Congestion remains key concern for bus services

Progress of the Bus Services Bill has been slower than expected, but the Government is committed to it becoming law before the mayoral elections in May, bus minister Andrew Jones told the third UK Bus Summit today.

But the Government would seek to overturn amendments made in the House of Lords, particularly to allow all local authorities to adopt franchising. "We will be working hard to return the bill largely to its original form," he said.

He added that the Government believed that for franchising to be introduced, an elected mayor was essential to provide accountability.

Elsewhere, the Transport Secretary's approval would be needed and this would be given only where the local authority had a clear plan to show how franchising would benefit customers, Mr Jones said.

He added that the Government wanted to work closely with the industry in framing secondary legislation and regulations under the bill when it becomes law. "industry views matter enormously. We want it to be a practical bill," he said.

London deputy mayor for transport Val Shawcross said that buses were a flexible way to provide services and to increase the economic viability of regeneration areas. "To play its role the bus has to continuously adapt," she said.

There had been some decline in demand in central London but TfL attributed this to more people choosing the Underground as upgrades took effect. TfL would reallocate capacity to areas of housing growth such as London Gateway.

A network recovery plan would focus on journey times. New bus priority measures would be introduced on corridors with the highest patronage, and 10 clean bus corridors would be created outside the low emission zone.

Buses would be improved with better heating and ventilation and Wi-Fi. When the Elizabeth Line opened there would be more opportunity to redistribute resources but TfL was committed to maintaining the same level of mileage operated.

Humza Yousaf, minister for transport and the Islands in the Scottish government, said that a Scottish Transport Bill would shortly be introduced, of which the most substantial part would be on buses. It would be looking at ways of reducing congestion and cutting boarding times. Scotland was not in favour of re-regulation, believing partnership was more effective. It would also consider franchising and would adopt elements of the Bus Services Bill if it thought them appropriate.

Stagecoach chief executive Martin Griffiths had sounded the alarm about congestion at last year's summit. He said that "a year later, we're no further forward. Will we be here next year and not have done anything about it?" The combination of congestion and disruptive technology such as Uber meant conditions facing the bus industry were "more challenging than they've been for a long time."

Neill Birch of Systra pointed out that despite success in increasing passenger numbers in areas such as Bristol, "there is still an underlying decline in patronage. For every Bristol there is somewhere else where services are in a tailspin."

Greener Journeys chief executive Claire Haigh paid tribute to the work of the organisation's research partners, which had helped to establish the economic benefits of bus services and, most recently, societal benefits. For the first time a link had been demonstrated between the availability of bus services and health, wellbeing, the economy and a reduction in social deprivation. "This is not just about cost-benefit analysis," she said. "It's about people's lives and improving the life chances of the worst-off."

Transport Times chief executive Prof David Begg referred to his research report last year that established a link between declining bus speeds and falling patronage. He had set out a five-point plan, but above all he wanted to persuade politicians and transport authorities to set bus speed targets. "Even if the target is just to stop speeds declining further that would be a start," he said.

TfL managing director of surface transport Leon Daniels said that in a world where people were increasingly sharing services rather than owning things, transport was moving towards more personal forms, exemplified by Gett, Uber and so on. "this type of thing is really starting to eat in to the public transport market and is coming at us very quickly," he said. He argued that regulation of services such as Uber was justified because demand for roadspace would be saturated before the market for private hire vehicles was, but regulation struggled to keep up with the changes. Private hire vehicles in London had nearly doubled from 67,000 to 120,000 in recent years.

But he said that the bus played a hugely important part in all aspects of the mayor's agenda – for example with a role in improving air quality.

He said there were grounds for optimisim. "At one time people predicted the end of the cinema. Now it's never been more popular because it adapted and reinvented itself. That's what we have to do, and we have to be in front of the trends."

Arriva chief executive Dr Manfred Rudhart said the industry should not spend too much time on forensically probing the causes of decline. Instead, he said, "we have to understand our passengers much better. We must understand the travel patterns of current passengers and also what not-users want from us. Why are they not using our services?" The old style of "putting buses on a route and people will follow" was outdated. Instead of "double deckers on a fixed timetable" the industry must consider more closely "smaller vehicles, on-demand services and integration of modes".