It might not seem like very much, but it matters and the direction of travel is not good. The latest Transport for London data about the speed and reliability of the capital’s bus services confirms that they are going backwards at a time when the city badly needs the opposite to be true.
Let’s look at the TfL figures for the average speeds our buses have been going at (they can be found under buses performance data, bus speed reports, network – all day types & all hours – to P03 2023-24).
These show that for the first three monitoring periods of the current financial year, encompassing 1 April until 27 May 2023, the mean (average) speed at which buses travelled within the Greater London Authority boundary throughout a 24-hour day was, respectively, 9.5 miles per hour, 9.3 miles per hour and 9.2 miles per hour.
In all three cases, these were slower than for the equivalent three periods of the last financial year, 2022/23, when the average speeds were 9.7 mph, 9.4 mph and 9.5 mph. And the year before that, 2021/22, they were 9.8 mph, 9.6 mph and 9.5 mph.
The equivalent three years’ worth of figures for just the morning travel peak period – defined as 7am until 10am – aren’t much better, with average speeds between 0.1 and 0.3 mph slower in 2023/24 so far than they were in 2021/22. The highest figure was 9.0 mph for the first monitoring period of 2022/23 and the slowest was 8.3 mph for late April to late May this year.
To this continuing slippage in average speeds since London began emerging from the pandemic – at the peak of which they were often above 10 mph, presumably due to there being less traffic on the roads in general – we can add TfL’s measurement of the average amount of time passengers spend on London buses.
Doing this, in TfL’s words, “enables us to monitor the performance of our bus service from the perspective of our customers”. The shorter the amount of time passengers spend on board, the happier they are likely to be, because it means they’ve completed their journey faster. “Quicker journeys are more likely to encourage people back onto our network as we recover from the pandemic,” is how TfL puts it.
This explanation is included alongside bus journey time figures considered today by TfL’s customer service and operational performance panel. The figures show that the average journey time for the fourth quarter of 2022/23 was 34.5 minutes, missing a target of 33.4 minutes, and that the journey time for 2022/23 as a whole was 34 minutes, missing the annual target of 33.5. That is also the longest average journey time since at least 2018/19, as shown by a TfL chart.
TfL attributes these missed targets to, in the first case, mainly “longer waiting times and lower reliability levels as a result of reduced staff availability at bus operators, mechanical issues and traffic congestion” and, in the second, to “higher lost bus mileage due to staff and mechanical issues” and to “the longer average journey length made by bus customers since the pandemic”.
City Hall published a bus action plan in March 2022, which aspired to providing “fast and reliable journey times” and recognised the bus as “the most commonly used form of public transport in the capital” and “often the unsung hero of London’s transport system”.
Arguments rage about exactly why average bus speeds are falling and journey times are getting longer. On London has asked TfL if it can elaborate further, and this article will be updated when a response is received.
UPDATE, 17 July 2023: In a statement, TfL’s head of bus performance, Philip Gerhardt, acknowledged a “slight decease in average bus speeds compared to 2020/21 and 2012/22” and attributed this to “traffic conditions and the impact of roadworks” returning to pre-pandemic levels. He added:
“The average speed across the network does not reflect the interventions made in specific locations to improve journeys for customers – such as introducing bus lanes and signal re-timings. We remain focused on delivering our Bus Action Plan which commits us to a 10 per cent improvement on speeds recorded in 2015. The introduction of 25km of new bus lanes by 2025 will be central to achieving this target.”
TfL also pointed out that the bus speeds for period three of 2023/24, 9.3 mph, was the same as for the equivalent periods in the pre-pandemic years of 2019/20, 2018/19 and 2017/18.