Do not underestimate the potential impact of the bus services bill

This article appeared in PSE Oct/Nov 16.

If the Bus Services Bill delivers on its promises, then it will give local government the powers to make the best use of existing subsidies to give the public a far better service than they get now, writes Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group.

If cities don’t work without good public transport, then one reason why the regional cities are not currently fulfilling their potential is the lack of levers they have to plan and manage their bus networks.

Plan and manage means the ability to ensure there is one network, one brand, one ticket as part of wider integrated public transport networks which are readily understood and easy to use. It means there is one body (democratically accountable locally) where passengers go to find information and give feedback. One body which business knows they can work with to ensure that new developments and regeneration opportunities have bus services from the get go. This is what London takes for granted and what cities from Singapore to Washington, and right across Europe, take for granted too.

However, since buses were deregulated throughout Great Britain (except for London) in 1986, cities have had to negotiate the best they can from local monopolies who have used the monopoly profits to fuel their wider corporate expansion as well as their campaigns (directly or through a network of bought and paid-for surrogates) to block any reform. These monopolies were successful in ensuring that the powers to allow transport authorities outside London to specify and franchise bus networks (essentially the same powers London has) in the 2000 Transport Act and the 2008 Local Transport Act were too complicated and restrictive to use in practice.

The 2016 Bus Services Bill, currently before Parliament, is the third attempt. And it came not from the Department for Transport but from former chancellor George Osborne’s Treasury as part of the dowry for those city-regions that opted for a mayoral combined authority (although the legislation allows for other areas to also gain franchising powers at the government’s discretion).

New powers on offer

Astute politicians have always recognised that you can achieve noticeable impact across a wide area very quickly with relatively modest investment in bus services compared with showier infrastructure schemes. For example, the success of the mayoral concept was partly built off the back of Ken Livingstone’s early focus on buses. Osborne has gone, but the legislation is still on track to be enacted and fully usable by incoming city-region mayors in spring 2017.

And the legislation is not just about a simple route to franchising – it also offers up new powers for those authorities who don’t want to go down the franchising route by extending the limits of what can be achieved from the existing deregulated framework.

These ‘partnership’ options could deliver on many, although far from all (fully integrated ticketing in particular), of the benefits of a franchised approach – but only if operators sign on the dotted line. And with the power of veto that comes with partnership options comes a strong negotiating hand with which to water down outcomes.

Lastly, although the Bill gives transport authorities more powers over what services are provided, it seeks to head off giving local transport authorities the option of running those services directly through blocking the creation of any new municipal bus operations.

Learning lessons for previous legislation

Although the Bus Services Bill as it stands is currently in good shape in terms of the franchising and partnership sections, the lessons of previous legislation is that it only takes a few words to be inserted in the wrong place and it would be rendered as hard to use in practice as its predecessors, which is why we and other local government bodies are watching carefully to make sure it remains intact and on time.

It is important to stress that this legislation matters not just for local transport but far more widely than that. Buses get the jobless into jobs, they give young people access to education and opportunity, and they give access to healthcare whilst contributing to better public health. In short, every pound of subsidy that supports bus services results in multiple public policy benefits.

At present, too much of that precious public subsidy is being lost in the inefficiencies of the current system, through excess profits being diverted elsewhere and over-bussing on core corridors, whilst leaving the local authority to cover the cost of off-peak services. If the Bus Services Bill delivers on its promises, then it will give local government the powers to make the best use of existing subsidies to give the public a far better service than they get now. Do not underestimate the impact that this could have.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To access the Urban Transport Group’s Bus Services Bill hub visit:

W: www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/bus/bus-services-bill

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What do we want from our cities: the role of active travel

Active travel, largely cycling and walking, has been rapidly going up the national policy agenda, with the current government committing to developing a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS). Central to this is doubling the level of cycling and halting the decline in walking trips by 2025. The CWIS sets out a bold ambition which will focus largely on urban areas if it is to be achieved.

This is part of a broadening agenda where we are increasingly thinking about the types of cities that we would like to live in and the implications of this for how we travel. When we think like this, cycling and walking have the potential to become more than just another mode of transport, they can positively shape urban areas. Transport for London is at the forefront of thinking here, having developed a healthy streets guide, which focuses on air quality, urban realm, reducing traffic, quality of life and safety. Central to the notion of healthy streets is the use of cycling and walking, which are high capacity, low cost modes of travel that have very minimal impacts on the environment.

A perk of leading our active travel brief is that I have been able to experience some of the infrastructure that our members are developing. We are trying to make this a core part of our active travel group, Going up a Gear, when we meet in each other’s cities so that we can promote best practice and learning within our network. So far this has involved trips along the Leeds to Bradford superhighway and a tour of various guises of the London network on the hottest September day for 100 years.

Firstly, it was incredible to see so many people cycling in parts of London that seemed unimaginable not long ago. Riding over Blackfriars Bridge and down Embankment was a joy. I felt like a tourist, seeing famous monuments and sites in a way that I never imagined I would. The same can be said for over Vauxhall Bridge and around the Kensington Oval – these are heavily trafficked roads that are now a haven for cyclists, and in the case of Blackfriars Bridge, are carrying more people than they did before road capacity was removed.

It’s very easy to then compare all other cycle schemes to the flagship parts of the London network. But we need to think about them more carefully than this. London did not start with the flagship schemes that we are now seeing or indeed the rapidly expanding network that we now associate it with – it started with a small number of routes having paint on the road, and this is much more recent than we think.

The superhighway between Leeds and Bradford brought the same feeling of enjoying cycling whilst on a busy corridor. This was the same for the whole team, even those that were not regular cyclists. The quality of infrastructure was in general high and provided us with a direct route through Leeds and into central Bradford. Apart from a short shared space section and a single junction, the route is completely segregated, offering a largely relaxed and easy ride (well apart from the Yorkshire hills!).

Having got to this stage, what is now important is how this first superhighway is used to develop a cycling network. This is where London has excelled. It is not just the quality of the infrastructure that has led to the increase in cycling in London, it is the scale of the network. Not all of London’s infrastructure is up to the current high standards, and there are gaps in the network. But the direct, stress free critical mass of infrastructure makes cycling more than worth it.

Leeds, and indeed many of our other members, face similar challenges to London in moving people and goods in ever increasing numbers. Active travel is at a tipping point, with the removal of ring fenced central government funding either providing a threat to current programmes, or opening doors to mainstreaming cycling and walking through local funding. What we need to do is go back to that notion of what types of cities we want to live in and then ask ourselves does active travel play a central role in this?