Buses are the answer - but we need to prove it

Managing Director, First Bus, FirstGroup plc:  Buses are the answer - but we need to prove it

Next week's 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.

This year the focus will be on 'The Future of Mobility', why we need a long term bus investment strategy, air quality and, also how to get passengers on board buses.

FirstBus Managing Director Giles Fearnley will give his take on putting customers at the heart of decision-making and ultimately how to increase patronage.

To hear more about the above, book your place now to attend on the 6th February.

Buses are the answer - but we need to prove it

We all know how important buses are. With nearly 4.5bn bus journeys every year, it is the most commonly used form of public transport.

The problem is, it's the best kept secret. We need to change that.

Buses are vital for our economy. Bus commuters create £64bn worth of goods and services; 3.5m people in the UK travel to work by bus.

Buses are vital for our environment. Operators have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in new Euro VI buses, which generate emissions that are ten times lower per passenger than Euro 6 cars. A full double decker bus can take up to 75 cars off the road.

And buses are vital for social cohesion. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the UK is at risk of social exclusion and almost 1 in 4 households lacks access to a car. Studies have shown that a 10% improvement in local bus connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in deprivation.

Yet buses serve a wide cross section of society - 42% of users are from middle or higher income households. Compare that with figures from YouGov last month that four in ten Brits didn't take a single train journey in the last 12 months.

Buses have a role to play in improving air quality, in supporting our high streets, in tackling isolation and even addressing obesity as part of active travel plans. All of these are areas of domestic policy which the Government – when it isn't focused on Brexit – have prioritised.

Yet if you look at the Government's industrial strategy, its loneliness strategy, or the latest Clean Air strategy, buses are largely absent.

This is madness. We need to help our policy makers and politicians help themselves, by lifting our game and looking outward as a sector.

That's what's behind some of the changes that we'll see at CPT in coming weeks and months. But it's also a recognition that the time is ripe – if not long overdue – to call for a national bus strategy from DfT which integrates with other Governmental priorities.

We know we have an ally for this goal in bus minister Nusrat Ghani MP who thinks the time for this has come. Also, we have the opportunity to frame the need for a strategy in the context of the expected Treasury Spending Review later this year.

This strategy must address the key opportunities and challenges we face. How buses can play a central role in providing mass transit in our towns and city regions. How we safeguard the transport needs of hard to serve rural communities. How we deliver the crucial transition from diesel to zero-emission buses in our main urban areas.

Whilst we need central Government backing, direction and funding to solve these national issues, a begging bowl approach simply won't do.

If we say we should be a serious player in these policy conversations, we need to be equally clear what we can bring to the table.

This means a commitment that we will continue to invest in, develop and build new technology – to deliver modern low emission vehicles with a move to zero emissions; and to facilitate better customer service.

I'm proud that First Bus has led the way here by being the first national operator to offer contactless payment for customers across our entire business.

We also need to think seriously about how we can commit to sharing the benefits that flow from investment between passengers, communities and investors. Amongst other things, this means working with our partners in local government to ensure communities stay connected.

And we must maintain our campaign against congestion. For too long, a sterile debate about structures has obscured a key point: regardless of who owns and runs buses, you can't operate a decent service if buses aren't prioritised on our blocked-up roads.

2019 could be a big year for our sector. Whilst I look forward to the summit next week, I hope next year's event will be discussing a new Government strategy for buses.