We need an urgent green bus revolution if bus services are to survive after Covid-19
The pandemic can be used to create greener and healthier travel patterns, if the government shows vision and invests wisely, writes Baroness Randerson. | PA Images
Bus services have been given scant attention during the pandemic. We must use this opportunity to invest in green infrastructure and give powers to local government to design bus networks around our new travel patterns.
The transport industries were the among the first to feel the full economic impact of the virus and will be likely to be the last to recover.
There have been many headlines about trains and planes but remarkably little about buses. The government has picked up the pieces for our railways, providing over £ 3.5 billion of additional funding and using the opportunity of the pandemic to introduce sweeping reorganisation.
In contrast bus services have been given scant attention, despite being far and away the most popular form of public transport.
At the start of the pandemic the government came up with some useful but pretty haphazard interventions to help the bus industry, which outside London, works on a commercial model, supported by local authorities, when they have the commitment and the money to do so.
The government instructed local authorities to provide two strands of continued funding to help tide the bus industry over the crisis. Concessionary fare payments to bus companies were to continue at pre pandemic levels, despite a steep decline in passenger numbers. They also maintained funding for home to school transport while most schools were closed. The government itself has continued to pay the Bus Service Operators Grant and has given two tranches of emergency funding.
All this has kept buses on the roads, but it simply highlights that the commercial model for bus services is failing and needs dramatic transformation if bus services are to survive. Subsidies no longer reflect the number of journeys, with no incentive for investment in green technologies.
If the government fails to take a strategic approach and allows the bus industry to settle back into the old ways of providing services, it will be a continued story of decline
In the early days of the pandemic all government efforts were welcome, but it is time to respond with a more coherent strategy and I asked the Minister about this in the Lords this week.
While traffic levels on our roads have crept back up to previous levels of congestion, buses and trains run at less than half the usual occupancy rates. Public transport is now wholly dependent on subsidies from both central and local government, and this is a crucial opportunity to step in to transform the way the bus network is run and to change our travel patterns.
There is a saying, “never waste a crisis”. The pandemic can be used to create greener and healthier travel patterns, if the government shows vision and invests wisely.
There are already signs of change to our behaviour. Home working, more walking and cycling are established trends, but government needs to support and develop them with investment in green infrastructure and incentives for the decarbonisation of the bus industry.
Investment in buses brings rapid payback, whereas rail investment often takes a decade to mature.
Central government needs to give powers to local government to design bus networks around the new travel patterns, and to work with neighbours on modern integrated ticketing systems, with demand responsive options for rural areas. This will create modern, environmentally friendly bus services which are an attractive option for travellers.
If the government fails to take a strategic approach and allows the bus industry to settle back into the old ways of providing services, it will be a continued story of decline. It will mean lost opportunities to improve social equality, and inter-generational fairness and to maximise environmental opportunities.
My message to the minister is that we need a green bus revolution and we need it now. Seize the moment.
Baroness Randerson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.