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Can Cambridgeshire save its buses?

Former campaigner's picture

From urban congestion to rural non-existence, the problems faced by Cambridgeshire’s bus users are manifold. Can the Mayor’s review improve services and get more people on board?

When he was elected last year, James Palmer, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, probably didn’t anticipate spending much time thinking about buses. Indeed, while his ambitious plans for his first 100 days in office were full of transport projects, buses did not feature prominently in any of them. 

It is easy to understand why. Growing up in rural Cambridgeshire, the Mayor’s experience of the quality and frequency of bus services might not have placed them near the top of his ‘to do’ list. But just six months after taking office, the Major had commissioned a full-scale review of all bus services in the county with a radical shake-up conceivably on the cards. What has changed? 

First, years of cuts mean have left parts of the county with barely a skeletal service. Recent Campaign for Better Transport research looking at Ramsey in the north west of Cambridgeshire revealed a town lacking not just evening and weekend services but even morning commuter ones to important destinations. Similarly, in July the Mayor was forced to step in with emergency funding to prevent a service used by secondary school children being withdrawn.

Second, Palmer is under major pressure to sort out road congestion in Cambridge – a nationally important centre economically. The city is infamous for road congestion, something which makes its bus services unreliable – hitting patronage. Some also claim that Cambridge’s historic centre with its narrow streets is just not suitable for buses and they make the congestion worse. Palmer’s favoured solution is a new metro network taking in the city and its hinterland including an underground section for the city centre. The Mayor sees the metro not just as a way to relieve congestion in and around Cambridge, but as a way of recasting the role of buses as feeder services for fast rail and metro services

Third, the Mayor can now do something to improve buses. Curtesy of the Bus Services Act, he has new powers to establish a partnership with the operator or even impose franchising. From April, the Combined Authority will take over responsibility for buses from the county council.

So, what should the review of bus services be proposing? We are calling for action in three areas:

  • Buses must not be seen in isolation - Better coordination with other public transport including any new metro system, the rail network and community transport is essential. That will require a new network with interchanges and joined up timetables. Public transport also needs to be planned into new development from the start. New towns like Cambourne and the fast-growing Cambridge Biomedical Campus area are being built with far too little thought about how people will access them
  • Better ticketing - Cambridgeshire needs multi-modal ticketing. Basing this on a zonal fares system could offer a coherent, understandable and marketable pricing structure to replace the current mish-mash. Not only has this worked well in London and the German Landers, but the Malmo-Copenhagen region of Denmark and Southern Sweden shows how zonal fares can be successfully implemented across different countries – surely we can manage it in Cambridgeshire
  • Spend smart - The local authority is not the only one spending money on transport. For example, in Cambridgeshire the Clinical Commissioning Group’s spending on patient transport is double the local authority’s buses budget.  Using the Total Transport approach, the money going into public transport can be pooled to deliver the best outcome for all. 

These will be the key questions for the buses review – does the Combined Authority let things drift, prop up a 'safety net' transport system for the young, the old and people on the margins are currently most reliant on buses, or do they reinvigorate the bus as part of a modern transport network which cuts pollution and congestion and is affordable and accessible to everyone? 

The Combined Authority’s strategic review of Cambridgeshire’s bus services in ongoing. Significant changes to the existing system will need to form part of a new Local Transport Plan for the county, due to be signed off in February 2019. 

Image by Matthew Lock via Flickr.