By far the most-read On London article this week was my interview with John Trayner, managing director of the capital’s biggest bus service operator Go-Ahead London. Trayner, like other bus company chiefs, is not in the habit of going public with his concerns about the state of the bus network across the city, let alone his relationship with Transport for London, which awards the contracts for London’s roughly 700 bus routes.
Trayner’s decision to speak to this website about those issues in a measured but straightforward way is a striking indication of fears within the bus industry that the public transport mode used by far more people than any other in this city is going into decline. Coinciding with TfL’s publication of its plans for reducing overall bus service capacity by 7 percent, his intervention has clearly struck a chord.
The recent dip in bus ridership following 15 years of beneficial growth appears to have a variety of causes, but their detrimental effects can be captured in one word – congestion. Snarled-up roads mean slower and less reliable bus journeys, which means more and more passengers considering alternative ways of moving around the capital’s roads. All of these use road space less efficiently than buses, and that is likely to mean still more congestion. That is no good for anyone, be they workers, businesses, shoppers, visitors or people travelling to see relatives and friends.
Solving the congestion problem is no straightforward task. Part of it has arisen from London’s continuing rapid economic and population growth, resulting in more large construction projects and more demand for getting around the place. Such are the costs of a certain kind of success. Trayner expressed the view that some road re-design initiatives of the last two years of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty were embarked on far too hurriedly, a view also held by some at the top of the TfL hierarchy at the time. An increase in the number of delivery vans and private hire vehicles on the roads and, importantly, the amount of time they spend on them, is also cited as a major factor.
Arguments about where the greatest amount of blame lies tend to be fierce and partisan, generating far more (road) rage than reason and underlining the need for a broader and more mature debate about the management of London’s roads and the priorities the Mayor and TfL ought to pursue. This is chronically lacking among much of the Big Media, for whom the London bus service appears to be, at best, of secondary interest. It is the cheapest, most-used and most space-efficient road transport mode we have and the one used by the widest variety of people. Yet even as it is being eroded, the Evening Standard and the supposedly progressive Guardian lavish far more coverage on the demands of cyclists, presently a small, overwhelmingly middle-class grouping whose journeys make up a minute percentage of London’s daily total.
It might be objected that Trayner’s speaking out is motivated principally by business self-interest. But he surely has a point when he says that the voices of London’s millions of regular bus passengers are not heard nearly as much as those of others. The same might be said of London’s pedestrians, a category into which practically every Londoner falls. The capital has its own wing of walking pressure group Living Streets, but its arguments are barely heard compared with the constant clamour of the cycling lobby.
It may be that only very radical policies can now counter London’s new road congestion troubles. Introducing these would require a degree of boldness not seen in the capital since the best days of Ken Livingstone and possibly new national legislation too – certainly if a limit on the number of private hire licences is to be introduced. They might also entail a different kind of reorganisation of the bus service, which would certainly bring its own challenges.
Where the heart of Central London is concerned, one theoretical initiative – sometimes emanating from quite surprising sources – would be a complete ban on buses and almost all other motor vehicles. However, Westminster Council’s late-in-the-day abandonment of the Oxford Street pedestrianisation plan it had spent two years helping to devise are a crunching reminder of the political resistance such moves might face. The same could be expected should major escalations of congestion charging be proposed, although Sadiq Khan’s ultra low emission zone plans might have some similar good effects.
What is certainly needed now is a clear and determined reassertion by the Mayor and TfL that they will stick to giving top priority to clean-powered buses, walking and, yes, to encouraging cycling in their road management strategy, and always be working to find the optimum resolution to conflicts between the three. There needs to be much, much better scrutiny, including by the London Assembly, of whether resources earmarked for cycling are being used to best effect. The needs of pedestrians should be brought further to the fore. And the bus service should be fully recognised for what it is – the precious and absolutely vital workhorse of road transport in London. In a fast-growing city with road space under ever greater pressure, it is solution not a problem. It must not be allowed to decline.