Buses – the Key Issue

Simon Norton

Friday, 01 April 2016

One of the most insidious trends of postwar Britain has been the transformation of the car from a toy for rich people to the dominant feature of our environment. This can be seen on main roads with 24 hour traffic noise, on residential streets with wall to wall parking, and in rural areas where the car is increasingly the only practical means of getting around.

While people who have acquired cars have increased their mobility, this has been offset – I would say more than offset – by the drastic decline in the mobility of people who have been left behind, whether because of inability to afford a car, inability to drive, or because they simply don’t like cars. Meanwhile, in an age where stringent health and safety legislation has considerably reduced the adverse impacts of most other human activities, both motorists and non-motorists are still suffering far more than we should from the danger, noise and air pollution caused by traffic, not to mention impacts like traffic congestion.

The key issue is buses, which are the most socially inclusive mode of transport in that they can cater for people whatever their age, wealth or level of fitness, and can provide for journeys both short and long. While, following years of neglect, our railways are at last being treated seriously by all the main political parties, this is of little help to areas that have long lost their rail service (if they ever had one) and where buses have been subject to draconian cuts since the 2010 election, with more to come.

One reason why this seems to have escaped most of the media can be traced back to the Thatcher government’s masterstroke of exempting London from bus deregulation. Since then, bus use has doubled in London while it has halved in most provincial cities, but our London based national media haven’t noticed the latter. Meanwhile, in many rural areas, buses are disappearing as the Government drags our (willing or unwilling) local authorities back to a time when bus services were expected to cover their costs from fares alone.

But social inclusion isn’t the only reason why buses deserve more attention from progressive campaigners. Here are some others – indeed I think the buses issue ticks more boxes than any other.

o Climate Change: The car based transport system, to which buses are the antidote, causes massive levels of CO2 emissions. Cuts to bus services are very short-sighted as the pressure to reduce emissions grows.

o Environment, health and safety: As mentioned above, cars cause air pollution, noise and danger, all with adverse affects on people’s health. (Yes, buses do too, but better one bus than the tens of cars it could replace on the roads.) The danger and unpleasantness of traffic also discourages cycling and walking, again with adverse health effects. Many motorists walk less in a day than the distance a bus user has to walk to get to the nearest bus stop!

o Equality and Human Rights: The degree of discrimination suffered by people without access to cars under our present transport system adds an equalities dimension to the issue. Those with low mobility are a group in most need of good public transport coverage.

o Economic Efficiency: People waste hours sitting in traffic jams and waiting for buses delayed by them. The greater efficiency and lower cost of transporting people by group in buses rather than individually by car is significant.

o Heritage: Buses provide access for people to our extensive urban and rural heritage, both natural and human made. It is well established that people with access to their heritage will care more for its protection.

o Housing: Comprehensive transport provision would expand the areas it is desirable to live in.

Campaigners can start by downloading the recently published report “Building a World Class Bus System for Britain” from the website of independent consultancy Transport for Quality of Life. The prime recommendation of this report is to move bus provision from the present deregulated system, in which private operators are the dominant influence, to the type of procurement prevailing in London, where, as stated above, buses have been far more successful. We all need to urge the powers that be to heed the contents of this report.

We also need to build further on its recommendations. For a start we need short term fixes, providing funding to reverse cuts and roll out improvement packages on a temporary basis until we have permanent financial underpinning; we need representation of bus users on decision making bodies; and we need firm guidelines as to what level of service people should be entitled to expect.

The report has been published in anticipation of the Government’s forthcoming Buses Bill, which is expected to heed the growing calls for devolution by giving local authorities more powers to control local bus services. It should be up to us to press for local authorities to have the funding, expertise and incentives to reverse the cuts of recent years, not only in cities like Manchester and Bristol which seem to be the main targets for devolution, but also in counties like North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Somerset and Devon, whose five national parks, intended for the enjoyment of all, are in practice becoming confined to the car-borne – and this applies to both visitors and local residents.

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