Bus strategy is our opportunity to safeguard industry’s future

Over the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic we have witnessed dramatic changes for public transport that will continue to present us with major challenges for some time to come.

Three national lockdowns, the continued ‘stay at home’ messaging from Government, and the requirement for social distancing have decimated patronage across rail, bus and tram networks. Unless we take action now, there is a strong risk any recovery will be car-led, with more people choosing to take their cars over any form of public transport.

In my own region, the West Midlands, recent figures show rail has taken the biggest hit, operating at just ten per cent of pre-pandemic passenger numbers. Our light rail system, West Midlands Metro, is faring better at around 43 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, partly because of the unique nature of the network and the areas and types of employment in those areas that it serves.

Bus is currently carrying around a third of passenger numbers compared to pre-Covid levels – a statistic that is consistent with most city regions in England during national lockdowns.

We can see that the bus has throughout the last year provided a vital and affordable transport service to those who still need it. Whether it is for people who travel for essential work journeys, to medical appointments or to pick up shopping for those more vulnerable, the bus has remained a constant supporter throughout the pandemic. 

In the West Midlands, extra services were required and delivered on some routes when schools were open for the autumn term. The bus has also provided a much-needed service for our healthcare workers travelling to work throughout the past year, ensuring they can continue caring for our most vulnerable residents.

There is perhaps an assumption that a large part of the UK’s workforce is able to work from home, but it’s important to point out that these people are actually in a minority.

The Centre for Cities estimates that urban areas in the South East of England have been better able to transition to working from home. Cities such as London and Reading have among the highest shares of people able to work from home (more than 40 per cent), whereas in Stoke, just up the road from where we are here in the West Midlands, it is thought to be less than 20 per cent of workers.

Those people who cannot work from home are more likely to be bus users – lower paid, less likely to have access to a car and travelling shorter distances to jobs.

Not only is the bus vital for those who continue to travel to work, but it will be equally important for those people who currently find themselves unemployed or furloughed. With unemployment at its highest level for four years, a figure that could rise higher still after the furlough scheme ends, the scale of the challenge is huge.

Pre-pandemic data suggests that 77 per cent of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike, and so the bus must be ready and waiting to connect people to job opportunities or new education and training necessary for this brave new world.

But the future of the bus – and a fairer, more socially equitable economic recovery to which it can contribute – is deeply uncertain.

Across the country bus patronage was in decline before the arrival of coronavirus (although in the West Midlands this decline had been stemmed and we had seen a modest upturn since 2018).

Part of the problem has been the way bus services were funded prior to the pandemic – by a complex patchwork of declining, poorly targeted funding streams, which were insufficient to stem patronage decline, to prevent networks from shrinking and to stop fares from rising.

During this crisis, the Government has rightly provided additional emergency funding, which has allowed transport authorities to keep the wheels turning.

But now, more than ever, we need to put bus funding on a secure, long-term footing that recognises the role it currently plays for those who rely on it most, and how it can contribute to a more prosperous and greener future.

The forthcoming bus strategy provides a once in a generation opportunity to do so, and Government must take these three steps.

First, it should assess how much funding is needed to deliver improved bus services and devolve that funding to transport authorities – those who understand local markets, can innovate quickly and can target that funding to achieve the best results for their people.

Then, local authorities and integrated transport authorities can contractually provide bus networks on an emergency, short-term basis to deliver specified outcomes.

This will act as a stepping stone toward finally using streamlined provisions in the Bus Services Act 2017 so that when we do arrive at a ‘new normal’ for bus use, transport authorities can choose either better regulated partnership arrangements with existing operators, the franchising of networks of services (like in London) or direct provision.

In the West Midlands, working with operators and Transport Focus through our bus alliance, we had begun to stem the decline and modernise services with contactless ticketing, capped fares, real time travel updates and free Wi-Fi. Further innovations such as flexible season tickets for those who continue to work part-time at home, for example, will be needed to keep passengers on board.

Whatever route is taken, this devolved approach means that bus networks could be planned and coordinated in a way that puts local people and jobs first, whilst at the same time being accountable and providing value for money for the taxpayer.

If we do not take action, those who deserted public transport during the pandemic will not return. Those with a choice will take the car or jump in an Uber and leave our roads congested, making it even harder to meet our clean air and climate change targets.

The Prime Minister’s existing £3bn pledge for buses and the urgency with which it is seeking to publish a blueprint for the future are encouraging signs that this Government does understand what’s at stake. We must make sure that it takes this opportunity to safeguard the future of the bus once and for all.  

Laura Shoaf is Managing Director for Transport for West Midlands, and Chair of the Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Local Transport Today magazine

Somewhere over the rainbow: a secure future for bus, a just recovery for all

I am one of the lucky few. I have been able to work safely and comfortably from home throughout the pandemic. I say lucky few because evidence suggests my experience is not the norm.

