Podium: How we can improve our buses

From a speech by Salford University's reader in geography to the Royal Geographical Society conference
AFTER NEARLY two decades of transport deregulation and privatisation, the Labour Government's 1998 Transport White Paper has put transport integration and re-regulation back on the political agenda. Integrated transport was made the central theme of the Transport White Paper in the context of growing intra- and inter-urban traffic congestion, predicted growth of car traffic (by more than one-third in the next 20 years), continuing decline in deregulated bus patronage, the declining mobility of 13 million people living in the 30 per cent of households that do not own cars, and rising carbon dioxide emissions.

From 1979 to 1997, the Conservative government's triple-track transport policy had deregulated transport services and fares, privatised state and put municipally-owned operators into the transport market.

However, most transport markets were not contested and deregulation often resulted in near-monopoly control of local areas by a single transport company. Deregulation also reduced through-ticketing and interchange between rail and bus. Since 1986, local bus deregulation outside Greater London and bus privatisation have led to a 29 per cent fall in passenger numbers despite a 25 per cent increase in bus mileage, a real increase in bus fares of 22 per cent and a fall in operating costs of more than a third in real terms (mainly through reduced drivers' wages and fewer management and engineering staff), while public subsidy has been cut by more than half.

The new integrated transport policy defines integration in four ways: integration between and within transport modes locally and nationally; integration of transport and land use planning; integration with the environment; integration with education, health and wealth creation policies

However, the White Paper's radical policies are not supported with the substantial increase in public transport capital investment which is needed to improve its quality and quantity sufficiently to attract many current car users to switch modes.

This puts at risk the success of the integrated transport policy which the Deputy Prime Minister said should be judged on whether car usage had declined by 2003. Few car users are likely to switch to public transport or cycling without either substantial prior capital investment in much higher-quality bus and rail systems and cycle networks, or financial incentives.

The White Paper itself was delayed while more radical policies were deleted in fear of a political backlash from car-owning voters. Thus taxing car park spaces at out-of-town leisure and retail sites was omitted, company car benefits were retained, no targets were set for road traffic reduction and traffic speeds were not addressed either by stricter enforcement or lower general speed limits.

Proposals for workplace car parking charges and motorway tolls have been deferred while the decision (and potential backlash) on whether to introduce congestion-charging on urban roads has been given to individual local authorities without any guarantee that they will be able to ring-fence and spend the income raised on transport schemes. Re-regulation of bus fares was not even considered in the White Paper.

Although bus patronage continues to decline, buses are still the main form of public transport in Britain outside Greater London. The challenge is to provide better quality buses, with faster, more reliable journey times sufficiently improved for car users to switch modes for some journeys without either substantial extra public funding of public transport or real disincentives to use cars.

The Government hopes that "Quality Partnerships" can produce better local bus services through voluntary co-operation between local councils which, as highway authorities, own the road space, and the privately-owned bus companies which operate most bus services. The Deputy Prime Minister's view is clear: "The bus must have priority on the road. That will lead to faster, more reliable services which attract more passengers." Some bus companies see Quality Partnerships as good business and good publicity, particularly FirstGroup, Arriva and Stagecoach, which together control 60 per cent of the British bus market.

The Government's Integrated Transport Policy lacks the substantial investment in public transport needed. Government policy therefore relies heavily on the success of low-cost Quality Partnerships. In-depth analysis on a "before and after" basis is needed to measure the extent to which Bus Quality Partnerships can change travel behaviour.