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Off the buses

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LGC’s essential daily briefing. 

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The further reaches of Freeview still sometimes yield a repeat of Reg Varney’s inexplicably popular 1970s sitcom On the Buses.

Bus use was widespread when Mr Varney’s driver character strove to outwit his inspectors.

Nowadays it is more like ‘off the buses’, except in London which, according to this month’s Department for Transport bus use figures, accounted for just over half of all England’s bus journeys in the final quarter of 2016 – at 558 million out of 1.13 billion.

London’s regulated system sees competition occur off the road. Transport for London puts groups of routes to tender and chooses an operator to run services.

Competition elsewhere has, since 1985, taken place on the road. Private operators may run any service they please, while councils can subsidise routes judged socially necessary – for example to villages or outlying suburbs – but not deemed commercially viable by bus companies.

Surveys this month from the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers (ATCO) and the Campaign for Better Transport showed councils’ ability to subsidise bus services are in serious decline.

ATCO found 36% of top tier councils had cut bus subsidies in the past year, leaving many holders of free bus passes with no buses on which to travel. It also found, on average, a 2.3% increase in spending would be needed in 2017-18 to maintain the current service levels.

Meanwhile, councils face much greater difficulty in controlling the costs of home to school transport for pupils who live beyond walking distance of their school, or who have special educational needs.

Complaints from parents about councils cutting these services have increased sufficiently fast to prompt the Local Government Ombudsman to publish a report on how to manage the process.

It cited as the main issues opaque changes to policies, misapplied procedures for considering applications and appeals, and treatment of children not of compulsory school age but with special educational needs.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services in January estimated school transport costs at some £1bn and called for an end to the duty to provide it other than for special needs.

To make matters worse, fading local authority control over term dates and the locations of free schools and academies can make planning school transport nightmarishly complex. Councils face having to provide transport to schools built according to someone else’s plan, on term dates officers did not fix, and at a cost that means saying ‘no’ to residents who have lost commercial bus services altogether.

The Buses Bill, passing through Parliament, raises the prospect of London-style systems being replicated in mayoral combined authorities wanting to take on franchising responsibilities.

However, a clause preventing individual councils from setting up municipal bus companies was reinserted into the bill this week – although Swindon BC last month sold its bus company in the face of mounting losses, reducing the number of council-owned operators to just 11.

Ongoing budget cuts threaten to leave bus services in the depot at a time when upgrading the country’s transport and infrastructure is a key “pillar” of the government’s industrial strategy to make the country more productive. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Our city and town centres where many people work (and increasingly Academy schools seem to be based in repurposed office buildings) are chock full of traffic, most of it cars with a single occupant, for much of the morning and evening with people trying to get to work and then home again. Flexible working and home working has helped somewhat but are limited by the fact that not all jobs can be done flexibly or from home for valid reasons and many people can't or don't want to work from home, plus many managers refuse home working or flexible working with no valid reason.

    Shops and other 'storefront' businesses would suffer greatly if city and town centres were abandoned due to the drop in passing trade. We really do need a safe, sane and affordable way to get people from their homes to work, school and the shops. We need to get people out of their cars and into mass transit, where a bus takes as much road space as 3 cars (allowing for stopping distances) but carries 30-70 times the number of passengers (even if they only run half full that's a 15-35 fold saving of road space and so reduction in congestion).

    I've seen some efforts to get more people to use buses, trains and tram/light rail to get to work and school but they have tended to be much more stick than carrot with congestion charges, high parking fees, limited parking times and big fines for staying too long or parking in the wrong place. I think this needs to be turned on its head with much more effort being put into improving the frequency, reliability and safety of public mass transit so if a bus is due at 08:00 it arrives at 08:00, not 08:30, and if it arrives at 07:55 then it waits until it's scheduled departure time. If a bus service is supposed to be every 15 minutes then 15 minutes after the last bus a bus arrives. Similarly bus, train and tram/light rail services need to be integrated so that as your train pulls into the station you are greeted by the bus you need to catch to continue your journey, not the view of the bus you need to catch to continue your journey disappearing up the road and a 30 minute wait until the next one, and visa versa. Also it would be very helpful if when someone the worse for drink, drugs or sense of entitlement kicks off on the bus the response was the speedy arrival of a dozen of British Transport Police's finest with batons drawn rather than the driver just turning off the engine and waiting in their armoured cabin for the passengers to deal with it.

    This would require a lot of work to co-ordinate and significant investment, but in the long term failure to act is likely to cost much more.

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