Let’s not forget the buses!

There are few good news stories in the world of local authorities. We are all too used to hearing of social services tragedies like Victoria Climbié or housing disasters like the demolition of estates barely a few years old.

But Transport for London has a very interesting tale to tell about buses. In the early days of the Labour government, ministers exhorted us to use our cars less and to get onto public transport. While that battle cry has weakened in recent years since John Prescott went to pastures new, it is still broadly government policy even if ministers are fearful now of setting out any specific targets.

In most of the country, however, usage of the car has continued to increase as a greater proportion of people become more affluent and are able to buy one. But in London, remarkably, that trend has been reversed, with both the number and proportion of car journeys declining. While the congestion charge has attracted all the publicity, the main reason is the improvement in bus services. The bald figures are impressive: 4.7m daily trips on buses, compared with 3.6m in 1999 the year before the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, was elected. But set against the rest of the country, where bus usage has been stable or declined slightly in that period, they are amazing.

The reason is a concerted attempt by TfL to get more people onto buses: New routes, new ticketing systems, information systems, greater reliability, cheaper fares and an investment in new buses, particularly the very popular bendy buses, have all contributed to the increase. Overall, this has meant that public transport has increased its modal share from 32 to 36 per cent, while the proportion by cars and taxis had reduced from 45 to 42 per cent.

That may not sound epoch making but it is important as it does not only go against the trend in the UK, but Europe-wide. A European Commission report on transport in cities found that only six out of 17 increased the public transport modal share between 1991 and 2002.

Unfortunately, buses are one of the least sexy stories in town so TfL’s is little known. Newsdesks are simply not interested in bus stories because, unlike trains, journalists do not, on the whole, use them and they assume their readers do not either. But one of the key interesting points about the London experience is that more affluent people are beginning to hop on a bus.

The trouble with the lack of coverage of this success story is that TfL now needs financial help to continue this improvement in bus services because it has come at a price. Attracting the ABC1s onto buses is not a cheap proposition. They want a comfortable, speedy and reliable service. Otherwise they will stick to their cars, despite the congestion charge. So far, TfL’s budget has been sufficient to meet the costs of the improvements, but a huge financial crisis in 2005/6 is looming when a combination of circumstances – a reduction in grant, a continued improvement in the quantity and quality of services and the renewal of many bus contracts whose price is increasing above the rate of inflation because of the need to compete for drivers in a buoyant labour market – means that there is a shortfall of over ¬£900m in TfL’s budget for that year.

TfL has embarked on a major lobbying campaign for more money for London’s budget, but Gordon Brown is no friend of Livingstone, despite the latter’s re-entry into the Labour party and, in any case, there is no spare cash available in the spending review.

In the meantime, local authorities in the provinces look upon the London bus renaissance with jealousy. When buses were deregulated in 1986, London was left out because of the fear of hundreds of cowboy operators clogging up the city’s streets, as had happened in the 1920s. But outside London, bus services are run on the basis that anyone can operate a service provided they give a few weeks notice. In practice, most areas either have one, or sometimes two, operators. Moreover, services are divided into subsidised routes, paid for by local authorities, and commercial ones which can be run at a profit.

This means that whereas in the past there was an element of cross-subsidisation, now companies cream off the profits leaving councils to pay for the losses. The emphasis on competition in the law means that area wide travelcards are not allowed, nor is the co-ordination of timetables or fare policies between operators. Quality is often poor with, for example, in Manchester, the local main operator, First, cancelling a quarter of subsidised services according to the local Passenger Transport Executive. No wonder bus patronage has gone down 30 per cent since deregulation outside London compared with a rise of 20 per cent in the capital.

‘Quality partnerships’ have been set up in many areas but these are limited to the provision of infrastructure by the local authority in return for investment in new buses or equipment by the operator. In theory, the Transport Act 2000 was supposed to allow councils to franchise out a whole network or a section of it – quality contracts – but in fact the process is so bureaucratic and full of pitfalls that no authority has managed to implement such a system. In particular, quality contracts can only be introduced if that is the only way a council can implement its bus strategy, an almost impossible hurdle. The local authorities are lobbying for a simplification of the quality contract process and a moderation of the ridiculous competition rules. However, buses are so far down the political agenda, even though more people travel on them than trains, that their campaign has so far met with little interest among ministers. The success of London, which shows that people can be attracted onto buses if the right policies are introduced should point the way to some very obvious solutions outside the capital.

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