Buses need joined up government thinking 28/01/2020

CPT's Chief Executive Graham Vidler recently wrote an article for Passenger Transport magazine, recapping the events over the past 12 months that have impacted the bus industry. Key events include the publication of the Moving Forward Together strategy, recent funding announcements that will provide industry support, and York City Council’s plans to ban non-essential car journeys from the city centre. Graham highlights the crucial need for joined up government thinking in order to encourage people out of their cars and onto the bus. You can read the full article below.

The last 12 months have seen bus travel in the spotlight in a way that has not been seen for a long time. If we cast our mind back a few months there was a General Election campaign where both major parties had plans on how to improve bus services in their manifestos. We now have a Prime Minister who is championing bus travel and who has, with the “solving” of Brexit (at least for now), some political airtime to act on it. We shouldn’t play down the role the bus industry has played too though. The publication of the industry’s strategy Moving Forward Together back in September included plans to buy more ultra-low and zero emission vehicles, deliver simpler ticketing and how to work with local authorities to tackle congestion and it was well received by government, the media and other stakeholders. Five months on from its launch I still get unsolicited compliments on how positive it is to see a united industry vision. 

This increased spotlight has also led to some welcome funding announcements including the introduction of superbus networks in England, £20m to tackle congestion in the West Midlands and funding to create an ‘all-electric’ town or city. We have also seen £500m of funding to tackle congestion in Scotland and the promise of a national strategy and multi-year funding settlement for bus services in England later this year.

This recognition is long overdue with buses transporting over five million people a day to work, education or to connect with family and friends. We’re also the industry which is leading the way within the transport sector in cutting carbon and tackling air quality. Our plans to only buy ultra-low or zero emission buses from 2025 will cut our carbon footprint and save half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year. Our plans for simpler ticketing and reduced travel costs for apprentices and job seekers, as well as tackling the issue of rural mobility, will all help to deliver one billion more bus journeys by the time we reach 2030.

What is clear is that we cannot waste this opportunity. CPT is ready to lead the way in putting the case for the policies that we need to encourage more people to take the bus. Our strategy Moving Forward Together was a welcome first step but it is the beginning, rather than the end, of our campaign.

The forthcoming Budget and Spending Review present an opportunity for the Government to provide confidence to the industry that it is serious about delivering on its manifesto promises of more frequent, better-integrated services and speeding up journeys as well as the previously promised long term funding settlement for bus. As an industry we need to hold the Government’s feet to the fire to ensure it delivers on its promises, although we must remember that they will then expect us to deliver our plans too.

I’ve been delighted to be able to discuss how the industry and government can work together to achieve our shared ambition of more people travelling by bus with both the Buses Minister Baroness Vere and the Prime Minister’s team in Number 10. There is no question in my mind that they understand the issues we are facing and want to work with us in pursuit of our shared objectives. However, one or two parts of government cannot deliver the change that is required on its own. For us to truly transform bus services across the country – and, in turn, for bus services to help transform the UK - we need all parts of government signed up to this ambition.  In short we need the famous joined up government thinking.

Unfortunately no one appears to have told the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick. In an interview earlier this month he gave his encouragement to local councils to offer reduced or free car parking in town centres to help save our high streets. One local leader to have already got themselves into Mr Jenrick’s good books is Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen with his promise to deliver free car parking in town centres if he is re-elected in May.

The aim of revitalising town centres is laudable, and one that the vast majority of people would support, but encouraging people to drive into town centres is not the way to do this. And people, including those who drive, get this. According to new figures from the Government’s National Travel Attitudes Survey 74% of us agree that everyone should reduce their use of cars in towns and cities; fewer than one in ten disagree. This strong public support for measures to reduce car use reflect a recognition that anything else will lead to increased congestion causing gridlock, more carbon emissions and poorer air quality. And this at a time when the UK is seeking to be world leader on these issues. A lack of joined up government risks undermining what has been achieved in the last 12 months and what the Buses Minister has said will be a transformational year for buses in 2020.

We need all of government to be focused on tackling the issues that stop people from deciding to take the bus, which means tackling congestion. We know that the problem is getting worse and that journey times have resulted in over 160 million less bus journeys over five years. We also know that 25% of car users would be prepared to give bus a go for some of their journeys, but they are not likely to do so until they have a service that they know won’t get stuck in traffic. If we can crack congestion we will take a major step towards encouraging people out of their cars and onto the bus. 

This means we need central government and local authorities to be delivering measures that speed up bus journeys, particularly in our urban centres, not promoting policies that will drive people into their cars. This means ensuring that buses are put first in transport networks through bus priority measures, local authorities meeting targets to reduce bus journey times and requiring future bids for local infrastructure to include measures to help buses move quicker through towns and cities. It also means that buses, and other sustainable forms of transport, are at the forefront of planning for the delivery of the million new homes to be built over this parliament. As these measures encourage more people to take the bus we will see wider benefits with reduced carbon emissions and improving air quality alongside greater social cohesion as people make new journeys to see family and friends.

York City Council has gone even further with plans to ban all non-essential car journeys from the city centre. Time will tell whether others follow their lead and the details in York still need to be worked out but we should be applauding leaders in York for being bold in seeking to tackle these issues. As a York resident I’ll be ready to give a first-hand account of their progress! 

We also need to play our part by ensuring that we continue to deliver high levels of customer satisfaction, including modern buses with the facilities people want such as WI-FI and USB charging points. We need to make sure people see the bus as a legitimate alternative to the car not a downgrade.

Fortunately our industry has an excellent base on which to build and it is heartening to see so much of what we deliver aligning with what will be political priorities for years to come. I don’t think I am going out on a limb to say the days of bus policy being an afterthought or a nice to have are over. We hold the key to improving air quality across our towns and cities, to helping people out of cars and onto cleaner greener modes of transport and we continue to ensure millions of people get to work, education or connect with family and friends each day. We must not squander the opportunity that we have been presented with to transform how the bus is viewed and used across our country and I hope the Government doesn’t either.