How can London revive its bus service?

by Dave Hill

A new London Assembly transport committee report on the capital’s bus network is the latest look at a large conundrum: how to get more people to use the city’s most important form of public transport at a time when other, often desirable, demands on limited road space are rendering it less appealing.

Over two billion journeys are made on Greater London’s 675 bus routes each year, around twice as many as on the Underground. The bus is cheap, accessible and, especially in Inner and Central London, a transport mode the full range of Londoners makes use of. The London omnibus is, as its full title proclaims, absolutely “for all“. Yet, after many years of rising ridership, bus passenger numbers are in decline. Its greatest enemy is congestion. How can the bus defeat it? And how can it find new ways to get Londoners on board?

The most significant thing about the committee’s report is that it recommends reallocating some of London’s bus capacity outwards, to more suburban areas. This is in line with Sadiq Khan’s draft transport strategy (MTS), but asks for more specifics in the final version. The common argument is that there may be too much capacity in the centre already and that the coming of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) and what has come to be called the “transformation” of Oxford Street will alter patterns of demand. Meanwhile, new housing and commercial areas in Outer London are going to depend on better bus provision in areas where currently it may be relatively poor. That, perhaps, is one way to liberate buses from jams.

The report calls for more orbital bus routes to better connect different parts of Outer London too. It complains that the draft MTS does not even refer to the existing ones – numbering 100, it heard from Transport for London (TfL) – let alone propose more. Some history might be helpful here. Boris Johnson came to power at City Hall in 2008 promising to look at enhancing orbital bus services. A trial swiftly ensued. However, one year later, a paper for TfL’s surface transport panel concluded that passenger take-up hadn’t justified the cost, a point later made to Johnson by the then Labour Assembly Member Val Shawcross. She is now Khan’s deputy mayor for transport.

The report also asks Shawcross for more enthusiasm for “express routes” to link those Outer London centres – point-to-point trips speeded up because buses don’t stop at every bus stop on the route. The suggestion that articulated, so-called “bendy buses” might return to London’s streets to provide such services has excited media comment. During the 2008 election campaign, bendys were made into a ludicrous wedge issue by Johnson and his cronies at the Evening Standard of that time. The truth is that “artics” had their pros and cons: good at moving large numbers of people efficiently, good for the disabled and passengers with baby buggies; bad for fare evasion and bad for some other road-users. Their demonisation as un-British fire hazards was absurd. Their return to work express routes would be welcomed by many – the issue, though, might be how many.

The committee’s report also has interesting ideas for reforming the bus company tendering process and for making the bus network, which is inherently quite tangled, easier to understand. It’s hard to judge, though, how far the measures proposed would help lift the road congestion cloud. The report rightly notes that more delivery vans and private hire vehicles, pedestrianisation, cycling infrastructure and, ironically, bus lanes, have added to the squeeze. It might have included construction works and related traffic too – a sign of a fast-growing city. But pressure on road space has increased over a long period, roughly negating the benefits produced by congestion charging according to some calculations.

The holy trinity of space-efficient and attractive surface transport priorities – walking, cycling and bus use – sometimes come into conflict, and it is good that London now has a mayoral transport team that wants to reconcile good objectives rather than one in which whims and bigheads held too much sway. There are delicate balances to be struck. But sooner or later something more drastic might be required.

Read the transport committee’s bus network report here. It follows an earlier one on bus safety.

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