resources at ‘proving’ the case. With CfIT gone the doubts have crept in over a system that could have incentivised operators to attract more concessionary travellers in the off-peak. For the Government to be paying twice for older people to travel for nothing doesn’t seem such an attractive idea in the current climate. And then there’s the way in which a PPI would shift subsidy from the rural to the urban – again not so enticing given the electoral base of the coalition.

…what are the others?

So with the clean-ish slate of a new Government the objectives have changed. They want to see what the main players in this debate (operators and local government) have to say about whether or not better outcomes can be achieved for the BSOG cash – whilst minimising unintended consequences and any de-stabilisation of the industry. In this context PPI could be an answer – but it is no longer the pre-ordained answer.

So what are the main players’ in this debate’s opening positions?

No change?

CPT’s position is that there should be no change. BSOG does the job, it’s simple, straight forward and there’s more than enough change going on for operators to deal with as it is. It’s not broke and it doesn’t need fixing.

A pooled approach?

Would operators sign up for a single pot approach?

At the other end of the spectrum LGA is advocating the pooling of all bus subsidies  – with NCTS, tendered services and BSOG funding all in the pot together. This is part of the LGA’s wider than transport agenda of devolution to local government wherever possible – and with as few separate funding pots as possible. The rationale in the bus sector is that a single pot would simplify, and bring under control, the nightmarish complexities of the current arrangements and allow more local discretion on how that pooled budget could be best applied in each local circumstance.  This is not too hard to make work in a Quality Contract environment. Not so easy without a Quality Contract as it’s not clear why operators would sign up (or could be compelled to sign up) to a single pot which would effectively remove the connection between the cost of the statutory NCTS and the reimbursement they receive. If NCTS wasn’t statutory then that would help the LGA proposition – but there’s no sign of that happening before the next election. Operators too are unlikely be overly enthusiastic about forwarding their BSOG cheques to every local authority – given some local authorities’ apparent preference for road schemes over tendered services

Smart targeting?

People waiting at a bus stop

A smart approach could see BSOG used to address local issues like better bus priority measures to improve punctuality

pteg’s position is somewhere in the middle. We believe that it should be possible to find ways of ensuring that BSOG (as opposed to a single pot of all subsidies)  is targeted in a smart way in each Met area to meet both PTE and operator aspirations and objectives. However, we would want to do this through a process based on transparency, clear objectives and consultation with operators. For example, if poor punctuality due to lack of bus priority is the main issue for operators in a specific area – why not use some of the BSOG funding to pay for better bus priority measures? This should be a win-win as it would bring down running costs, boost patronage and contribute to bus operators’ bottom line. Other options would include hybrid bus investment, filling gaps in RTI / smartcard reader coverage, or performance or patronage based incentives. Up to and including a local and finely targeted version of PPI. Of course there’s no reason why other LTAs couldn’t also meet the criteria for devolved BSOG – where there is a clear commitment to whatever conditions DfT chose to attach around transparency, consultation and clear objectives. Where local transport authorities can’t – or don’t want to – take on this responsibility then the status quo could prevail.

Decision time

In the coming months we will see how hard the Government wants to push all parties towards a solution that everyone can (just about) live with and which Government can satisfy itself is maximising the benefits from all that increasingly precious public spending. 

One things for sure though – the ‘no change’ option is now just an option. There’s a period ahead where all sides can try and shape a reasonably consensual solution. The danger is that if we don’t, we will have something done to us.

Jonathan Bray

This article first appeared in Coach and Bus Week.

20 things I learned from our big city cycling conference in Sheffield

Conference delegates gear up for a cycle tour of Sheffield

After all the hard work that we put into it (along with conference organisers, Waterfront and key partners CTC and Sustrans) I couldn’t have been happier with the way our big city cycling conference in Sheffield went. More than 80 delegates (a good cross section of local transport authority and cycling organisations) turned out for a day of overview, good practice and the plotting of next steps to get cycling from its low base, in many of our urban areas, to nearer to its full potential.

Philip Darnton’s valedictory presentation from Cycling England was the stand out for me but overall I think we pitched it just about right in terms of high quality presentations on context and good practice from London, Leicester, Merseyside and Sheffield. Even the late cancellation by the Minister Norman Baker didn’t feel to me like it took the wind out of the sails of the event.

