Buses: Lessons from across the UK


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.

David Fowler reports on the first session below

Last week industry leaders came together for the fifth UK Bus Summit. In five years the annual conference has established itself a key date in the bus industry calendar.

Laura Murdoch, Transport Scotland director for bus, accessibility and active travel – a newly established role - gave an overview of current Scottish Government policies and legislation affecting buses.

The review of the Scottish National Transport Strategy was in progress and would update Scotland's 20-year vision. Although not mode-specific it was clear "buses will be at its heart", she said.

The Transport (Scotland) Bill was currently going through parliament and had the underlying aim of making public transport more attractive as well as making provisions for creating low emission zones.

For air quality Scotland had set ambitious targets for reducing emissions. Glasgow's clean air zone was introduced last December. The Scottish government was providing funding to help bus operators upgrade their buses. It also supported smart ticketing as a way of making buses more readily accessible, and a £1.1m fund to support smaller bus operators in accepting contactless bank payments was launched last November.

Mobility as a Service had the potential to transform how people use both public and private transport. "That's a very live conversation right now," she said.

Though she was still in "listening mode" after around five months in the post, her initial reflections were that "a lot is going on right now and impacting on buses", and "we stand still at our peril". In addition to government initiatives on low emission zones, active travel and place making, she was actively considering the question of "whether central government could encourage local authorities to be more ambitious" in these areas.

She was excited about the opportunities data offers for buses, because it would add to the evidence base. "As well as challenges, there are opportunities," she concluded.

Ciaran de Burca, director of the transport projects and business services division of the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure described the introduction of Belfast Rapid Transit.

He said that only 5-6% of journeys in Northern Ireland were made by public transport and the Northern Ireland executive was trying to address this.

The department's aims under the Programme for Government were to increase sustainability and connect people to opportunities. The BRT scheme was a flagship project.

The £90m project was seen as transformational for Belfast. It is operated by Translink under the brand name Glider.

Phase one connects East Belfast including the Ulster Hospital and Stormont, west Belfast and the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Titanic Quarter, with a city centre. The buses, built by Van Hool, are the first of their type in Northern Ireland, are tram-like in appearance, with hybrid power, space for wheelchairs and buggies, a variety of types on seating, audio-visual information and free wi-fi.

Stops, or "halts", are designed to have a high-quality "platform" feel, with large shelters, real time information and ticket machines and validators. They are around 400m apart, making for 30% fewer stops than a conventional bus service.

The scheme was intended to catalyse local regeneration and has benefitted local communities along the route with resurfaced roads and footways, LED street lighting, improved crossing facilities and a better streetscape generally. It improves connectivity including across the city centre and connects previously poorly connected areas. The service operates at 7-8 minute intervals during the working day and benefits from "a huge amount of bus lanes" operating from 7am to 7pm.

The service has attracted 33,000 additional passenger journeys weekly (a 20% increase). This is the level predicted after 10 years of operation. There is increased patronage by older and disabled people. Journey time reliability and punctuality has improved. There has been a 40% improvement in fuel efficiency compared with the Metro buses the service replaced and it is hoped funding will be found to extend the scheme to north and south Belfast.

Go-Ahead group chief executive David Brown said the Bus Summit brought together all sides of the industry with a common desire to see bus use increase.

But the value of the bus was not embraced by everyone. There had been a 46% cut in local authority supported services, leaving whole areas without connections. New developments were often approved with no bus links, leaving them cut off from nearby towns. The Government's High Streets Task Force had recommended cheaper car parking as a way to help to reverse the decline of town centres, ignoring the effect on congestion.

The industry had plenty of innovative ideas. Go-Ahead last year launched the PickMeUp on-demand service in Oxford on the basis of research among customers and businesses. It had attracted more than the expected number of passenger, but was some way from being profitable, he said.

Mr Brown urged the industry needed to take any opportunity to show how buses could address problems of society, such as air quality, congestion, and declining high streets. The industry should engage with city centre managers, designers of smart cities and the like. "A strong society is built on relationships. Communities will suffer if they have no heart," he said. Isolated suburbs were not the foundation of a good society.

Buses could also help to improve public health. They helped to support active travel, because the first and last mile of a bus journey was more likely to be walked. The industry should "seize the moment and engage with other interest groups. There is an opportunity to reduce car dependency and promote the bus."

He added: "the more we engage with communities the more opportunities to demonstrate social value will emerge."