Buses are more than a utility - they enable improvements across society
PoliticsHome sat down with Gavin Bostock, Head of Public Affairs at Go-Ahead to learn more about their asks from a National Bus Strategy, and how buses can enable inclusive economic growth, tackle social isolation and reduce emissions.
Go-Ahead’s offices are situated in the heart of Westminster. Adorning the lobby wall is a screen showing a live feed of transport statistics, highlighting to all those who pass through the current punctuality of mass transit services across the UK. There is clearly a passion for passenger focussed delivery here that runs right through the business.
“It is good to be part of an organisation with a strong reputation for delivery through local companies with their own identities” Gavin Bostock, Go-Ahead’s Head of Public Affairs, tells PoliticsHome.
“I’ve been with Go-Ahead eight years and it has changed a lot. It has become much more customer focused.”
Go-Ahead is a UK-based public transport company with a growing international footprint.
It has 29,000 employees and an annual turnover of around £3.8bn. In the UK, it has two large rail franchises, Govia Thameslink Railway and Southeastern.
It is also a significant bus operator with 5000 buses in the fleet. In London, Go-Ahead is the largest bus operator for TfL and the company operates both bus and train services internationally.
Go-Ahead sees the services they provide as much more than just getting people from A to B.
“Particularly in recent years, we’ve focussed our communications approach to move away from talking about transport as a utility and instead about how it can be an enabler to improving society,” says Gavin.
According to Go-Ahead’s research, 2.5 million people in the UK are reliant on buses to get to work, a higher number than all other forms of public transport combined and 1 in 10 bus commuters would be forced to look for another job or give up work if they couldn’t commute by bus.
For Go-Ahead, buses are an enabler for inclusive economic growth, tackling social isolation and reducing emissions.
But running bus services in England in 2020 is challenging for any operator. Buses in England outside London have had a 12% reduction in passenger numbers over the last ten years. In London, the decline has been more recent.
Gavin cited the impact of congestion, as well as the decline of the traditional high street and the reduction in young people going out, as contributing factors.
Alongside this, Gavin stated that political culture has played a role in this decline.
“Buses have been overlooked to a certain degree. I think that is changing a bit now, but they have been neglected in the past,” he argues.
“We did some analysis and we found that over a five-year period, in Hansard there were around 3000 mentions of buses and well over 6000 mentions of trains, despite the fact that over 60% of all public transport journeys are by bus.
“We feel that unless action is taken at government level, the situation will continue to be challenging.”
In September 2018, Go-Ahead began proactively calling for a National Bus Strategy. The Government already had key strategies for lots of other modes, including rail, aviation, cycling and walking - but not for buses.
After a year of campaigning, Go-Ahead’s ask was met, when at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, the Chancellor committed to a National Bus Strategy, which Gavin described as ‘a great result’. Javid also announced a £220m investment in buses.
But this is not the end of the process.
Go-Ahead and a National Bus Strategy
Although the Chancellor announced the intention, Go-Ahead has very clear asks about what it expects from the Government’s National Bus Strategy.
Fundamental to this is highlighting the society-wide benefits of bus travel, as it believes a traditional view of bus services within transport policy restrains its potential as an enabler for social good.
“Buses are absolutely vital, in terms of giving people access to social contact that they might not have otherwise,” Gavin adds.
According to industry research, 1 in 3 people deliberately catch a bus to have access to human contact.
Go-Ahead recently ran a “ChattyBus” campaign, to draw attention to the positive role that buses have in tackling loneliness, setting up various situations where passengers were encouraged to have conversations, a cup of tea and even a piano sing-a-long! Designated ambassadors handed out ‘happy to chat’ badges.
“We had good feedback on it from the buses minister and the loneliness minister and we raised the profile that buses have in tackling loneliness.”
To deliver greater benefits, Go-Ahead believes improving the passenger experience is necessary to attract new customers to bus. Technology is already helping the organisation to do this, for example, through offering contactless payment on all its services. In Brighton and Crawley their bus services now offer ‘pay as you go’ travel using ‘tap on, tap off’ technology.
“Things like this are really important for making bus travel attractive to people across society - young people and occasional users in particular,” Bostock stressed.
And greener technology is also central to Go-Ahead’s strategy, with Bostock enthusiastically adding: “Buses are very much part of a solution towards improving air quality and tackling climate change.”
In London, Go-Ahead already has the UKs first all-electric bus garage in Waterloo.
“We have the largest fleet of electric buses in this country, and will have 200 electric vehicles by the end of 2020” he said.
However, Gavin warned that there is a need to provide funding to enable the industry to step up and deliver more electric buses.
“There is a need for more money particularly to accelerate the move towards zero emissions,” he urged.
Go-Ahead calls for the National Bus Strategy to have ambitious targets to be set for both passenger numbers and journey times, needing congestion to be tackled.
“If there is going to be a real change nationally in the way that bus is perceived and recognition of the value it makes for sustainable development and societal well being, there needs to be targets in place. Congestion is the largest contributor to the fall in bus patronage in cities and is 14% worse than five years ago in the UK's largest cities”
Go-Ahead believes any National Bus Strategy must encourage flexible collaborative partnerships between local authorities and operators across the UK.
“The delivery of buses is very much at local level. We want a national framework that can then support local solutions.
“Buses should be at the heart of planning for schools, hospitals, housing and town centres – to enable sustainable development.”
Go-Ahead also sees collaboration with other operators as a significant part of the strategy.
In Oxford, smart ticketing enables customers to use both Go-Ahead and Stagecoach buses.
“We want to see the overall market for buses increase, we don’t want to be fighting over a shrinking cake,” said Gavin.
“The future has got to involve mass transit in some form or other.”
Gavin referenced projections that it would require over 130,000 autonomous six-seater pods to replicate the capacity of London’s 9,000 buses.
“There is a view that in some quarters that it is all going to be about autonomous pods with
3 or 4 people in each one whizzing around the city”, he said.
He added: “When you have a situation where 150,000 people arrive at London Bridge every morning, you see how important and necessary it is to provide mass transit and ensure that we can tackle congestion and move around efficiently.”
“The Prime Minister said recently that you can do anything with a fleet of single decker buses in terms of your ability to provide new transport. With buses, you can enable quick benefits in our cities.”
On January 22nd, Go-Ahead is sponsoring the Campaign for Better Transport’s parliamentary reception to highlight the value of sustainable transport. Parliamentarians are invited to attend, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.