Transport for London’s consultation on major surgery to the inner London bus network – released just before the four-day bank holiday weekend – was widely expected. But it contained proposals that strike at the heart of century-old core bus routes long familiar to us all.
To understand why requires some historical context. From 1958 until 1982, bus ridership in London dropped. A long strike, the increase in households with televisions and more widespread private car ownership contributed to consistent yearly falls. There were over 7,000 peak vehicles in service in 1958, but by 1982 there were only 4,300. The cuts further encouraged the ridership decline, which in turn led to more cuts.
But the election in 2000 of Ken Livingstone as London’s first Mayor put that trend into reverse. Simpler routes, cheaper fares and punitive measures to discourage motoring led to about a decade and a half of growth, which continued after Livingstone left City Hall in 2008. By March 2017 a new high watermark was reached, with 8,174 peak vehicles in service each weekday.
Livingstone was clear on this issue: cheap and plentiful bus services meant people could more easily get to school or work, look for jobs, and visit bars, restaurants and theatres. Each subsequent Mayor broadly supported the principle although, as might be expected, under Boris Johnson the balance between taxpayer and fare payer contributions to the bus service was shifted one way, and under Sadiq Khan shifted back the other way with a long overall TfL fares freeze.
But a softening of public transport commuting in general could be seen as early as 2016. Several rail franchises were won on the basis of infinite latent demand, but that continued growth did not materialise and a long established rule, whereby Underground ridership broadly tracked economic activity and bus demand tracked population growth, ceased to apply.
Despite there being more Londoners, demand for bus services shrank, particularly on Fridays. Working from home and on-line shopping meant many commuter journeys were lost. And just as this change was being evaluated, along came Covid, causing ridership to plummet.
The post-pandemic reawakening has seen the trends of recent years fast forwarded, so that changes that would have taken ten to 15 years have been condensed into two. Ridership has recovered but now plateaued – Underground at 65 per cent of what it was and buses at 77 per cent. Here indeed is evidence of the permanent effect of working from home and on-line shopping. The deep averages masks other trends: commuting is actually further depressed they they suggest while leisure travel – offpeak and especially at weekends – is very buoyant. It seems to resemble a return to the early effect of the Victorian railways, in which leisure travel predominated and from which commuting later grew.
In pre-pandemic times an astute Mayor might well have cosied up to a government of a different political persuasion, given that all future major infrastructure projects – such as Crossrail 2 – would require government funding. Allowing the government to share the stage would have been wise, showing that it recognised TfL as a potent and successful delivery machine. Sadly, this did not happen and instead the organisation was pitched into a central vs local government fight in which Whitehall holds most of the cards.
So we come to the bus service changes. Undoubtedly some were needed. There is over-capacity in the central area for several good reasons and a couple of bad ones. Not only are walking and cycling now more popular, but road space has been redistributed to them. I myself have advocated the health and environmental benefits that follow from this.
However, also working against the bus network has been a really serious reduction of traffic speeds. Construction, roadworks and infrastructure renewal – not entirely unconnected with the road space redistribution mentioned above – have made bus journeys less attractive. Add to that the ballooning of white van deliveries and the free access to the congestion charge zone given to owners of zero emission vehicles, and we have a slower and less reliable bus service. The spiral of decline we saw after 1958 is being repeated now.
But even if we accept bus service reductions are needed, we must still examine the process for introducing them. Bus routes in London are really planned by corridor. Demand and supply are examined, one subtracted from the other, and adjustments planned accordingly. Only at a very late stage of this process are the route numbers recognised by the public – and to which private sector contracts are attached – considered.
There is plenty of evidence of oversupply and in the current economic circumstances. The narrow target is to trim services to save money without triggering a spiral of decline, which may happen if adjusted services are so wholly unattractive as to generate further falls in ridership. A consequence of the proposals announced is to increase the number of point-to-point journeys that require a change of service from 19 percent to 24 per cent – a development mitigated by the Mayor’s free second journey within one hour feature (the hopper fare).
Any research would indicate a preference among the public for direct journeys but, there again, with the payment systems now employed there is also ample evidence that people prefer to make progress and take the first service offered, even if it is not heading directly to their destination and therefore choose to change buses anyway.
A further aspect to be considered is the change requirement, which effectively means a renegotiation of the contract with the bus operator. Keep in mind that when the public sector breaks a contract with the private sector in order to renegotiate, it rarely comes out of it well. As you can imagine, a bus operator faced with volume reductions which will leave it with surplus buses, capacity and labour will want compensation. When this is taken in account, the initial financial savings will be marginal. The full savings will not be realised until the contract is entirely relet. For that reason TfL will have at least one eye out for the contract expiry dates and, all other things being equal, seek to renegotiate those with the least time left to run.
That is not to say route changes are only made at contract renewal – far from it. In my time controlling this for TfL we made more mid-contract changes to routes than at expiry. However, the circumstances then were a broadly growing market, so the need to make significant financial savings was not paramount.
Much of the disquiet about the latest changes proposed involves the possible wholesale withdrawal of a number of very long-standing services: Route 11, which doubles as the cheapest unguided sightseeing tour in the world; Route 24, which has plied between Pimlico and Hampstead Heath for 110 years; Route 16 which has served Edgware Road since before World War I. The list goes on.
There are hardly any stretches of roads left uncovered by the proposals. Frequencies of other routes are suggested for increases in part compensation, along with some new links to be created. However, the proposals fail to acknowledge the public’s illogical but nevertheless very real attachment to those low numbered major bus routes, which have been there for so long.
Something similar occurred in 2014 when the same corridor formula, balanced against contract duration, made a clear case for a thinned-out bus service on Finchley Road (so well paralleled by the Jubilee line) to be a more frequent route 82 at the expense of route 13. There was uproar in the constituencies, the boroughs and City Hall. There were petitions and letter-writing campaigns. In the end, I was obliged to enact the change but renumbered Route 82 as Route 13 in the process.
The new proposals are many times more provocative than those for Finchley Road eight years ago. The outpouring of grief is not surprising. There will again be petitions, letters and political position-taking. There is no doubt that the changes would have been received much more quietly if some thought had been given to the presentational aspects, retaining those familiar numbers over at least some of their old roads.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand why, given previous experience, such a confrontational approach was taken. Can it really be that the art and science of bus route numbering has been recruited to the political battle between City Hall and Downing Street? Can it be that the outrage is being used to help highlight what the government is seemingly forcing TfL to do?
When Ken Livingstone chaired the first ever TfL board meeting in 2000, he declared it a momentous occasion – one where, for the first time, the actions and accountabilities of London’s transport systems were transparent and open to wide scrutiny. The public could sit in and papers were placed in the public domain. London had been put truly in charge of its own public transport system. Twenty-two years later it seems that is no longer the case.
Perhaps the solution lies with the public – not just through the four-yearly ballot box, but by means of the consultation channel. There are those who say consultations are a sham and the corporate mind already made up. Here is a great opportunity for the London public to respond in force and numbers.
The current proposals invite angry responses. Surely what we need instead are many well-reasoned cases, which accept that reducing current over-capacity is economically the right thing to do but argue that the best way to do this without injuring the sick patient any further, is by a series of subtler changes – preserving, as could easily be done, those familiar bus route numbers of the past century, and retaining the loyalty that long-term familiarity has brought.
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