Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Buses: the overlooked option

Certain stories tend to follow a familiar pattern. Take the yearly hike in rail fares. Yet another ticket price increase just above, or way above, inflation is announced. Government trots out the usual reasons: necessary to pay for upgrades, expanding existing fleet, cope with passenger numbers. Rail bosses corroborate this line, whilst feeling pretty chuffed at the thought of another bumper bonus on its way. Rail passenger groups respond in kind, expressing outrage: travellers being priced off the network, particularly during a severe economic downturn. BBC selects weary commuter from a busy train station in London who gives a shrug of the shoulders and probably wants to say: “same *insert a word of your choosing,* different day.”

In fact, they could all save themselves a lot of time by simply copying and pasting this story from previous years. Labour’s policy review has vowed to look again at the current structure with all options on the table, although all those hoping for renationalisation will be sorely disappointed.
It’s time to accept that the cost of rail travel will never be a priority for any party. Certainly not an election issue at any rate.

Instead we should put our energies into public transport’s less glamorous and overlooked constituent: buses. Greener Journeys is a campaign group which is working towards getting more people out of their cars and onto buses. Set up in 2009, and backed by a number of prominent bus companies, it aims to demonstrate the wider economic benefits of bus travel.
Their website reveals that over two-thirds of journeys on public transport are made on the bus. This results in about 5 billion bus journeys a year in Great Britain. Bus commuters contribute some £45 billion of economic output. One in five full time workers and 30% part time workers are frequent bus users. For 11% of workers, buses are an essential part of their lives. Without them they’d be forced to find work elsewhere. Crucially, over two-thirds of Jobseekers Allowance claimants either don’t own a car or cannot drive.

Back in March, Greener Journeys and The Daily Telegraph joined forces and co-hosted a debate looking into how investing in the bus network can help mobilise the UK workforce and economy. This came ahead of a report, “Buses and Economic Growth,” due to be published next month, commissioned by Greener Journeys, and carried out by the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.
One of the speakers at the debate, Gillian Merron, chair of Bus Users UK, says that buses represent great value for money:

“The very reason to invest in buses is because you get such a tremendous return. For a relatively low investment, you can make a huge change. A bus network doesn’t need five to seven years to get the project off the ground – they’re ready to roll out capacity immediately to get people to work, to the shops.”  
With 40% of trips to the high street made by bus, they can play a vital role in rejuvenating our struggling town centres.

Naturally, buses aren’t immune from the spending cuts. There will be a 20% drop in the Bus Service Operators’ Grant and £54m lost used to compensate bus companies for those benefiting from concessionary fares. In evidence given to the Transport Select Committee, unions expressed their concern that cuts would have a disproportionate effect on the unemployed and cited the then Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, who once commented that:
"Social mobility and, in particular, moving people off welfare and into work, often depends on transport infrastructure. If people on isolated and deprived estates cannot get a bus or a train to the nearest city or town, they may be stranded without work and without hope."

Disabled people are also likely to be badly affected with 60% not having access to a car and using buses 20% more frequently than non disabled people.
Whilst rising train fares hog the headlines on a yearly basis, spare a thought for those bus users. It is great to see a concerted campaign under way aimed at increasing usage. And yet I return to my earlier comment on priorities. Public transport will always cede ground to the economy, health, education and crime. If investing in the rail network and widening capacity means stiffer fares, we can surely expect the same thing to happen on buses. But first this requires someone to believe they are worth investing in in the first place.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 21st August 2012

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