The biggest bargain in transport policy?

Bus crossing tram line in Manchester

The urban bus – a highly effective social and transport policy

Is the urban bus the biggest bargain in transport policy? There’s certainly a strong case to be made – as our new report (‘The Case for the Urban Bus – The Economic and Social Value of Bus Networks in the Metropolitan Areas’) shows.

The key to the exceptional value for public money that the urban bus represents boils down to the fact that the urban bus is a highly effective social policy which also has economic and transport benefits. And looking at it from the other end of the telescope it’s a highly effective transport policy which at the same time has considerable social benefits.

There’s not so many forms of public expenditure that achieve so many multiple and overlapping policy objectives for every pound spent. A policy that gets young people to education, the jobless to jobs, and tackles isolation for older and disabled people. Part of the solution to problems like these that will ultimately incur major costs to society if not tackled. And at the same time as it does this it, it also reduces congestion for motorists and provides the access that city centre employers and retailers rely on. Not bad!

Over £2.5 billion in economic benefits

The report sets out all these inter-linked benefits in detail – and, crucially, puts some hard numbers against those benefits. It finds that in PTE areas alone bus networks are estimated to generate over £2.5 billion in economic benefits by providing access to opportunities; reducing pollution and accidents; and improving productivity.

The report also finds that specific bus funding streams generate significant economic benefits:

  • BSOG generates at least £2.80 of benefits for every £1 of public money spent – over a quarter of these benefits go to other road users due to buses’ role in reducing road congestion.
  • The national concessionary fares scheme generates £1.50 of benefits for every £1 of public money spent – a high return for a social measure.
  • The non-commercial bus services that local authorities support can generate benefits in excess of £3 for every £1 of public money spent. Most of these benefits are to the bus users who depend on these services to access opportunity (like jobs, education and healthcare).

The report also finds that because of the local nature of bus services and operations, much of the bus industry’s turnover (in excess of £5 billion a year) is ploughed back into regional economies through the supply chain, and because the people who work on local bus services live and spend in their local areas.

The report highlights the key role that urban bus services play in tackling social exclusion – from linking jobseekers to jobs, to getting young people into education and training, to providing a way out of social isolation for older people.

Without the bus the report finds that ‘our cities would be more divided, the poorest and the most vulnerable would be more isolated and severed from the opportunities that many take for granted, and so much talent that dynamic and prosperous cities need would go to waste as training, education and jobs would be unreachable for many young people.’

Although this report focuses on the largest urban areas it should absolutely not be inferred that this means that there is a not a strong case for supporting rural bus services. Many PTE areas contain substantial rural hinterlands and we know just how important the rural buses we support are for keeping communities connected, for the rural tourism economy, and to tackle major problems of social exclusion in rural areas. However, this report we concentrates on the specific urban case because a good bus network is so important to urban areas it deserves this detailed analysis of the specific benefits that urban bus services bring.

A strengthened evidence base

Since the last spending review (where the collective failings of the bus industry, the DfT, and local government on assembling the evidence base on buses were exposed and punished) there has been a concerted effort, led by Greener Journeys, Campaign for Better Transport and pteg, to systematically fill the gaps in that evidence base through a series of complementary and overlapping reports. There’s more to come but the evidence base has now been thoroughly transformed. It is robust and battle ready and my sense is that decision makers are now taking it more seriously. However, there’s a long way to go. Public funding for the bus has some unique challenges in that it comes from a variety of sources, and in some ways the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) is more important for bus funding than the Department of Transport as CLG take the decisions on local government funding which ultimately determine a big slab of bus funding. And the bus is far from the forefront of CLG thinking. Bus funding is also highly revenue dependent at a time when capital rather than revenue spending is favoured by Government.

However the evidence base is there for the bus. The task now is to continue to take it to key decision makers and to find some collective asks of Government on bus funding whilst accepting that there will remain fundamental differences between many incumbent bus operators and local government on the deregulation / regulation issue. It can be done and it needs to be done if we are going to get a better result from this Spending Review for the bus this time, than we did last time around.

