Bus usage is one of those issues which can appear to have a clear and simple set of policy implications. As the most popular transport mode out with the car, the smooth running of buses ensures Scotland keeps on moving. This requires a road network worthy of the name and operators willing to run services which meet people’s needs. That it is a consistently declining mode of transport in terms of popularity would suggest there is work to do to achieve either goal.
Look closer, though, and the biggest policy questions facing our politicians can all be linked in some way to the act of getting on the bus. As the cheapest and most ubiquitous form of transport, the frequency of bus services can condemn or reinvigorate the poorest urban area and most remote communities alike. The access they can provide to health facilities, local amenities and significant job sites can play a major role in a community’s health and wellbeing. Affordability, particularly for young people, job seekers and pensioners, can decide whether these groups choose to stay in a community or move elsewhere. Provided the buses are of the low-emission variety, they also enable people to reduce emissions.
All this gives the decline in bus usage greater potency. It should not surprise people, then, that in seeking to plan for a new Transport Bill, the Scottish Government has focused on the bus ahead of the plane, the train or the automobile.
Recent consultations on bus franchising and smart ticketing reflected the potential key issues which will be covered in the Bill regarding buses. The smart ticketing call for evidence focused on getting bus franchises to adopt smart ticketing which can be used across the bus and rail network. The franchising consultation looked at several new models for conducting services, up to and including the successful Lothian Buses model of local authority operation through an arm’s length agency.
The responses to these consultations indicated there is popular support for their core proposals. The bus services response indicated a general trend towards enshrining partnership working between bus operators and local authorities, with regulation to enable this if necessary. There was also support for the principle of transport and local authorities being involved in services, particularly for “socially important” routes. On potential impacts, hopes that increased bus usage may lead to reduced emissions was reflected in the responses.
Similar efforts to regulate were supported in the smart ticketing responses, with sanctions for non-compliance suggested as a means of ensuring operators started making changes. Centralising the management of e-ticketing into one body was also supported, though concerns were raised as to the negative cost implications for some rural bus operators which would result from upgrading their systems.
What was most interesting, though, was additional comments for both highlighted the cost of bus fares and their frequency (or lack of) as key issues. This reflects the two core areas in which improvement will be hoped for as a result of the proposed initiatives. Smart ticketing should enable people to automatically receive the cheapest fare, possibly across different bus operators, while local authority-run bus operators may provide more frequent services on key lines which, while lacking immediate cash benefits, could have long-term economic benefits for these areas.
Proposals for low emission zones (LEZs) might have as greater impact on bus services than either consultation. Buses are the only mode being initially targeted in the first LEZ in Glasgow and this appears to be based on a desire to radically shift operators from old polluting models to cleaner, greener ones on which car users can rely when their SUV is no longer welcome in city centres. Current initiatives to fund this change, such as Transport Scotland’s Green Bus Fund, are going to have to scale up rapidly if such quick transitions are to be achieved across Scotland’s cities without an impact on service frequency or the cost of fares.
With all this going on, it can be safely said continued declines in bus passenger numbers are no longer an option for the Government. The efforts to address it, which will be outlined in the Transport Bill by summer recess, could have significant implications. This Bill will potentially enable bus operators to fully embrace the 21st century and decidedly shift decades of increased reliance on the car back towards the bus. It remains to be seen whether such lofty ambitions are matched by concrete policy proposals, or whether the opportunity is allowed to pass by and bus users are left to huddle in a shelter, waiting for the next strategy or Bill to provide the fundamental rethink needed for the bus network.
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