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.

1 Comment

  1. The latest report from the Transport Committee is really rather poor and lacking in appropriate detail. All they appear to have done is bemoaned the lack of firm dates or plans in a draft Strategy document. A strategy, self evidently, sets a direction but will never have firm plans or deliverable dates. I would really expect politicians to appreciate that difference.

    The severe decline in patronage and thus revenue is a serious impediment to TfL being able to do anything material with the bus network. There is no real evidence of resources freed up in Central London being deployed elsewhere. In fact the reverse is true – suburban routes are having frequency reductions together with radial services that serve inner London. One of your local routes, the 488, will soon have daily frequency cuts. The night bus network is also been scaled back considerably regardless of whether it is affected by the Night Tube or not.

    The Committee have missed a fundamental problem in the contractual structure. The delays due to road works in the last two years have made operators very risk averse about route schedules. Two years of large scale payment deductions because of poor performance caused by traffic and road works has pushed them to this point. We therefore have the ridiculous situation of more and more buses being used to run slower and slower services. Whenever traffic conditions are better than the worst conditions assumed in the contractual schedule we have buses sitting at the roadside waiting time causing delays and frustrations for passengers. TfL really really need to get to grips with this and start speeding services up again. It is not all down to more bus priority. Buses are just hopelessly slow now. They will need to take a considered view with operators about the scale of operational risk on their contracts and what is the genuine situation with traffic conditions. If this issue is not resolved we are going to see a wholesale collapse in patronage because why would passengers persist in using a mode that is hopelessly slow?

    The Committee seems to be stuck in a time warp with its odd obsessions with vehicle types and orbital and express buses. If there are genuine network gaps can the Boroughs just work with City Hall and TfL to identify them, evaluate them and then see how funding might be found to introduce them. We do not need to witter on about “express” or “orbital” routes. London has an immensely dense bus network overall but there are some gaps. However demanding more new links actually goes against the ethos of the Hopper ticket which facilitates interchange and is allowing TfL to contemplate and introduce cuts that it could only dream of making a few years ago. TfL are also a very long way behind the best commercial bus operators in terms of raising vehicle quality and effective marketing. TfL has just about forgotten how to do any marketing of its network. All it blurbs about are Mayoral initiatives no doubt under instruction from City Hall.

    Quite why the Committee decided to launch their report with a splash about “bendy buses” is beyond me. We have had nearly a decade of bus types being an issue in London – Bendy Buses vs the New Bus for London. It has got us precisely nowhere except wasting the better part of £750m as buses have bought, withdrawn from service, replaced then replaced again by NB4Ls. What a scandalous waste of money. The last thing we need now is another polarised “debate” about bendy buses. They are not the cause of the current problems nor are they a way to solve the underlying problems.

    The latest report is a damp squib and does next to nothing to advocate the role of the bus in London, to fight the bus’s corner against the competing interests of walking and cycling and the car. It is a disappointment and will no doubt be largely ignored by TfL even if there are glowing words said about it the next time someone from TfL talks buses to the Transport Committee.

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