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On the Buses

On 15th March 2020, the government published its strategy for buses; Bus Back Better.

On the Buses 1

That prompts 3 questions.

  1. Why do we need a new strategy for our buses?
  2. Who is going to oversee it?
  3. How is it going to be paid for?

What has been happening to bus services?

  • Passenger numbers outside of London are declining.
  • Over the last decade the bus network has shrunk by 8%., or 134 million network miles. See Figure Below.

All of the losses are outside London, which is a beacon of light in an otherwise depressing picture. Metropolitan areas, like greater Manchester have been badly affected and rural areas in Wales, The South West and East Anglia, for example have seen services decimated in some areas. The problem is that private operators have been cutting unprofitable services and cash strapped local authorities have been unable to subsidise those routes.

Declining bus services in England and Wales (Source: BBC)

On the Buses 3

Why do we need bus services?

  • Buses account for 59% of all public transport journeys, and, unlike fixed rail and tram services, they can reach more communities and are flexible enough to respond to changes in patterns of demand.
  • 83% of the population live in urbanised areas and generate around 8 billion commuter journeys annually. Half of those journeys are made by car and one of the reasons for that is that bus services don’t meet the needs of the population. The result is congestion, extended journey times and high levels of atmospheric pollution in our towns and cities. This isn’t sustainable long term, particularly if the urban population continues to grow as is predicted.
  • Public transport is the only option for over 17 million people in the UK. This is particularly true for low income households, see table 1. Importantly, many of our key workers fall into one of the cohorts listed in the table. The key workers we relied upon so much during lockdown, are more likely to live closer to their work, are less likely to be able to work from home and rely on buses, not trains to get them to and from work.
  • In rural areas a decent bus service is a lifeline for those on lower income or without access to a car. Without it, low income families are forced into car ownership they can barely afford.

Percentage of households without a car



People in the lowest 10% income group


Low income council tenants


Private tenants




Asian households


Black households


* The lower figure is for a two-person household *

So why do we need a bus strategy?

Put simply the current (de-regulated) system is not working. The Chief Operating Officer of Abellio, no less, calls it a failed business model. (Centre for Cities event February 2021). In the words of the government’s strategy document:

“Services can be confusing, split between different companies who do not accept each other’s tickets or, in some cases, acknowledge each other’s existence. Traffic congestion has made buses slower, less reliable and costlier to run. Public subsidy has fallen. The industry faces new structural challenges which it cannot meet alone, such as the rise of ride-hailing. Usage in most places keeps falling.”

The public is not getting an adequate service.

  • Fares which have risen year on year above the rate of inflation
  • Old and uncomfortable and draughty buses.
  • Poor and unreliable services.
  • Routes cut or reduced without warning.

And so, we are promised:

“buses (will be) more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper: in other words, more like London’s, where these improvements dramatically increased passenger numbers, reduced congestion, carbon and pollution, helped the disadvantaged and got motorists out of their cars.”

The Issue of Control

Public transport in London is a major success story. What Londoners get is a service:

  • Which is easy to use, with smart ticketing and cashless payment via Oyster card or debit and credit cards.
  • Where different public transport modes are integrated to provide end-to-end services, one ticket one network, at affordable flat rate fares.
  • Where the network has been expanded to reach all suburban areas.
  • Which is centrally controlled and branded by Transport for London (TFL), in other words a fully regulated service provision.

And that is the point It is a fully regulated franchise system under the control of the Mayor for London. It now appears that Greater Manchester is following a similar pathway. It also looks like the large combined authorities, and those which are run by elected mayors will, be allowed to go down the (London) franchise route.

However, for the rest, local authorities in England are being more or less forced into what are called Enhanced Partnerships where they must continue to work together with private operators. Allowing the private operators significant influence in service provision outside of the metropolitan boroughs looks suspiciously like continued deregulation by any other name. The question to ask is whether this model can deliver the brave new world of the National Bus Strategy?

Within a franchise based system that looks to be possible if the success of Transport for London is anything to go by. It shows that strategic planning and management of the networks and oversight of the quality of delivery must be devolved to the mayors of our large cities and leaders of combined authorities, and leaders of our local authorities, who are far better equipped to identify and respond to the needs of their communities, not central government, and certainly not the private operators.

And who is going to pay for it?

As Jonathan Bray from The Urban Transport Group puts it,

“The National Bus Strategy… wants more services serving more places, cheaper and simpler fares, high spec green buses, extensive bus priority lanes everywhere. All of this will not come cheap when the pre-pandemic base case was that subsidy was well below what was needed to stem decline.”

The government have pledged £3 billion to fund the strategy but as yet there are few details of how the funding will roll out.

So, who is going to pay?

Given the impact that years of austerity have had on local authority spending it is cannot be via further cuts to local authority budgets. Neither can we expect the private operators to fund investment. It has to come from central government, which needs to make funds available to those authorities so that we all get the bus service we want and deserve.

Over to you: for discussion

  1. Alan Pilbeam Chief Operating Officer with transport provider Abellio said at a recent Centre for Cities event that he believes the under 25 generation is far more environmentally responsible and would make good use an improved bus service. Is he right?
  2. In your view is the government right to be focussing so heavily on a bus strategy for the 21st century?
  3. How would you describe the quality of your local bus service?
  4. What improvements need to be made to the service, to get you to use the bus more/at all?

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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