24 February 2020
Boris Johnson will have to do some work to improve buses. Quite a bit, if we are going to see the “London-style” services outside of the capital that he promises.
The money is there: £5 billion, less a bit for cycling and fair bit more that will go straight into the procurement of new low-emission vehicles. But before England becomes a bus utopia, some things need to happen. Boring things. Detail things.
What are “London-style” buses? We don’t know. But we have some clues, because in 2017 the Bus Services Act made it possible to operate buses in England in much the same way as they are in London. Features available in this legislation include allowing elected councils or mayors to decide how services are run, plan the routes, choose the specification of the vehicles, their livery and branding and fares, and integrate bus ticketing with other transport modes.
Unfortunately, no local council or mayor has used these powers, and only one is exploring it seriously, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority led by Labour mayor Andy Burnham. Liverpool City Region, also Labour run, recently indicated that it is getting more serious about going down the required route of statutory consultations and secondary legislation, but all this is time consuming. Is Johnson going to speed this process up?
And there is a political problem, potentially, for Boris Johnson. Many of the places in England that have lots of people who could be using the bus are run by Labour mayors. Johnson might be helping the mayors back into office by giving them a success story. Conversely, he might be able to steal the credit for what could have been Andy Burnham’s greatest achievement, sorting out the Manchester buses.
Johnson might be wise to start in the West Midlands, a region with lots of people, buses that need sorting out and a Conservative mayor – although one, admittedly, who has not been as enthusiastic about buses as the northern mayors. The issue this highlights for Johnson is that his bus offer must be attractive to local politicians for them to be compliant. It will need to be locally-led, and possibly difficult for him to control.
The likes of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are not in fact the worst affected areas for the huge cuts in bus services that have happened under austerity budgets since 2010. Those have been the more rural areas where running a bus service is hard anyway, because of low density and dispersed settlement patterns. Boris Johnson might find that these areas are hard to help. The answer is either sustained annual funding, which seems unlikely; or a technological solution like demand responsive travel service. Either way, it is very unlikely all of the 3,000+ routes cut will be restored.
One aspect of London buses that cannot be replicated elsewhere is funding. With no operational grants from central government, the capital’s bus fares are subsidised by the profits from London Underground. No such cash cow exists in other cities. So, what does Boris Johnson have up his sleeve?
Serving new housing developments could also prove difficult. We’ve been building more homes, but they are often at low density and remote from amenities, jobs and established centres of population. Merely extending existing routes creates lengthy services that are unattractive to passengers along the whole route and are vulnerable to delays caused by congestion.
And congestion will need to be fixed to make buses an attractive option to passengers. Available ways to deal with congestion and generate sustainable revenue for buses include congestion charging, charging clean air zones and the workplace parking levy. Two of these are “London-style” and one of them works in Nottingham. Is this all a bit much for Boris Johnson, or will he leave it up to local leaders to do the politically hard part of charging motorists? On the plus side, that procurement of low emission buses would ensure operators were exempt from clean air zone charging.
If you want to know where all this money is going and what exactly “London-style” buses turn out to be then keep an eye out for the upcoming National Bus Strategy. It should give us all the required details – unless of course it is delayed.
This piece originally appeared in CityMetric.