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To bring back bus travel, we should learn from the Swiss

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For all the attention trains get, the majority of public transport journeys in this country take place on the bus.

But outside London, bus services have seen a steep decline. Even in London, bus journeys have declined, though not as drastically.

According to the Urban Transport Group over the last decade bus patronage fell 15% from 1.1 billion journeys in 2009/10 to 908 million in 2017/18 (the latest year we have figures for).

The fall in bus trips per head is more dramatic than the fall in total journeys, which implies that the decline would be more dramatic if it wasn’t for population growth.

Research shows that public transport in general and buses in particular are often seen as the distant second preference to private cars.

So, if travellers are choosing other options, why should we worry so much about the bus?

Buses provide a vital service for the passengers who rely on them. They are disproportionately used by people on lower incomes, who may not be able to afford a private car.

Moreover, we all have an interest in taking vehicles of the streets to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution.

Swapping private cars for public buses is a good way to do this.

So how can we do this?

Well, we can look at what has worked in the past.

Buses in London were never deregulated when services were privatised across the country.

So TfL is able to direct provision to make sure it meets the needs of the whole community, so private operators can’t just cherry pick the most profitable routes.

It means they could insist on a single ticket system for all buses and implement a smart-ticketing system to speed the process of paying for your journey.

Re-regulating bus services would be a good start, and it has already started.

Andy Burnham, the metro mayor for Greater Manchester has announced that he will do it, using powers granted in the 2017 Bus Services Act.

Municipalising bus services would be even better.

That would mean local authorities would have the powers to run, not just regulate bus services.

This is still illegal after privatisation, despite efforts to change that as the Bus Services Act went through parliament.

But we need more than this

We need to rethink our whole attitude to public transport.

In Zurich city region the local authority closely defines three levels of bus service.

A village of 300 people or more receives a level one service, a bus every hour.

Level two is every half-hour, and is guaranteed to routes where the flow of passengers from multiple settlements combine to boost demand.

Level three provides one or more buses every 15 minutes and is for large, densely populated areas.

Bus timetables are linked up to train timetables, so buses are scheduled to arrive at major stations a few minutes before specific trains depart, and leave a few minutes after.

This coordinated timetable is the Taktfahrplan (literally the clock timetable).

Coordinating timetables nationwide is considered such an important priority that the final taktfahrplan is signed off by the cabinet.

So why can’t we have a taktfahrplan?

Well we can’t have one now because it requires coordination at local and national level and our privatised, fragmented system is just not congenial.

It is very difficult to guarantee a bus service every hour for every village of 300 people or more when the bus services are deregulated so the local authority has very little control over their provision.

It is equally difficult to ensure that train and bus schedules align when each is set by a different private company and neither prioritises coordinating with the other.

Public transport is essential

Public transport in Switzerland is considered to be an essential service. So it is important that it be affordable, useful and reliable.

Public transport in England is considered a private enterprise and bus transport always takes distant second place to private car travel.

Because public transport is thought of this way, it is treated this way.

But if we took public transport into public ownership we would have the opportunity to rethink it.

We could provide the kind of transport service that would shift millions out of their private cars and into sustainable, low carbon options.

We could take public transport seriously and have a service which served everyone, and which everyone could be proud of.