Bus services – a tale of three Englands?

Is England split in three now as far as bus services are concerned? London – enjoying one of the best bus services on the planet. The Metropolitan and large urban areas – where the bus remains a player and so far cuts in supported services have been minimised. And then the rest – where for some time the bus has been left with a niche or safety net role – and where some local authorities have been in an indecent haste to cut off the remaining life support.

London bus

England 1: London - world class bus provision

Or is it two Englands?

It’s a broad brush assessment and as such very open to critique. For example, what about the analysis that Stagecoach et al prefer which is that there’s two Englands. Down south you can hardly find a seat on a bus for the prosperous environmentally concerned citizenry who gave up their BMWs long ago in favour of the buzz they get from experiencing the joys of partnership-driven harmony. Meanwhile it remains grim up North as people continue to buy cars whilst frustratingly also continuing to cling to misguided ideas about public transport being an accountable public service. The counter-charge to this two Englands analysis would be that growth down south is from a low base with trips per head often low compared with the Mets. High parking charges and cramped street layouts in prosperous standalone cathedral cities are a big help too. Plus the scope for benevolent dictatorships of medium size bus operations which can focus on their neat and tidy markets very effectively – and often do.

Meanwhile in Whitehall these kinds of analyses are usually besides the point. Here, it’s always a tale of two Englands – London, and then beyond that an undifferentiated tiresome mass / mess. For buses historically this has meant that policy has tended to fall back on the vague hand wringing hope that if only the unique circumstances of certain cathedral cities could be magically replicated across entirely different economic, social and transport geographies then everything would be fine. One policy size therefore fits all. Except for London of course.

Bus crossing tram line in Manchester

England 2: Mets and urban areas - bus remains a player, cuts so far minimised

Why does any of this matter?

Well, because although any broad categorisation will be open to critique, it is clear that outside London bus services are not an undifferentiated mass and that the Government’s post-Competition Commission review of bus policy needs to recognise this.

For example, in rural areas how long can we continue with a situation whereby the vast majority of shared and public transport is subsidised – but through different funding pots each with their own administrative costs? Already we are seeing moves to pool budgets on social services, healthcare, education and conventional public transport in parts of England. If you throw in the local branch line, and layer in community transport on top, you start to open up some exciting opportunities for single, cost-effective rural transport networks covered by integrated ticketing and branding. They’ve been doing this in parts of Europe for years.

A DfT bus policy review could give this process a helping hand. In large urban areas and conurbations it should be about growth and integration with buses part of single urban public transport networks bound together through Oyster-style ticketing. In those smaller, standalone cathedral towns and cities where existing arrangements are working well – then why change it? And as for London – well it goes without saying that there’s no need for major policy change there.

Bedfordshire bus stop

England 3: The rest - bus marginalised, cuts to supported services in some areas

Different Englands, different policies

In short different Englands require different policy approaches on bus. The alternative is policy as usual leading to decline as usual. The recent analysis that we commissioned on the impact of policy as usual on the Metropolitan areas made for depressing reading in terms of patronage loss, fares increases and service decline. We are working to try to ensure these forecasts don’t come true but we can’t do it alone.

We need a national bus policy that recognises the challenges and opportunities that the different Englands face. This matters for real people in these Englands because of the dire implications of getting it wrong for those who have no car and no voice. Like for those people who live on one of the most deprived estates in the country in Hartlepool on which there are no facilities and now no bus services either. So no transport to get to jobs, the shops or to the doctors (there’s a video on the Channel Four news website with some genuinely shocking interviews on what this means for people on the estate). Or for the people who are writing into Citizens Advice Bureaus in increasing numbers saying that their benefits have been docked because there’s no bus to get them to a job they’ve been offered. Or who may lose the job they already have because the bus service no longer makes shift work possible. These are the people who will lose out, and in anger and despair, and in ever greater numbers if we don’t get a policy on bus that works for these very different Englands.

Jonathan Bray

This article was first published in Coach and Bus Week.

Building the case for bus – one fact at a time

Lego bus set

We need to assemble the case for bus - piece by piece

Facts and evidence doesn’t always win the day (otherwise we would be living in a very different world!) but if you want to win a public policy debate having a combat ready armoury of evidence at your disposal is important. And important becomes vital when you are battling to change the status quo rather than maintain it. I think that we (as in the local transport authorities and bus operators) have more work to do in assembling that armoury if the argument on winning the case for investing and supporting bus services is to be won.

We are on a battlefield where the bus just does not have the same political territorial advantage that cars, trains and planes already have. It’s in these situations where you need all the factual ammunition you can get.

The hammering that the funding stream for small to medium-size public transport schemes (including bus priority schemes) took in the spending review is an example of what can happen when your evidence base isn’t as well delineated as it should be.

The funding stream for these schemes (known as the Integrated Transport Block) has been halved since the election – the specific reason given for this by DfT and HMT is that the evidence for its benefits just wasn’t strong enough. This is remarkable given that a) there’s a consensus that bus punctuality is a key priority for the sector b) that bus priority is a key factor in delivering that better punctuality.

Bus priority in Leeds

The case for bus priority is strong - it just hasn't been compiled properly

Yet despite this local transport authorities and the bus industry wasn’t able to provide the Government with a sufficiently convincing set of facts, figures, case studies and evidence to persuade them of the benefits. The frustrating thing is that it’s not that the case for bus priority isn’t strong – it’s just that it hadn’t been compiled properly. Although to be fair there are extenuating circumstances. Big expensive transport schemes (like new tram schemes or roads) justify big expensive appraisal and evaluation processes.

Smaller schemes don’t justify the same expenditure on measuring their success. Measuring the benefits of some bus schemes is also intrinsically harder. For example how do you quantify the value of transforming a grotty old bus station into a modern facility? Plus the bus user demographic is poorer than that of car and train users and therefore the time savings benefit (on which conventional cost benefit appraisal rests) are lower. However, extenuating circumstances apart we still need to do better.

We made a start in the first half of this year with a report we published in July on the benefits of small to medium size public transport schemes. The good news was that the report showed that the available evidence shows that these schemes score consistently well in cost benefit terms. The report also set out a cut down appraisal and evaluation process specifically designed for smaller schemes. All of which should help as we further develop the evidence base. Changes are also afoot in Government thinking on appraisal and evaluation that might also help us.

Conventional cost benefit analysis will always be important but perhaps not quite as front and centre as it traditionally has been, as the appraisal wonks move towards a system that places CBA within a wider framework – or story – about what a scheme is trying to achieve and how.

We also now need to move onto developing the evidence base for bus services in general – economically, environmentally, socially – and pteg will make its contribution to this wider mission in the second half of this year. The need for this is particularly pressing given both ATCO’s predictions on future bus cuts, and recent work we commissioned specifically on scenarios for bus services in the Mets. Both of which suggest that business as usual on bus funding will mean decline as usual (at best!).

There’s always a danger for any relatively marginalised sector that it retreats into a comfort zone of feeling hard done to and resorting to self-righteous grumbling, emotion, anecdote and assertion. There’s no doubt that assertion, anecdote and emotion can be persuasive (any good political speech is all about the guts not the head) but if we want to persuade Hammond and Her Majesty’s Treasury then we need a well-articulated evidence base that will stand up to their stony faced scrutiny.

Jonathan Bray

This article was first published in Coach and Bus Week