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Queen's Speech: Don't be distracted by driverless cars

Andrew Allen's picture

It's buses - not self-driving cars - that are the big transport story from the Queen's Speech

While plans for autonomous cars are catching the headlines, it is the Buses Bill which has the most immediate potential to improve day-to-day transport. Trailed in the last Queen's Speech, the Bus Services Bill is critical to Government's devolution commitments for transport in England. Coming 30 years after buses were de-regulated outside London, the Bill will give areas with devo deals (and possibly some other places, too) new franchising and partnerships powers to plan and manage bus services. This will be matched by an open data commitment which will mean information on routes, fares and times being available. The idea is that this will allow planning and promotion of coherent services for large populations and complex networks together with simpler multi-operator and multi-modal fares.

While these powers have great potential for passengers, they remains controversial to some in the bus industry. Government will therefore have to get its skates on if the legislation is to be passed before the Mayoral elections slated to take place next May. It is important to note that the new powers will not undo the cuts which have seen so many local authority-supported bus services disappear in the last five years. To really deliver the bus services communities want and need, the Government will need to augment the new Buses Services Bill powers with assurances over sustainable levels of long term funding. 

Compared with what's at stake for buses - transport used by millions everyday - the Modern Transport Bill is small fry. It aims to encourage investment in autonomous vehicles, spaceports and the like. With an eye on Google and Tesla, the Government is planning trials driverless cars and lorries. You can see why this might be attractive, with proponents highlighting more efficient road use, safety benefits, and other gains such as continued independence for older people. But there is a huge distance to go before there is any widespread take up. Technology is taking off in the US, but the British context is different. Our cities are growing and densifying, making public transport which can move large numbers of people in limited space much more applicable. There is also a big difference in our complex inter-urban road networks compared with those of the US. Autonomous travel clearly has massive medium to long-term potential, but there are many problems around safety and responsibility which will need to be overcome first. 

Elsewhere in the Queen's Speech there were a number of other transport related developments. With the Bus Services Bill only applying to England, the Wales Bill could give the Senedd the power to go its own way. There has also been discussion of moving responsibility for the Wales and Borders franchise to Cardiff. With a new franchise due to begin in October 2018, the Assembly is developing a rail strategy based on a 'not for dividend' company. The level of public subsidy the franchise currently receives - and what this might do to the Assembly's overall budget - could send the proposal into the sidings for the time being at least. 

There is also the promise of legislation to put the National Infrastructure Commission on a statutory footing. Here, question marks remain over the narrow economic remit the body has so far followed, and whether this means it might just create a permanent infrastructure shopping list for the Treasury to swoon over. To address this, the Commission needs to focus on more than just maximising GDP, and instead take in public health, climate change and other environmental factors. There are signs that the Government may be heeding such demands.

Finally, the HS2 Hybrid Bill was carried over for a second time. Having completed its path through the Commons, the Bill is now in the House of Lords. We continue to urge that it be amended to set out effective integration of the new line with the existing rail network, and ensuring it leads to a reduction in carbon emissions from transport including an increase in freight being transported on rail. Sadiq Khan's suggestion that Euston might not be the best place for the London terminal highlights that there is a lot still to play for.

So, while some MPs have complained of a thin legislative programme for the coming year, there is a lot to play for in transport. It is important we keep our eyes firmly on the real priorities. Talk of autonomous vehicles and spaceports are all well and good, but most people would prefer to see their everyday transport sorted out first. The Bus Services Bill looks like a step in the right direction.

 

Image by Robin Byles via Flickr.

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