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National Bus Strategy must help repair and improve bus networks post Covid

Norman Baker's picture
Photo: boarding the bus

The man on the Clapham omnibus - that decades old exemplifier of public opinion - is sadly rather hard to find these days. The buses still run to Clapham, and generally run to time, but all too often these are ghost buses, trundling up and down looking for passengers.

We have of course all been advised to stay at home unless we have to travel, which is fine, except that the Government messaging has managed to convey the idea that travelling by bus or train is a uniquely unsafe activity, that the vehicles themselves are conveyors of the virus.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The operators have worked tirelessly to keep their vehicles scrupulously clean, so when restrictions ease, the Government needs not only to give the green light to travel, but to actively encourage people back onto public transport. Without that we are likely to see a big modal shift to the car, and indeed that is already happening.

Does that matter? Well it does if we don’t want gridlock on our roads, if we don’t want more air pollution, if we don’t want an increase in carbon emissions, if we don’t want bus and train services cut – and remember that around a quarter of the population has no access to a car.

The first opportunity to secure that comes this month with the expected publication of the long-awaited National Bus Strategy. We have never had an over-arching strategy for the bus before, so this is a major victory for the Campaign for Better Transport which lobbied relentlessly for this.

The strategy should give some future certainty over funding. It would be sensible to have three or five-year sectoral settlements, as we see for rail and for Highways England. There is also a need to restructure the funding streams, and it would be sensible both to centre the Government’s funding in the Department for Transport and to devolve much more funding to local areas.

Some of this funding needs to go to making it easier for the bus to make good progress through our urban areas, so more bus lanes and priority traffic lights. The Government, which has actually been pretty supportive of the bus industry over the last year, has a duty to make sure that we build back green as we come out of the virus-induced restrictions. It is important the £3 billion set aside by the Government for the bus sector before the virus struck is still intact and that the money spent on supporting services over the last year does not come from this pot. 

In terms of the buses themselves, we need to see a speedy transition to ensure all new buses are zero emission by 2025 – and all buses on the road zero emission by 2035 - and the best way to achieve this would be to create a sort of rolling stock leasing company, or ROSCO, for buses, similar to the way trains are leased to the rail companies with ownership and maintenance retained by the leasing company.

Lastly, and most challenging, the Government has got to stop pandering to the motorist. The Government gives the clear impression of the Department for Transport pointing in one direction while the Treasury points in the other.