People need to be able to commute to work, access education opportunities, interact with their local economy and engage in social and cultural events. And an effective, efficient and affordable public transport system is key to this. For many across the region, it is a lifeline to their community and their ability to earn a living.
Public transport is also key to tackling the climate emergency and reducing the impact of air pollution on our poorest communities, and to strengthening and growing our regional economy.
Yet years of underinvestment and profit prioritisation have left our public transport system on a cliff edge. Buses are slow, unreliable and expensive. And routes are constantly under threat.
Within areas of Newcastle it can take an hour to make a journey that takes 15 minutes by car. And unfortunately, slow services aren’t unique to Newcastle, they are experienced across the whole of the region.
The current model isn’t working. Commercial operators maximise profits by cherry picking profitable routes and minimising re-investment, leaving poor quality services and cash-strapped local authorities funding the essential but less profitable routes.
And the pandemic has made things much worse.
Covid has seen passenger numbers drop drastically, both on buses and on the Metro. And with a reduction in passengers, comes a reduction in income.
While the Government’s emergency transport relief fund might be propping the systems up at present, there is no doubt that the withdrawal of this fund at the end of March will be devastating.
Without adequate and tangible government intervention, it is inevitable that Covid will push our public transport system well and truly off the cliff; leaving our communities isolated and even further behind.
This doesn’t look or feel like levelling up.
But here in the North East we know what we need, and the North East Bus Improvement Plan clearly outlines it. And while this vision might not be cheap, it is achievable and could go some way to turning levelling up rhetoric into action.
If we really want a public transport system that enables our communities to thrive and cuts our carbon emissions, then we need the government to step up.
We need them to extend the Covid emergency relief fund so we can ensure our bus services survive beyond the spring.
We need them to deliver on the promises they made in last year’s Bus Back Better strategy and adequately fund the North East’s Bus Improvement Plan.
And we need them to prioritise service over profits and bring buses back under public ownership.
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