The On London discussion: What is – and should be – the future of the bus service?

The On London discussion: What is – and should be – the future of the bus service?

As Deputy Mayor for Transport Seb Dance writes in his Foreword to Transport for London’s Bus Action Plan, London’s buses are “the most commonly used form of public transport in the capital” yet also “often the unsung hero of London’s transport system”. He added that he is determined that the bus network shall “meet the needs of Londoners over the next decade”.

What are those challenges and how will they be met? Put another way, what is the future of London’s bus service and what should it be?

Those were the questions addressed at Tuesday evening’s On London Zoom discussion event by a panel composed of John Trayner, managing director of bus operating company Go-Ahead London, Alan Hannaford, also known as London Reconnections contributor Pedantic of Purley, Seb Dance himself and TfL’s former surface transport managing director Leon Daniels, who stepped up to the role of a super-sub after Seb was called away on urgent work-related business and unable to be with us from the start.

The context was a general decline in bus use in the past five or six years and – a more immediate concern – TfL’s bus review proposals for cutting the number of kilometres covered by bus services by 4% in order to make savings demanded by the government. And with ridership yet to recover to its pre-Covid levels there are concerns that the bus service – which, as audience members and panelists pointed out, is a transport mode used by every type of Londoner, including its least well-off – could remain on a regrettable downward path.

Given these circumstances, John Trayner was relatively upbeat. He said ridership has been edging up towards 90% of what it used to be and that when TfL makes its final decision about the changes it proposed – which will not now be until January at the earliest – the outcome might not be as bad as feared.

That is partly because there were “a lot of objections”, which he thinks took TfL and City Hall by surprise but, more gloomily, because “there’s a lot of cuts that have happened already. I’m down probably 10% from my peak vehicle requirement over the last three years”, with “fewer buses and a less frequent service” on a number of lines, notably routes 521 and 507 out of Waterloo.

Leon Daniels spoke of changes to the use of road space which began during his time at TfL under the mayoral policies of Boris Johnson and have contributed to “a significant reduction in traffic speeds” that has slowed buses down. That was because “we were digging up the streets and reassigning road space to make more space for walking and cycling”. As a consequence “bus speeds worsened because there was less carriageway space for them to be in” and also “in some cases the bus priority measures that had previously been there weren’t there any more”.

He agreed with Trayner that forthcoming changes to the service will be “much softer than the ones threatened in the consultation”, which had achieved “exactly what it was designed to do. It was designed to be provocative, it was designed to get people really angry and to write in and complain, which was all part of the row between TfL and the government about funding”. It is a point Daniels has also made writing for On London.

Service cuts, as the title of the bus review implies, are likely to be to central London services. TfL commissioner Andy Byford told the London Assembly transport committee as much the other week. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Alan Hannaford, drawing on arguments he made in a recent article, maintained that it need not be. More provision for walking and cycling, along with the advent of the Elizabeth Line, have lessened the need for such a generous bus service, he felt, and with many buses still using diesel fuel their presence in West End streets can make their environment less pleasant for shoppers and visitors.

He also thought it has become more difficult to justify current bus service levels because the country is “in an awful place financially”. Revealing that being a bus conductor had been his first job, he stressed: “I’d love to see more buses and buses being used, but I have to think the reality is going to be we won’t be awash with buses ever again”. However, he added that any further service cuts should not be done in such a way “that we can’t build them up again should that demand return”.

Members of the audience made a number of points, including a challenge to Leon Daniels’s suggestion that bus fares are “a bit less price sensitive than people think”. Using a light-hearted example to make a serious point, he suggested that the cost of a single fare could be pegged to “the price of a medium latte in Starbucks” and that whenever that goes up the bus fare would go up too. “People will pay £3.50 to have a cup of hot water with coffee stirred into it, so why on earth is the bus fare held down at £1.65?”

But one of the On London supporters present objected that for people on low pay that would be too much. She also argued that if buses sometimes having few passengers is seen as problematic, so should empty bicycle lanes, which, in contrast to “inclusive” buses, serve a predominantly white, male and affluent demographic.

Another supporter, although a frequent cyclist, took an even stronger line against bike lanes, saying that bus lanes have been removed to make way for them under both Mayor Johnson and Mayor Khan and should be restored. Critical of what he sees as the undue influence of cycling campaigners, he contended that the bus service is being “ruined by this small clique of people”.

Other audience contributors emphasised the need to find the right balance between different street transport modes, the correct tailoring to demand, and the optimum integration of them all. “Having more buses is not in and of itself a good thing,” one said. “The aim should be getting people where they need to go with maximum ease. We need to think about a whole system approach with certain goals in mind.”