Having the event in the magnificently restored Victorian exoticism of the ballroom of the Royal Victoria Hotel in Sheffield was an added bonus. As was the add-on fringe event – a cycle tour through Sheffield for a well earned pint at the end of the day.

Anyway, here are the twenty things I learnt.

The biggest being…

  • The loss of Cycling England (abolished the day after our conference) is tragically short sighted. The big asks from the conference were strengthening of the evidence base / better networking of practitioners / more civic leadership / training and professional support for practitioners and a good webhub for the best available guidance and evidence base. All of which Cycling England were doing – and for a relative pittance. Cycling is too small an issue for the DfT and for many local authorities to justify having high ranking in-house expertise – so how do we fill the gap left by Cycling England’s demise?

But there was also room in my brain for…

On the big picture…

  • In many Northern European countries there is an iron political and professional consensus that cycling is mainstream transport – not yet in Britain – so working with the willing is the way to go for now
  • You can’t turn around low levels of cycling overnight or through a single initiative – it takes a consistent level of spend, support and leadership over a period of time. As has been the case in many Northern European cities and now London. It’s about consistency, continuity and building consensus
  • If cycling is not convenient then people won’t do it
  • We need to make cycling a club that people want to join

    Cycling is about cultural change – changing lifestyles and overcoming the obstacles for those who are willing to contemplate it. It’s also about normalising cycling as an activity in places where at present it’s the domain of a small hardcore of ‘warriors from the future’. It’s about making it a club that people want to join.

  • Civic leadership (at senior political and officer level) is vital – otherwise cycling will always be marginalised. How you convert civic leaders to the cycling cause is another question
  • Build it and they won’t necessarily come – isolated ‘pointillist’ initiatives won’t necessarily increase cycling. Considering all the individual aspects / obstacles in the cycling journey chain is important…
  • …as is marketing and telling people about what you’ve done and what’s available. Celebrate what you’ve done. Tell them again.
  • Getting more women cycling is proving to be a particular challenge. Which relates in turn to traffic speed reduction being key – it’s not about cycling per se, it’s about streets we want to live in
  • The LSTF is a big opportunity to edge cycling more into the transport mainstream. We have a pro-cycling local transport minister
  • The move to shift public health into the local authority realm – but with ringfenced budgets and indicators – is an opportunity

For the city regions…

  • There isn’t a set menu of solutions PTEs can just adopt. However there could be an a la carte menu – where, if the pros and cons of every dish were clearly set out, PTEs could make intelligent and informed choices depending on their wallet.
  • Bikeability prepares the next generation of cyclists

    There is a degree of consensus that Bikeability should be a compulsory starter on the menu – on the grounds that if you don’t get ‘em young then you struggle later on.

  • There’s lots and lots of good, innovative, imaginative and interesting stuff going on in promoting cycling in the big urban areas outside London.  But well short of the critical mass of spending and priority necessary to do a London-style step change in cycling levels and culture. 
  • Cycling is still nowhere near fulfilling its potential in our cities. Indicative of this is that people didn’t quite stop and stare mouths gaping open when about 20 of us cycled through the city centre after the conference – but it wasn’t far off. If cycling was more commonplace that just wouldn’t happen.
  • The cycling lobby is too fixated on the sustainable travel towns / cycle demonstration towns and hasn’t really yet got its head round / under the skin of what to do about large sprawling conurbations 
  • Shortage of cash can promote innovation and imagination in cycling interventions
  • As transport authorities we should remember how effective combining a corridor approach to bus priority, cycling and walking improvements – and associated social marketing – can be 
  • London may have more money but the attitudinal / infrastructure barriers are similar. London’s approach of build / support / promote could also be taken up in the conurbations

And finally…

  • Electric bikes make you look good when going up steep hills in Sheffield!

The presentations from the big city cycling conference can be downloaded here.

The Sustrans report on cycling in the city regions that we launched on the day is available for download here. It looks at the best and most effective ways of achieving a major uplift in cycling in the city regions.

Jonathan Bray