Is bus regulation the solution?

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There have been a number of calls for bus regulation recently. It does bring benefits in a number of areas. However, it isn’t a panacea and I just wanted to explain some of the concerns that I have with regards to regulation and the transition to it from the current model.

The reason for the debate is bus deregulation that occurred in the UK outside of London in the mid eighties. Various mergers and acquisitions have created a number of large groups that dominate the bus industry. Although measures have been in place to introduce a regulated bus services environment since the early noughties, the barriers for introduction have been so high that councils have had difficulties introducing any of them. Recent attempts have been met with threats of legal action from bus operators who face substantial decimation of established networks that they have acquired, invested and operate in urban areas without compensation. Brian Souter threatened to close their north east bus network when theatened with Quality Contracts and First Group pushed substantial resources against NGT in Leeds. 

I’m fairly ambivalent on regulation. My biggest concern is time and effort spent trying to achieve it could be better spent elsewhere. Councils and bus operators locked in disputes over the introduction of regulation means that efforts towards more progressive developments that help travellers such as bus priority, smart ticketing and better bus schemes are hindered.

The biggest issue facing buses is congestion. Whilst, buses appear to dominate our city centres (people seem to ignore all of the delivery vehicles, taxis and private cars), they are expected to share the majority of their route with general traffic. Councils offer sparing support on bus priority measures, focused on the flow of metal boxes through junctions rather than people. Councils have substantial control over the allocation of road space and fail to prioritise buses in some of the most congested parts of their road networks. Existing bus priority measures have been focused on some of the easiest areas where roads are wide or in city centres where driving a car is limited by the lack of parking. This isn’t completely their fault. The current regulations set by national government and political expediency leave us in this state. Some motorists claim to be the victim, whilst driving straight through virtually anywhere they want with little hindrance.

In three decades of bus deregulation, the bus industry has continued to operate a vital part of the public transport network. They have invested, investigated new routes and operated a network without bus subsidy for over 80% of services. There is no on/off switch for bus services decided by a central body, with other bus operators able to explore and operate new bus routes if a bus operator decides to not operate a route. Councils can also subsidise certain routes that have not been deemed by bus operators to be commercially viable.

If councils begin regulating, I worry about the network and its robustness. Will politics begin to play a part in bus service provision? Will services be withdrawn because nobody can achieve the financial requirements of a regulated service package? Do our councils and transport authorities have the resources, expertise and experience to manage these contracts and step in on a direct management basis if required?

There are frustrations with the current system.

  • Information that could support more bus use is not released (such as fares data)
  • Decisions to integrate cannot be facilitated without third party involvement, so poor ticketing models are established
  • If evening services are operated by another operator, tickets are not transferable. It really is tragic in a number of cases.

Integration between public transport modes can be facilitated by councils today. Poor road layouts and congestion don’t offer the incentive to serve interchanges. If the bus stops are not in the right location, then people will not interchange. All of this is decided by local transport authorities and councils, not bus operators. In addition, care should be take to avoid funneling people on to other forms of transport that are already operating at capacity. I stopped using the train between New Pudsey and Leeds because of overcrowding and now use the bus. I also have heard anecdotally that people from Garforth are driving to Temple Green Park and Ride rather than use the existing train because of better service frequency and the ability to get a seat. It would not be logical to operate lots of bus services to New Pudsey railway station with the intention of people getting on the train to Leeds.

The quickest implementation model to improve bus services is bus partnerships. Everyone needs to get involved and set clear targets. A united, clear view moving forward. If it fails, then the work and evidence is in place for regulation.

Perhaps the government may also want to look at the model for charging road usage and how councils and bus operators could share the benefits of capital investment. Allocating some receipts from local bus operators to councils could help close the loop on investment that councils make into bus services.

The drum needs to be banged for better bus services. Even in the era of autonomous vehicles, these space efficient vehicles will be essential for moving people around our cities.

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