At the centre of mobility


The 5th Annual UK Bus Summit welcomed over 250 delegates to the QEII Centre in London, last week. The UK Bus Summit is the premier bus event covering all parts of the UK. Held right at the heart of Westminster to elevate the importance of bus at the centre of local and national decision making, the event allows the opportunity to compare and contrast bus policy throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Why buses are central to the future of mobility" was the theme of the second session of the UK Bus Summit. David Fowler reports on this below.

Opening the session, Greener Journeys chief executive Claire Haigh said that Greener Journeys was delighted to be working in partnership with DfT on the Government's loneliness strategy, recognising how many people depended on the bus to keep in contact.

"We are going through a period of unprecedented change," she said. A new industrial revolution was under way; they were long term changes in consumer behaviour and the hollowing out of the high street; scientists said there were just 12 years to get global warming under control.

Meanwhile buses were facing "a perfect storm of challenges" including traffic growth, fuelled by a surge in the number of delivery vehicles; changes in work patterns; the low cost of motoring, with fuel duty frozen again.

The impact on society of a decline in bus services was severe, including an increase in social deprivation and damage to local economies.

"Buses are central to addressing some of the most urgent challenges," she said, including congestion and carbon emissions. Over 5,000 low carbon buses were in operation in the UK, the highest penetration of all vehicle types, and 80% of urban buses sold in the UK were manufactured in the UK. Buses could play a major role in creating a more inclusive society, connecting people to more productive jobs, unlocking new housing and reinvigorating town centres.

Yet bus was the only transport mode for which the government did not have a long-term strategy.

"We need a long-term bus investment strategy to reverse decline and maximise the benefits," she said.

Its key elements should be: protection of bus revenue funding; a step change in investment in local transport to improve connectivity between regions; an increase in bus infrastructure; encouragement of modal shift from the car to more sustainable modes, with support for mobility as a service to reduce car dependency; and demand management measures, because "the only solution to congestion is to make the most effective use of existing road capacity". Ms Haigh added that successive governments, in seeking to avoid antagonising motorists, had ended up penalising bus users. "We invite the Government to work with us on developing a strategy to maximise the role buses can play in creating a fairer, more inclusive society."

Councillor Roger Lawrence, transport portfolio holder for the West Midlands Combined Authority, give the perspective from the West Midlands. Challenges included a growing population (with a high proportion of young people), housing development and economic inclusion. Opportunities included hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games, where he said "We have the responsibility for moving everyone except the athletes –we need to have the infrastructure in place."

Currently Transport for the West Midlands and the bus operators were, among other things, introducing contactless and new payment solutions and investing in infrastructure.

A nine-point strategic vision for bus sought to provide "a world-class integrated, reliable, zero-emission public transport system providing inclusive travel for all across the West Midlands". This would also have excellent customer service and simple payment and ticketing options, allowing people "to make easy and safe door-to-door journeys, by offering innovative transport solutions and decreasing the need for private, single occupancy car journeys."

Transport for London managing director for surface transport Gareth Powell said that buses remained the biggest mover of people in the capital, but their role was changing slowly and surely.

With the introduction of the congestion charge and the start of the Tube upgrade, London focused on expanding bus services. As improvements introduced through the Tube upgrade are come to fruition, there has been a decline in bus patronage in the centre. "We need to respond," he said.

In some places, such as along Kingsway, there was overcapacity. "We need to distribute resources to where they are needed," Mr Powell said. "We're planning to reconfigure services in central London." The current slow decline in passenger numbers would in time be reversed as London's population continues to grow.

Meanwhile the Mayor's Transport Strategy last year had as its flagship policy Healthy Streets, with a new focus on walking and cycling, alongside bus use. The network needed to respond to this, Mr Powell said. "Bus users are much more likely to have 15 minutes of activity a day than car users," he said. Healthy Streets aimed to strike a balance between different functions at any given place, but public transport remained at the heart of it, he added.

Bus services must remain relevant, he said. In general passengers wanted more express services and bus priority, "but in London we can make a big difference by making the traffic flow better." Last year had been the most successful year from this point of view, with traffic signal managers making bus throughput "a primary objective".

David Bradford, managing director of National Express Bus, said the bus had to earn the right to be central to the future of mobility – not to be the next PanAm. It was doing this in the West Midlands through partnership – the West Midlands Bus Alliance.

In the region a 1.5% annual decline in patronage in 2016 had been changed into 1.1% growth in 2018 – the first increase for many years. Travel had become cheaper: 75% of passengers were paying less than a year ago. In 2016 buses were getting 0.7% slower every year, but in 2018 speeds increased by 0.9% faster over the year before. This had been achieved through changes to the network and the location of stops, and signal priority.

The company was "excited about encouraging drivers to be better". It was looking after its staff, treating them will and paying them a living wage. Passenger satisfaction with buses, drivers, value for money and punctuality was increasing.

Reliability was improving, but over 142,000 people were still delayed in the last month and this still needed to be improved. But 7,000 extra passengers weekly were using services in Solihull after the introduction of bus lanes to improve journeys times, and similarly 4,000 extra in Harborne. A combination of premium Platinum bus services and highway upgrades had led to 16% extra passengers on routes such as the Walsall road and service X1.

Passengers were being kept better informed. Sprint rapid transit routes were being introduced, with the Government contributing to the investment. All buses in the region are expected to be Euro VI compliant by the end of 2020 – but fares are still at the same level as 2014.

In surveys 48% of people say contactless payment is encouraging them to travel more, and 52% say the same of m-tickets, with 62% saying they are travelling more for local shopping. 74% of students say they couldn't attend college without their bus pass, and the concession was extended last year to apprentices.

"Buses can be clean and provide opportunities," Mr Powell concluded. "But we need to earn the right to operate on our terms, not Uber's. We need to work in partnership with local authorities to make that happen."