Buses are critical urban infrastructure. They not only provide access to jobs for workers without a car, but they offer the mass-transit capacity that make jobs-dense, high-wage city centre economies possible. In so doing they take cars off of the road, and reduce greenhouse gases, nitrogen dioxides and fine particulate matter from tyres and brakes. Bus services link people to friends and family, young people to education, shoppers to high streets and communities to the public services — from GPs’ surgeries to libraries — that they need. And buses allow higher-density housing development to increase the supply of homes in cities without adding to sprawl or congestion, and reduce the amount of land required for car parking.
Buses are in decline in most major cities in the Midlands and North, as they have been since the 1950s. The price and quality of bus services has fallen relative to the car, and more recently rail. The absence of local control and co-ordination of bus services is behind much
London stands out for its bus network that has rapidly grown in quality and ridership in recent decades. Other cities have not had institutions such as Transport for London (TfL) with the powers and incentives to intervene in local bus services to support local residents, businesses and communities.
Deregulation of local bus services everywhere outside London in 1986 failed to reverse this decline and broke the link between cities and their bus services. This break has hampered the development of long-term pro-bus policies, such as bus priority schemes and funding support in most cities. It changed the focus from providing a city-wide network to focusing only on running a profitable service. Largely unregulated private monopolies took charge of critical urban infrastructure, and made fully-integrated public transport harder to provide.
The Bus Services Act 2017 provides metro mayors with the powers to fix these problems. Mayors can now franchise bus services, setting out routes, fares, frequencies and quality standards in a similar way that London’s mayors have since 2000. They can also introduce Enhanced Partnership Schemes (EPS) to work with operators more closely to improve bus services.
With a self-declared ‘bus fanatic’ as Prime Minister,1 and support across all major parties, mayors have the chance to take advantage of the Bus Services Act. To support the growth in jobs and wages outside London, improve air quality and protect the planet, government and metro mayors should set an ambition to increase bus journeys in major cities from 1 billion to 2 billion journeys per year.
To achieve this:
- Every metro mayor should take up the powers in the Bus Services Act to franchise buses now.
- Government should provide a £50 million fund for metro mayors to prepare the assessment for franchising. This equates to just £4.50 per person in these cities, around the cost of a single day’s bus travel in every metro mayor area.
- All cities should be given the power to franchise bus services, not just metro mayors.