A future for bus services?

The LGA has commissioned new research on the future of public transport after COVID-19.

No one saw the coronavirus pandemic coming, or could have predicted the momentous changes it may bring to everyday life.

We are learning to live without trips to the office, less frequent shopping expeditions, and new ways of getting about. For many of us, this feels like chaos, and we have struggled to know how to plan for the future.

The UK’s public transport system was already moving towards crisis, however, even before the pandemic struck. We were seeing the impact of more flexible working hours, more people working part-time, the ‘gig economy’, and zero-hours contracts.  

The weekday peak hour was no longer the gold standard for planning transport provision – and the bus industry was facing up to passenger numbers that had (at best) plateaued since the 1980s and were down one-third since 1970.

For councils, it is their local bus services that probably provide the most important contribution to public transport, as rail is generally used for longer-distance journeys.  

The decline in bus passengers, therefore, means that more local residents have been forced to depend on the private car for their travel needs, whether they like it or not – and councils have been increasingly constrained by both the availability of staff and finance to tackle the problem.  

We know from talking to LGA members that expectations for public transport always exceed the availability of resources to deliver them. Securing local bus services needs consistent revenue funding, but these are the budgets that are most pressured.  

Funding fluctuations and absence of long-term political support make delivery inconsistent over the longer term, compounded by the loss of experienced local authority staff.  

Some councils have good working relationships with operators, but this can be inconsistent, even between neighbouring authorities.  

Greening the bus fleet is challenging given the scale of capital expenditure required, even though cleaner fuels can ultimately help to reduce operating costs. 

There is a large volume of data available to assist the planning process, but no consistent approaches to analysing it, compounded by general resource shortages.

Bus services are fragile. Throughout the past decade, many services have been precariously balanced on thin profit margins, where any increase in costs would tip them into unviability. This at a time when demands for increased quality, expensive low-carbon technologies, and falling average speeds have been leading inexorably to higher operating costs.

However, local authorities have an opportunity to engage more productively with the transport industry, and work together to deliver on ambitions for simple, frequent services that are integrated with each other and other modes of transport, and tailored to the needs of travel in the 2020s.  

Councils may now have more need to exercise powers such as ‘Enhanced Partnerships’ with operators, but will need consistent political support and appropriate resourcing to deliver those ambitions. 

Finding reliable, consistent sources of funding will be critical – whether that is through central government support or by local initiatives, such as the successful workplace parking levy in Nottingham. Regional cooperation may help to take forward some of these ambitions.  

Central government will also need to play a role, perhaps stimulating the purchase of zero-emission buses through reimagined and consistent green bus funding – helping operators achieve lower operating costs, protecting routes, and boosting demand for new bus manufacture.

Author

See www.local.gov.uk/topics/transport for SYSTRA’s full report on public transport after COVID-19. The LGA is holding a webinar on 19 January on ‘Rethinking public transport’, to explore what councils have told us and what needs to happen to improve our public transport networks, see www.local.gov.uk/events.

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