The Centre for Cities estimates that people able to work from home are in the minority in every UK town and city. London, Reading and Edinburgh have among the highest shares of people able to work from home (more than 40%). In Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke, just 20% of people can do so.

Many people in some of the hardest hit (and lowest paid) sectors – accommodation, food services, hospitality, arts, entertainment – have found themselves furloughed or made redundant – their incomes vanished or uncertain. Indeed, the UK’s lowest-paid workers are more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic than higher paid employees, according to the Institute for Employment Studies. Unemployment has hit its highest level for four years and could rise higher still after the furlough scheme ends.

Others have needed to continue to travel to work, venturing out to care for, feed, serve, teach and transport others.

The first lockdown saw us unite as one nation under a rainbow, clapping every week for the NHS and recognising – at last – the people that we as a nation really can’t do without. They became our key workers – the nurses and supermarket staff, the carers and the teachers, the cleaners and refuse collectors, the postal workers and the bus drivers. These people are important – they always have been, and they always will be.

The Welsh Government has been ahead of the curve here. Back in that other world that was 2019, they launched a £4.5m fund to test ways of supporting and growing their ‘foundational economy’. The services and products that the foundational economy provides exist to keep us ‘safe, sound and civilised’ as they put it. They include care and health services; food; housing; energy; construction; the high street and more.

The foundational economy encompasses many of those that we now think of as key workers. As long as there are people, these services will be needed. It makes sense to invest in them, to grow them and to support their employees. They are not always the most glamourous of jobs – they do not tend to be high-tech or focused on R&D nor do they have export potential. But they are local, they support communities, they are a safe bet, they are needed. The same could be said for the bus.

Throughout the three lockdowns, our members have ensured that public transport has been there for key workers, through thick and thin, long after the rainbows in the windows have faded.

This is vital work given that those who cannot work from home are more likely to be bus users – lower paid, less likely to have access to a car and travelling shorter distances to jobs that serve their local communities.

Key workers are perhaps less prominent in this latest lockdown, but they must never again be forgotten. Neither must we leave behind all of those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic or have seen incomes slashed and savings wiped out. They too will need coordinated, convenient and affordable bus services.

Pre-pandemic data tells us that some 77% of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike. The bus must therefore be ready and waiting to connect people to opportunities to move onwards and upwards.

However, its future feels far from certain. Before COVID-19, bus services were supported by a complex patchwork of declining, poorly targeted funding streams – hardly the pot of gold needed to keep fares affordable and prevent networks from shrinking. During the pandemic, the Government has rightly topped up funding to keep wheels turning. Nearly one year on from the first lockdown, the time is right to put bus funding on a secure, long-term footing, one that recognises the role the bus plays in supporting key workers and in enabling a just economic recovery that everyone can be a part of.

The additional £3 billion the Prime Minister has pledged for bus is an encouraging sign. But the forthcoming Bus Strategy offers the opportunity to go further. In it, Government should assess how much is needed to deliver better bus services and then simplify and devolve bus funding streams to transport authorities – those who are best placed to target that funding to achieve the best results for their people and places. Our briefing sets out the detail on how this could be done. In the first instance through temporary contracting of bus networks until we have arrived at a ‘new normal’ for bus use. And then moving to longer term arrangements – either through better regulated partnership arrangements with existing operators, the franchising of networks of services (as in London) or direct provision.

Whichever option is chosen, a devolved approach means that public transport networks could be planned and coordinated in a way that is accountable; puts local people and jobs first; and offers value for money for the taxpayer.

We owe it to our communities, to our key workers, to the people who need the bus the most, to safeguard its future and enable a just recovery for all.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group

A first draft of the future?

 

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Once more unto the breach

Not all the details are clear at the time of writing but we do now have a funding support package for light rail and buses to see us through the next three months. Subject to the fine print this is very welcome, and one doesn’t want to seem churlish about a quarter of a billion pounds, but all this eleventh hour HMT brinkmanship about a funding deal they were always going to do anyway has used up time that could have been spent looking ahead to what’s coming next. And in this crisis, there’s always some kind of intractable problem coming up fast. Indeed, there’s a bit of a phoney war feeling at present. Although patronage is creeping up, public transport’s pariah status is by and large fending off mass breaching of social distancing limits – but what happens when the schools come back at greater scale? Where do you find the capacity to maintain socially distanced general and specific public transport for school children (especially given how peaky school traffic is)? And you may be able to show ‘bus full’ signs as you speed past adults but what about school children? And what about  Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport? And so the problems stack up one after the other. Making those problems more tractable is our homework this week.

A first draft of the future?

If we don’t seek to shape the legacy of COVID-19 it is going to shape us. So here’s some initial thoughts on a first draft of the future.