Another pointed out that low bus fares are essential for people who have to travel for an hour or more to get to a cleaning job and that the overarching mission of transport policies should be “movement and moving people harmoniously and equitably around” with buses being highly equitable and also sustainable, as they use road space so efficiently.

“In that ten metre by three metre footprint of the bus I am the most efficient mover of people,” Trayner confirmed. Yet London has been increasingly unable to take maximum advantage of that great strength as road space has become more cluttered and constrained. Daniels described himself and Peter Hendy, who was TfL commissioner for most of his time with the transport agency recently driving by bus the old Route 37 from Hounslow to Peckham. In 1966, that journey took 90 minutes, Daniels said, but it took him and his erstwhile colleague three hours: “That’s an example of how bus services have become unattractive.”

Culprits identified for this included what Daniels called “the huge growth of freight and private hire vehicles” on the roads, along with the boom in home delivery services. “Some white vans are delivering parcels to people at offices because they weren’t at home to receive them,” he said. “It is time to swing the balance back the other way and give the six million bus passengers a day a simple and more reliable service, and in terms of bus priority measures.”

Seb Dance was able to join the event towards its end, for which On London was very grateful. Having ascertained that his last minute urgent appointment was not with Rishi Sunak and that the new Prime Minister, still conducting his cabinet reshuffle at that point, had not contrived a way to make the former Labour MEP his new transport secretary, he disagreed that cycling is “the key problem”.

On the contrary, as the Bus Action Plan sets out, Dance believes a greater take-up of cycling is part of the answer to the greatest problem for buses, which he defined as “unnecessary car journeys” and said “there is a lot of capacity for additional routes for active transport, for options for walking and cycling”.

He said that 71% of car journeys in London lasting less than an hour could be taken by bicycle instead and that if they were “you would free up huge amounts of space for the bus network, as well, of course, as having additional space for those car journeys which are necessary”.

Asked if the single biggest answer to reducing car use would be a London-wide “smart” road-user charging system, Dance said he was “very wary of saying, yes that will solve everything” but that it could be “a key answer” and “probably a better solution to the myriad policies we have at the moment”. However, he stressed that such an innovation is a long way off.

For Dance, transport policy should be about encouraging the “holy trinity” of bus, cycle and walking at the top of a transport hierarchy in which the private motor vehicle is placed “very low”. Success in this would also entail “changing people’s perception about what freedom is,” he said. “It is really fundamental. We’ve had 80, 100 years of ingrained belief that the car represents freedom. Now, being able to travel in and out of central London or travelling around outer London without your car, and. when you really need your car, having the space to travel on the road – that is freedom in the context of a city. That’s real freedom. Trying to change the perception of what it is to be free and live in a western society, that is really the fundamental problem we have”.

Where buses in particular are concerned, there are some other types of challenge too. Leon Daniels, these days a sought-after transport consultant, pointed out that “a significant part of the London bus service is provided by private contractors owned overseas – in Singapore, in Australia, in France, in Germany. These people have billions to invest. They are the ones who buy the property, who buy the vehicles, who buy the charging infrastructures for electric vehicles”.

He warned that London – and, indeed, the UK as a whole – is becoming “a very unattractive place” for them to put their money into. Why? Because we’ve got “serious inflation” and a “zero available labour force” because due to “Brexit or Covid they all went home”. Also: “In many cities around the world the transport companies are being sheltered from unplanned labour costs and unplanned energy inflation by the transport agency responsible. There is a message there that London must keep up with the other cities around the world.”

Daniels also said that in the new transport cost and demand climate “we might have to be more radical on fares and indeed on service patterns,” including by deploying available technology to “flex the fares” so that the current single-price bus fare – a relatively recent phenomenon – disappears. Alan Hannaford called for a refreshment of bus information services, which he said have deteriorated since Daniels and Hendy’s time – an issue On London might take up.

Even so, John Trayner maintained an optimistic note. He sensed a modest shift away from Covid-induced working from home and was confident that, in the longer term, “population growth will continue,” making a top quality public transport system as vital to London as ever, with the bus at the heart of a network with many components. “As a bus operator I would love my passengers, my customers, to be more vociferous,” he said. “And I would agree with Seb that, actually, we have to work together. We will never find a solution unless it’s one that works for everybody.”

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1 Comment

  1. Adnil says:

    endless resources ploughed into cycle lanes, largely empty, in my very hilly part of London. f~~~all ploughed into a decent bus service locally. A 25-minute wait for a bus from the nearest tube is not unusual.

    Bye bye, Nigh time economy from me. The bus apps and indicator boards at bus stops seem to be extremely unreliable. Galling to be told there’s a 20+ min wait and then see the bus sail by 6-7 mins later when you’re between stops.

    It’s a laudable aim to encourage walking and cycling but it favours young, fit blokes while effectively telling the old and disabled to stay home and watch moronic tv till they die

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