Fighting smart to get passengers back on public transport

In some ways, getting the funding to keep public transport going during the pandemic was the easy bit. During the pandemic it was important for Government to keep the public transport show on the road (and the companies that provide it) to prevent a wider sense of societal and economic breakdown. As a result, the wheels kept turning and nobody went out of business. No passengers, no problem. Government filled the funding gap.

But if – and it’s a big if – we are now moving beyond the pandemic’s ability to trigger another set of significant restrictions on movement – then the existential threat is no longer there. And then what happens to funding? June 21st is in Whitehall’s mind the point at which we transition from emergency funding to what comes next. And what comes next is very much up for grabs.

One thing for sure is that there will still be a funding gap to fill after June 21st. The best guess being that patronage will be significantly below what it was before the pandemic (which was shrinking anyway for bus). This is based on the assumption that there will be more people working from home and even greater antipathy to use of public transport from those that weren’t pre-disposed to it before.

Let’s look at the positives first for funding post June 21. For those who like their glass half full we now have a bus strategy – with a Prime Ministerial foreword – which wants more, better and cheaper buses. And it wants them everywhere. The pro-bus message was also part of the wider Conservative pitch to towns, like Hartlepool, which felt keenly that they had lost out as both the public and private sector shrank bank from post-industrial towns in recent decades. Backing that up is the largely unspent £3 billion transformational funding for bus – as well as other funding streams (like the intra-city fund) which buses could benefit from.

More widely, the consensus around backing public transport has never been stronger. You will struggle to find many politicians of any stripe who aren’t in favour. And now more politicians are evangelists for it too. Just as Johnson’s London experience, and ‘red wall’ ambitions have convinced him that buses are good politics for the Conservatives, for Labour, Andy Burnham’s decision to go all out for franchising has cut through perhaps more than any other single non-London mayoral initiative has ever done. It’s the only big Mayoral policy that most national journalists can name. Taking back control of the buses in Greater Manchester spoke to the conurbation’s sense of self like little else could. 

Meanwhile, as the pandemic becomes less dominant in lives and headlines, it creates a space for attention to return to the climate again. A transport decarbonisation strategy should drop soon which will set the terms of engagement over the level of the UK’s ambition on transport in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow. Importantly too, the environment is no longer seen as separate from, and indeed a drag on, the economy. Decarbonisation of key sectors of the economy has now scaled up sufficiently for the ‘green economy’ to become one of the drivers of the national economy. Green buses being one part of this.

So that’s the half full glass – but what is there for the pessimistic among us who suspect the glass is half empty? Whitehall is conflicted. Despite the big ambitions of the bus strategy, and on climate, there is the instinct to go back to ‘normal’ both on funding levels and on returning local public transport to a ‘commercial’ basis. This instinct is strongest at HMT which is in full on bean counting mode. Meanwhile the trajectory of recent spending reviews has been to screw down non-protected Departments’ core funding (including both for DfT and MHCLG). A lot of the DfT’s budget is also already spoken for on HS2, national rail and the national roads programme. All of which squeezes out support for local transport. And all of this is set against a backdrop whereby year on year use of local public transport gets more expensive when compared with car use. As long as this is the case, then you have to pour more and more money into public transport to have a hope of keeping it in the game.

So, which of these factors will prevail when it comes to funding from June 21st and beyond? It’s all to play for but the bus strategy feels like the strongest card we have. After all, what sense would it make to take decisions on funding post June 21st which will lead to fares hikes and service cuts on public transport when we have a PM-backed bus strategy which promises the exact opposite? As far as kryptonite to use on the Treasury goes – it’s the best we’ve got. But even so, a strong case will need to be made both in the run up to June 21st and to the multi-year spending review due in the Autumn. A case that brings to life the key role the sector has played both during the pandemic and will play in building back better afterwards. A case that needs to be part of a wider and smart fight back. What might the other elements of such a smart fight back be?

Evening up the comparative cost and ease of using local public transport compared with driving is never easy. Especially given the culture war dimension. But the Super Thursday elections give some hope. The anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhoods movement made no headway in the London elections (indeed, in general, the Mayoral candidates with progressive agendas and/or strong delivery records on transport, did well). The Welsh Government also now has a mandate to pursue its commitment in its transport strategy to ‘develop a fair and equitable road-user charging in Wales and explore other disincentives to car use…’. Alongside that there are cities that will now be pushing ahead with further measures to improve air quality which will also bring dividends for public transport.

