02Policy priority 2: Franchise the bus system

  • Conduct a data-led assessment of bus franchising similar to Greater Manchester’s assessment, in order to convince stakeholders and counter potential opposition from bus operators.

  • Initiate a review of how best to fund bus franchising.

After the election, the mayor should push ahead with a solution to fix the region’s bus network. Buses are a critical form of urban infrastructure but remain under the ownership of private operators, leading to fragmented routes and expensive journeys for the people of South Yorkshire. While there has been a lot of discussion about bus franchising, substantive progress has not yet been made. Only on 4th March 2022 did the mayoral authority approve an assessment of bus franchising in South Yorkshire, a necessary legal first step in the process.

The mayor should continue to pursue bus franchising instead of settling for an Enhanced Partnership approach. Franchising would allow the mayor to coordinate the routes, schedules, and fares of the bus network (and potentially integrate it with that of other public transportation networks, such as tram and train networks) and make it easier to provide real-time information to users of the network, thereby making travel by bus more attractive.

The mayor should take inspiration from the recent court decision that affirmed, in the face of opposition from bus operators, that Greater Manchester carried out its bus-franchising assessment correctly.

In particular, the mayor should follow the data-led approach of Greater Manchester’s bus-franchising assessment. This comprehensive paper includes information on, for instance, the number of passenger journeys on public transport, the changes in the real price of daily and weekly tickets, the profile of the transportation fleet, and operator punctuality. Data will make a stronger case for bus franchising and allow the mayor to optimise what its network will look like.

Both introducing and running bus franchising in South Yorkshire will require money; the costs for Greater Manchester’s five-year bus-franchising transition process were estimated at roughly £135m. The mayor should launch a review into how the franchised system can be funded, considering:

  • Council tax increases, which is the main way Greater Manchester has raised money for its bus franchising scheme (despite its unpopularity).
  • New revenue streams to compensate for the recent announcement from the Department for Transport on the Government’s National Bus Strategy. South Yorkshire will receive no additional central government funding for the city region’s transformative Bus Service Improvement Plan, while other areas have been allocated a total of just under £1.1bn. New funding mechanisms are particularly pressing because ridership numbers have fallen, meaning that fare revenues cannot be relied upon to cover the full costs of franchising. The mayor should consider how to subsidise the bus network over the short to medium term, and introduce a Workplace Parking Levy and/or a separate congestion charge that, although politically difficult, will allow the mayor to channel revenues into the franchising process.
  • Charges for private cars that enter the Sheffield Clean Air Zone, which will be introduced in late 2022. According to Sheffield City Council, private vehicles make up 80 per cent of road traffic but only 50 per cent of emissions in the area; they say that by focusing on the 20 per cent of traffic made up of buses, HGVs, taxis and vans, pollution will be reduced “as quickly as possible”. Not charging private cars is a mistake that the new mayor should rectify, and all private cars entering the city centre should be within the scope of the Clean Air Zone.

The mayor should also foster growth that encourages the use of public transport; see policy priority 3 for more detail.