If the country wants to get serious about its environmental commitments we have to invest in buses. But the latest figures from the Department for Transport (DfT) show continuing bus services, bus staff and real pay across the industry are all way down.
16,000 jobs were lost in the bus industry over the last decade. 2,000 of those were lost in the last year alone. And for those that remain, wages have plummeted, dropping 10 percent over the last year and falling below the level they were at 10 years ago.
Buses provide a vital service for communities across the country. The average bus journey produces half the carbon of a single person traveling in a private car. But the number of passenger journeys by bus fell 12 per cent between 1982 and 2020, and that’s without the impact of the pandemic that understandably caused huge reductions in passenger numbers across all forms of public transport.
This year the government finally produced its bus strategy. It includes some measures to repair the damage done by 35 years of deregulation including encouraging more transport authorities to use the franchising powers granted in the 2017 Bus Services Act.
Since 2017, Metro-Mayors and combined authorities have had the power to create new bus franchises in areas where existing provision is clearly falling short. But the process is expensive and bureaucratic, and to date no transport authority has completed it, though Manchester, Liverpool and West Yorkshire have all started the process.
Franchising would be a considerable improvement on the status quo. Now, private operators can cherry pick the profitable routes and leave cash-strapped local authorities to fund the essential but less profitable ones. But if we really want to deliver the transport system communities deserve and cut our transport emissions, we need publicly-owned bus services.
The Bus Strategy failed to lift the ban on councils setting up new publicly-owned services. Municipal bus services would ensure that popular routes which are profitable cross-subsidise vital but less profitable ones that serve more remote areas or passengers that have mobility issues. Publicly run buses like those in Nottingham and Reading already provide far better services and return a profit to the public sector without funding leaking out via shareholders dividends.
Buses have a key role to play in reaching our emissions targets. If the government is serious about honouring the pledges at COP26, they need to get on board.
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