1. More people are going to walk and cycle for more trips during the COVID-19 crisis and afterwards. And this isn’t just a London thing. Places like Liverpool, Newcastle and Doncaster are joining in the road space reallocation race. City leaders have got religious about this. The temporary absence of traffic noise has meant that people can hear themselves think. And what they are thinking is – “we could just do this.” Fast forward a decade in a year. We can dream in Dutch and Danish. So let’s ride the active travel wave. But always be thinking about how the temporary and rudimentary can become the permanent and the thing of beauty. And in a way that works for everyone (including the bus user, the wheelchair user, our future selves facing greater climate extremes).

2. The permanent shift now taking place to more journeys being undertaken by bike and on foot is an unequivocal good thing. So I hate to throw shade on the active travel love parade but we still need to recognise that the car isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It really isn’t. It dominates trip share now and nearly everywhere. Even in London as a whole more trips are made by car than public transport or than by bike/on foot. London is Trafalgar Square but it is also the outer boroughs where you can drive down a street and look down from the upper deck of a world leading bus service and see that every house has a rubik cube of vehicles on the hard standing where the garden used to be. And that’s our world city. For decade after decade the UK has been rebuilding and refashioning lives and landscapes around the car leaving active travel and public transport with a Lilliputian mode share in the countryside, the edge lands, the suburbs and the towns. It is absolutely possible that active travel trips will increase – at the same time that trips by car will increase. Public transport’s current existential challenge is the car salesman’s opportunity – and they are raring to go. The modern car already looks like a bulked out bouncer. SUVs look like they could be fitted with advanced weaponry as standard and transport data points to the fact that bigger cars are more deadly when it comes to collisions – concerning when children behave like children, and act impulsively. If people wanted these kind of vehicles before a global pandemic I’m guessing they still will when the threat level has been raised and we have all got used to being in our bubble. Your name’s not on the list, you are not coming in. If the car is still king then let’s get occupancy rates up, electrify them toute suite, take road deaths as seriously as those from COVID-19 (if it’s face coverings for humans then it should be speed limiters for cars). And when we talk about transport let’s not always be thinking about city centres but think about providing alternatives to car dependency where we can in towns, suburbs and edgelands. We also need to broaden our transport planning minds by factoring in the interplay with broadband provision and the trip patterns that follow on from an expansion of home working.

3. As Oscar Wilde said, “each man kills the thing he loves”, and we are doing a good job of that in the short term as people heed the warnings and avoid public transport like the, er, plague. The question is how many of them are coming back – and which types of passenger? It seems unlikely they all will. The bus was in trouble before this started so looks particularly vulnerable. This is all exacerbated by a deregulated system outside London which would allow commercial bus operators to make money from a shrinking core network whilst abandoning more of the rest for a cash-strapped local government to pick up a tab they can no longer afford. Prior to all this the Government was planning a boost in mostly capital investment in bus which they would pick and choose to carry the HM Government coat of arms. The danger of this though is that in isolation it creates Potemkin villages of exemplary pilots but without the wider financial underpinning to stem decline or maintain provision once the initial burst of government support winds down. Time to face facts – to ‘save our buses’ we need consistent higher subsidies, lower and simpler fares. And we need to stop pretending that this is compatible with seeking to sustain the illusion that this is a commercial and deregulated industry (an illusion that finally evaporated when the lockdown began and the industry went from mostly, to entirely, dependent on public subsidy).

4. The biggest policy challenge of 2020 will be how to fuse an effective post-COVID-19 economic strategy with the urgent need to further accelerate carbon reduction trajectories. Given the grid has been greening at an astonishing rate, the most obvious route one is to crack on with the electrification of transport. This would create good green jobs and slash carbon emissions – a national endeavour that is easily understood. Meanwhile the easiest way to prevent carbon emissions is not to do things that we don’t have to do and which we know will make things worse. Bloated road programme I’m looking at you.  And as a bonus all the money being spent on it which could be spent on something useful and relevant to the 21st century instead. Meanwhile, just as cars aren’t going to disappear, neither are aeroplanes. Now is the chance to drive some hard green bargains with the aviation sector in relation to their overt and hidden subsidies – and to stop the free for all in airport expansions driven by junk flights and the revenues from acres of long stay parking fees.

5. Given the scale of the challenge of COVID-19 (both right now and through the recovery phase) city regions need to be able to act decisively and at scale. At present they are bogged down in a morass of ad hoc funding competitions (some still on pre-COVID-19 autopilot) and siloed funding streams overseen by a distracted Whitehall, as well as being pinned down by a lack of decision making power. So on funding there’s a need for significant streamlining, consolidation and long term certainty. And on powers more local rail and bus decision making should come down from the national level whilst there is also scope for powers that currently sit at the District level that could, as in London, sit at the city region level (such as taxi licencing and the strategic road network). The review of the legal and regulatory framework for new mobility should also ensure city regions have the powers to innovate and to contain (on wider public interest grounds) as they see fit.

After all if we can’t be bold now – then when?

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group