As well as supporting and nurturing these kinds of initiatives, a smart fight back should also involve picking a few fights where money on transport is being spent on what can no longer be justified in a warming world. Good on the Rail Delivery Group for showing how it is done by fronting up in the media on making the case for Air Passenger Duty not to be cut. The absurd scale and costs of the zombie national roads programme is there for the taking. 

Alongside these efforts to level the playing field we also need to find other ways of getting people and politicians excited about public transport. Free fares certainly does this when it’s been introduced in some smaller cities and towns in Europe – but less attention has been given in the UK to the big European cities that are now seeking to emulate Vienna’s 365 Euro a year travel pass (one Euro a day). It’s striking, it’s simple, it’s cheap to use – whilst still raising some revenue. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the age groups that pay to use public transport is shrinking. If you are under 22 you now get free bus travel.

So, what does a smart fight back look like in summary? Find ways of getting people (and politicians) excited about public transport. Nurture every brave initiative that emerges to even up the score between the cost of using cars and the cost of using public transport – whilst picking some strategic fights with expensive and regressive transport policies that are obviously past their sell by date. Keep your eyes on the decarbonisation prize – all rails and bus lanes lead to Glasgow. Think about fares when seeking to win back as much of what we had – and in growing new markets where we can’t. Fight smart – because the tough bit is about to start.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine

Budget 2021: Five key takeaways for urban transport

1. The one year 2020 Spending Review, and the multi-year 2021 Spending Review, are more significant for urban transport than the Budget was likely to be – and indeed, proved to be. Also, between now and the 2021 Spending Review, we will have the bus strategy, and, if the road map to COVID-19 recovery works out, the Government will need to take some decisions on how it will fill the patronage/funding gap that COVID-19 will still leave behind. So plenty still to play for.

However, although public spending wasn’t the main focus of the Budget, it did put more flesh on the bones of the new funding streams that were announced in the 2020 Spending Review – perhaps most notably on the Levelling Up Fund. It also showed that the political dimension to funding choices, that are always implicit, are becoming more explicit through more ranking of areas to be prioritised and the greater involvement of local MPs.

2. Glass half empty? The Resolution Foundation analysis is that the Budget has further sharpened the axe which hangs over non-protected Government departments. They say: ‘Further planned cuts to public services spending will see budgets for unprotected departments (such as transport and local government) fall by £2.6bn next year (2022-23). And that by 2024-25, day to day public service spending per capita in unprotected departments will still be almost one-quarter lower than in 2009-10, with less than a fifth of the reduction in spending between 2009-10 and 2018-19 having been unwound. These spending cuts assume no further spending pressures elsewhere, which is highly unlikely given what’s in store for the NHS, schools and social care over the coming years.’

This is a particular concern in relation to the revenue support that public transport needs to recover, never mind, build its often low share of the trips that people make. It also has implications for the already denuded capacity of local transport authorities to retain and develop the skills and capacity they need to deliver capital investment and meet the increasingly complex environmental and social challenges that cities face.

3. Glass half full? Most of the extra £5bn promised for bus and active travel that the Prime Minister pledged in February 2020, is still to come. If you add in the existing Transforming Cities Fund and the new funds on their way, then potentially there could be significant capital funding on its way to spend on the right things on urban transport (public transport and active travel). Plus, few could argue that post industrial towns are not overdue an investment boost.

4. Meanwhile there’s a danger of a swing back to greater centralisation of decision-making with the risk that the Intra-city Transport Fund in particular becomes a tool by which HMT can manage the priorities of city regions which should be left to determine their own futures. More widely, the Budget reinforced the trend of recent years away from block funding towards places having to please and convince terribly clever people in London about the merits of their bids into multiple competitive funding pots.

5. One day a Chancellor is going to have to grasp the nettle of significant road vehicle taxation reform – not least because of the rise of electric vehicles. But yesterday wasn’t that day. The fuel duty escalator remains frozen. This further undermines both public transport’s competitive position and the slow progress being made to reduce transport’s drag on wider Government carbon reduction targets. But it could be that as the pandemic recedes, that 2021 is the year when more kites are flown around how a new and more progressive fiscal and charging regime for road vehicles could also fill the revenue gap that the electrification of vehicle fleets will cause in the current system.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Journey into a locked-down world

(Picture: Empty platforms at Leeds station at rush hour during the first national lockdown in March 2020)

Like many others, my daily bus commute came to an abrupt end in March 2020. In the months since, my only real life experience of public transport in a COVID world was a couple of open-top bus trips up and down Great Yarmouth seafront in the brief respite of August 2020.  

That changed last week when I made the trip down south for the funeral of my Grandma. With numbers of mourners restricted, and wanting to minimise the risks involved, I travelled alone, meaning a journey on a train for the first time in over a year.  

