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A national strategy could put buses on the road to a brighter future

Darren Shirley's picture
Girl on bus

Typical isn't it, you wait decades for a new bus policy and then two come along at once.

Well, nearly at once. The Chancellor announced last week that a National Bus Strategy is to be developed, arguably the first strategic steer for bus policy since they were deregulated over 30 years ago.

The new strategy will follow in the still-warm tyre tracks of 2017's Bus Services Act, which gave a small number of local authorities the ability to wrest timetabling and ticketing from the private sector and to issue franchises instead.  

Why the recent interest in buses, then?

While the 2017 act was tied into devolution with cities given more control over their local transport services, there is undoubtedly a personal element to this week's announcement. The Chancellor has keenly positioned himself as a bus driver's son, while the Prime Minister has a history of supporting buses and even confessed to an obscure hobby of making model buses from wine crates.

More importantly, buses find themselves at a crossroads.

While the humble bus remains our most-used form of public transport, responsible for six in every ten public transport journeys, it has suffered long term decline. Passenger numbers have been haemorrhaging for a decade with thousands of services cut or reduced. Both local and national government have reduced their financial support, and average bus fares in England have risen by more than 60 per cent since 2009.

Why does this matter?

Because buses are an essential part of any modern transport network. They are the most flexible form of transport we have, able to go pretty much anywhere and be used by anyone. Good bus services help tackle congestion in cities and stop rural communities being cut off. Modern buses are green, helping cut air pollution and reduce carbon emissions.

When you get services right, people use them. Half the bus journeys in the country are taken in London where services are frequent, tickets affordable and it’s easy to swap between bus and other public transport. In Cornwall, there are initiatives to link bus and rail timetables, make journey times more reliable and cuts fares to attract more passengers.

A National Bus Strategy is needed so more areas can turn their services around.

Buses need investment to make bus travel attractive and convenient for people. Tickets need to be cheaper. A new generation of modal interchanges is required connecting bus networks with other forms of transport. And multi-modal ticketing, contactless payment and integrated journey planning needs to be available everywhere so passengers can plan and make journeys with less effort.

There is also an urgent need to speed up the transition to zero emission buses. Transport is the UK’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and responsible for much of the air pollution in our towns and cities. The Government should set a deadline of 2025 for all new buses to be electric or hydrogen powered. To support this, it should put in place a bus manufacturing sector deal to make the UK a world leader in zero emission buses. The collapse of Wrightbus last month highlights the need for the bus manufacturing sector to be equipped for the future.

A National Bus Strategy with the right fiscal and policy interventions can help the Great British bus on the road to a brighter future.