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Bus franchising is the biggest power new mayors have - they should use it

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

It will face opposition at first, but transitioning to a system of bus franchising is the best and only option to truly modernise transport systems across our city regions, argues Luke Raikes, senior research fellow at IPPR North.

England’s new metro mayors are slowly reshaping English politics. Next year, the mayors elected in 2017 and 2018 will be joined by a new mayor for the North of Tyne. Together, they will govern 12 million people and economies worth more than £260bn – larger populations and economies than those of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland combined.

Their powers are quite limited on paper, but they have already made their presence felt: the mayors have been able to make headlines and pressure the government around important issues like transport, air quality, and Brexit.

But they have one power that is potentially transformative and often overlooked: they can ‘franchise’ buses. Buses account for 59% of public transport journeys every day. They aren’t just used by commuters: people rely on them to go to the shops or to visit hospitals, to get to school or university. They might not be used by the people making the big decisions, but policymakers ignore buses – and the people that use them – at their peril.

And the way that buses work outside of London at the moment is, in simple terms, ridiculous. Because outside of the capital, the streets of our towns and cities are a free-for-all for bus companies: any company can pick up passengers at any bus stop on any route, and they can charge passengers what they like.

In theory, this is supposed to spur competition; in practice, it means passengers suffer. There is little or no competition in most parts of the country as large providers monopolise whole markets. Where there is competition, it is often so intense as to be highly inefficient: half-empty buses clog up the streets and fill the air with their fumes as they jostle for passengers in busy city centres.

What does this mean for passengers? Buses are less frequent and often late, and passengers have to buy a new ticket if part of their journey is with a different operator.

There is also a strong relationship with air quality. Millions of people pass through city centres every day, and city-centre living is increasing. But our buses are filling the air we breathe with poisonous emissions, and this appears to be worse in non-franchised markets: recent IPPR North research showed that, in Greater Manchester, over 20% of all buses fall into the most polluting emission standard (Euro 2–3), whereas in London’s franchised market only 12% do. In Greater Manchester, only 10% of buses meet the higher ‘Euro 6’ standards; in London the figure is 37%.

But perhaps most significantly, more and more people can’t use the bus at all where the bus companies don’t profit from providing a service. This leaves some people reliant on using a car – an option that is personally expensive for them, but also makes the air quality and congestion problems worse for everyone else. And for people who can’t use a car, the situation is even worse: the lack of bus services leaves many completely isolated – especially people on lower incomes, older people, younger people, and people with disabilities.

The solution

There is a much better way, but until last year it was reserved only for the capital: in London, bus companies compete for an exclusive contract, and the bus network is integrated into the wider transport network,  controlled by Transport for London.

For passengers, this means that fares are controlled and standardised; ticketing is contactless and can be used on multiple operators and modes; and London gets to invest fare revenue in sustaining or developing new services. In short, travelling is easier, more accessible, and more efficient for bus passengers.

This system isn’t perfect, but it is very good: this is how transport networks are supposed to work, and TfL does a fantastic job of managing it. It is no surprise that there are now more bus passenger journeys in London alone than in the rest of England put together.

The new mayors for areas outside of London now have the power to do the same in their own city regions. The Bus Services Act of 2017 allows places with a mayor to implement a London-style bus network. They can’t simply decide to do so: they have to investigate alternatives and must go through an onerous legal process. It will cost a significant amount to resolve this situation and it will take time.

As mayors go through this process, they are likely to be challenged by some of the big incumbent bus companies who have a vested interest in maintaining the current, dysfunctional situation. Some of the bus companies are arguing for a form of ‘partnership’ with transport authorities instead. These ‘partnerships’ in theory see local transport authorities work together with bus companies to improve services more quickly. But this option falls a long way short of franchising: under partnerships it is not possible to have the standardised, transparent fares and tickets, nor the investment and cross-subsidy that is possible under franchising.

Franchising is by far the best option – in fact, it really is the only option for our modern city regions.

It looks like Greater Manchester will be the first place to take this forward. The Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign has recently been launched to build support for franchising in the city region. It will no doubt be met by fierce opposition from some of the major bus companies.

The debate about buses will become heated over the coming months and years. There is a lot at stake for passengers, companies and – for mayors facing election in 2020 – political careers.

But the evidence is clearly on the side of franchising, and mayors shouldn’t waste this opportunity to improve the daily lives of the people they represent.


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