Baroness Randerson: We urgently need to reinvigorate our bus network
The bus network must be modernised, to be environmentally friendly, passenger friendly and fully integrated with other forms of transport, says Baroness Randerson.
I asked the Government how they intend to encourage us to use the buses.
Recent years have seen a steep decline in the number of bus journeys: over 3,300 supported bus services have been withdrawn across England and Wales since 2010. 65% of local authorities no longer provide free transport for 16-18 year olds and 80% have reduced funding for school and college transport.
The result of this decline is disconnected communities. Many rural areas have no bus services at all so those communities wither and die.
Social isolation grows for people without cars and the cost of living goes up for those people forced to use a car rather than the bus.
The most far reaching impact is the increase in congestion in urban areas, increased emissions and damage to our environment.
Despite this, buses remain very popular, with 60% of public transport journeys made by bus, although half of all bus journeys are made in London.
Passengers tend to be from the groups most in need of support- the young, older people and the poorest.
Yet the Government's approach to funding for bus services is out of date and, despite a recent promise of an injection of additional funding, there has been an overall decline in government spend on buses.
Funding to local authorities is funnelled via four different routes and it is self-evident that they are not working as planned.
We need a National Bus Strategy so the Government stops firing off small scale new initiatives which do not deal with the crux of the problem.
As part of this we need a wholesale review of bus funding to ensure it fits the needs and objectives of the strategy. Two big priorities stand out.
Firstly the need to renew bus fleets so that they become zero emission, and secondly fares must be reduced.
In England bus fares increased by more than 60% in the last decade, much faster than the cost of motoring (35%) and wages (23%). The popularity of concessionary fares for older and disabled people shows that cost is a vital factor. However the Government does not properly reimburse operators who get approximately 50-65% of the true costs of each journey. Local authorities also have to shoulder part of this funding gap. This urgently needs to be addressed, along with concessionary fares for young people, who often rely on buses to get to school, college or work.
We increasingly see electric buses on our streets but at the present rate of progress it will be a decade or more before there is anything like a wholesale change, so the rate of replacement must be faster.
We need integrated ticketing, and timetable information on apps.
Facilities for disabled people must improve: we all think of wheelchair access but oral and visual announcements are also vital.
Put simply, the bus industry must make it all much simpler for us.
There are some big companies with the resources to lead this revolution but there are many small bus companies and they simply cannot manage these changes without government taking a stronger lead.
I welcomed the additional powers that local authorities were given in the Bus Services Act, although it didn’t go far enough.
The truth is that unbridled competition hasn’t worked and we urgently need to reinvigorate our bus network. It must be modernised, to be environmentally friendly, passenger friendly and fully integrated with other forms of transport.
The Government agonises over the huge costs of rail modernisation and that work will take decades, but we can modernise our bus network in a couple of years with a fraction of the costs of rail, and at a stroke it will cut congestion on our roads.
Baroness Randerson is a Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson in the House of Lords.