Jonathan Bray

Public transport projects in the Development Pool need your support

Up to the 14th October, the Department for Transport is asking for comments on ‘Development Pool’ transport projects. In this special guest blog post, Sian Berry from Campaign for Better Transport sets out why public transport projects in the pool need our support –  and how you can get involved.

Traffic tail lights

Some £897m of road spending is proposed across the pool

My work at Campaign for Better Transport is currently focused on the 45 ‘Development Pool’ transport projects that are bidding for Department for Transport funding.

We have analysed the final bids that were revealed in September and have produced a briefing which shows that, despite the benefits of sustainable transport, more than half of the schemes proposed by local councils are road-based, with a total of £897 million of road spending proposed across the pool.

The most expensive road schemes in the pool are the ‘zombie’ bypasses that have been dominating local councils’ transport strategies for decades, re-emerging every few years to grab at any potential funding, and crowding out cheaper sustainable transport proposals. Our analysis showed that the new roads in the pool cost more on average than other ideas, and have seen a greater increase in what councils are prepared to risk in ‘local contributions’ since the process of competing for the shrunken DfT pot was launched last year.

Journalist George Monbiot wrote about the plans in his Guardian blog last week and said that they “…should provoke equal outrage among those who oppose the cuts, those who want to protect the environment and those who are still waiting for the rational, integrated transport system we were promised 15 years ago.”

But there are some good ideas hidden amongst the ‘link roads’ and ‘distributor routes’ in the Development Pool: if you look carefully, you can find some really exciting public transport projects that will improve access to transport – and quality of life – for everyone in the local areas concerned.

Leeds NGT trolleybus

Leeds is the largest European city without a tram or metro - a trolley bus could fill the gap

The Leeds New Generation Transport project stands out as the most ambitious. Leeds remains the largest European city without a tram or metro network, and their innovative trolley bus proposal seeks to fill that gap.

The Manchester Cross City Bus project would add three new high quality bus routes to the north of the city, including bus-only sections of route, while the South Yorkshire Bus Rapid Transit northern route would create much-needed new transport links between Rotherham and Sheffield, complete with purpose-built stops and real-time information. Rochdale aims to rebuild and relocate its bus station closer to other links, with comfortable modern facilities and better information for passengers.

Some rail and tram projects also feature in the proposals. In the West Midlands, the first stage of the ‘NUCKLE’ network would begin with upgrading the line between Coventry and Nuneaton, including two new stations. In the South East, Transport for London and Hertfordshire County Council are bidding to move the terminus of the Metropolitan tube line to Watford Junction, properly integrating under- and over-ground services in the area at last. Metro in Leeds is also proposing to build two new railway stations at Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge, while Sheffield is bidding for new Supertram vehicles to improve service frequencies.

Sheffield Supertram

Sheffield is proposing to invest in the Supertram network to improve frequencies

These public transport schemes all show ‘high’ or ‘very high’ value for money, and the services provided will be available for everyone in these towns and cities to enjoy, not just people in cars. Public transport also has a much lower environmental impact – in both landscape and carbon terms – than roads through green fields that will only encourage sprawl and worsen car-dependency.

It’s no accident that the most ambitious public transport projects in the pool are proposed by TfL or one of the PTEs. As our briefing also points out, investing or borrowing on the basis of future fare income is far less risky than the road-promoting councils’ reliance on payments from out-of-town housing and business parks that may never materialise. PTEs, with their track record of delivering public transport schemes and long-term strategies based on continued investment, are in a strong position to make realistic plans – not gamble an area’s future on a few miles of tarmac.

Up to 14 October, the DfT is asking the public to submit comments on schemes they support (or oppose) in the Development Pool, and these comments will influence on ministers’ decisions in December.

You can help by using our interactive map to take a few minutes find and comment on the schemes in your area. Visit:

Sian Berry, Campaign for Better Transport