Most informed observers agree that outside London, passenger ridership has fallen by more than can be explained by long-term trends and the increases in fares associated with the removal of subsidies. True, vehicle kilometres have risen, but this is not in itself a virtue; indeed, the drop in the average passenger load per bus is an indicator of wasted capacity.
In the big cities, people's mental map of the bus system has been a victim of perpetual change. A mixture of information failures and timetable and route network instability has eroded public confidence. Though not a spectacular disaster, bus deregulation outside London has been far from a triumph.
Meanwhile, the London regime has been pretty successful. Patronage has risen, load factors have improved and costs per vehicle mile on the tendered routes have fallen by 20 per cent or more in real terms. Stability of services and ticketing arrangements have been maintained. Yet this comparative success is under threat.
The policy implication is clear: we should separate the case for privatisation and competition among operators from the case for planning and control of the network, quality of service, fares and ticketing arrangements. An eclectic approach is called for: privatise the 11 bus companies, extend competitive tendering to all bus operations in London, but preserve the system planning function of London Transport or its successor body. Only then, if the result is demonstrably unsatisfactory, should full deregulation be contemplated.
This proposal, though unappealing to vested interests, has two virtues. It avoids the political, economic and social risks of the big bang approach. And it is quite likely to produce a good social result. Is a victory of pragmatism over ideology too much to hope for?
Deputy Director (Teaching)
Institute for Transport Studies
University of Leeds