Whilst expecting Leeds Station to be quiet, it was still a shock to see it so devoid of people, with passengers outnumbered by staff and contractors in hi-vis jackets working on the upgrades to the station. Signs reminding people to stay at home and save lives added to the somewhat dystopian feel and the oddness of being out in the world. 

I was surprised by how nervous I felt – like I had forgotten how to ‘do’ train travel – clumsily presenting my QR code as I passed through the ticket barriers and scanning the waiting LNER train, searching for the correct carriage and temporarily forgetting which order the alphabet runs in.  

Finding my seat, the carriage appeared empty, but the occasional rustle of a newspaper told me I was not alone. The space for seat reservation cards in the backs of the seats was now used to remind passengers that reservations were essential and that they should sit in their allocated seat only, to ensure social distancing.  

Posters and audio announcements reminded passengers that face coverings were required at all times unless exempt. I guiltily removed mine to eat my lunch and drink my tea, trying to bolt everything down as quickly as possible, feeling embarrassed to be ‘unmasked’ and feeling for those who are exempt and routinely run the gauntlet of the public gaze and judgement.  

The journey progressed smoothly, and the cleaning regime was reassuringly visible. Cleaning staff dressed in black, looking like members of a SWAT team strode the carriages, spraying everything in sight. Switching onto a local Thameslink service, again the cleaning team were working hard to keep every surface as safe and sanitised as possible. Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was eerily accurate when he imagined the demise of a planet which decided to send its telephone sanitisers and other seemingly unimportant workers off on an Ark into space. Those left behind were subsequently wiped out by a disease contracted from a dirty telephone. Cleaners are heroes. 

Arriving safely at my destination, despite the sad reason for my journey, it was absolutely wonderful to see my family (however briefly) after so long apart. 

(Picture: A near empty carriage on Rebecca’s journey)

The journey back to Leeds was less straightforward. I had somehow managed to book myself onto a Thameslink service that didn’t exist, meaning I would miss my LNER connection and lose my all-important reservation. Stressful at the best of times, but the context of COVID added a new level of anxiety. Would I be allowed on a different train, what about my reservation?  

The member of staff at the customer service desk seemed harassed and off-hand. He was unable to secure me a reservation and, scrawling my permission to travel on a tear-off sheet, sent me on the next north-bound LNER service with no advice as to my onward journey or where I should change. The train manager seemed equally stretched making me wonder whether staff are being pushed to breaking point by the pressures of keeping themselves and others safe and moving in a pandemic.  

In contrast, the member of catering crew (the first person I encountered on boarding the train), was kind and compassionate as – seeking reassurance – I felt the need to explain to him why I was sitting in a seat for which I had no reservation and my worries as to where I should alight for the next stage of my journey. He sat down, listened carefully and messaged the train manager, even offering to arrange me a reservation in advance of the next leg of my trip. A little kindness and understanding goes a long way, especially in these anxious, edgy times. And he made a fantastic bacon roll. 

Finally, I arrived back in Leeds, walking through the city centre to catch the bus home for the final leg of the journey. The city centre looked tired and unloved. With shuttered shops and windows frozen in time, still dressed in their Christmas finery, it was far from the buzzing city that I know and love. 

My bus, in normal times, would be pretty full throughout the day. This Friday lunchtime, there were three people downstairs and about five upstairs. I know that buses are cleaner than they have ever been and that companies are working hard to keep them as safe as they possibly can be.  

What you can’t account for is the unpredictability of us humans. It made for a somewhat worrying journey as one of my fellow passengers, talking away to himself, moved from seat to seat, taking his mask on and off as well as closing the windows that had been left open for the ventilation that is so important for reducing transmission. It highlighted to me the role that the bus plays, not just in transporting key workers during a pandemic, but also as the only travel option for some of the most vulnerable people in society, many of whom are likely to be isolated and cut off from their normal routines and support.  

My journey into the locked-down world was at times tense and nerve wracking. However, the things that matter are magnified but largely unchanged.  

Kind words, a friendly greeting, smiling eyes mean so much in a sea of masked faces.  

Seeing tangible evidence of enhanced cleaning regimes bolsters confidence and we should treasure the armies of staff that are responsible for delivering this. 

Clear information and good communication when a journey is disrupted will always do a lot to dispel anxiety and maintain goodwill. 

It all boils down to kindness and reassurance, both of which will be needed in spades as we begin to emerge, blinking into the light, from what we all hope will be the last lockdown. Happy trails everyone. 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group