The Great Bus Divide: North Versus South….

So, the DFT have just published a fascinating analysis of just how the UK Bus Industry has been performing from 2009/10 up and until 2018/2019. The reality is that for key reasons of social and economic landscape change bus use has been declining over the years of austerity. It does however reinforce some very interesting and predictable trends, firstly bus services operate better in areas of stronger economic prosperity, or as I like to call it the South, no I am being slightly cynical but in truth if we exclude London ( which is actually in decline recently) the truth is that the green shoots have started to grow post 2016/17 and even more so the last year. And in fairness some of those resurgence have also been in the north of England which if truth be told have lost jobs, and customers travel patterns have changed for explainable reasons, there are some encouraging signs that after ten years of falling bus passenger decline and also savage cuts to rural bus services, coupled with a decimation of BSOG, has resulted in a modal shift with some areas facing over a 40% reduction in operated miles, and lost bus passengers.

However, there are some excellent examples that simply prove what I have been banging on about for decades, which is wherever there is a strong integrated policy between Local Authorities, enlightened and well managed Bus Companies, along with a supportive local community you can create a great and flourishing bus network. The facts reflect this in Brighton and Hove, the best performing in terms of bus journeys per head of population, next in line Nottingham, Reading also performs consistently and if like me, you have been to these places, met the key people both in both bus and politics, it is easy to understand why they work so well. Interestingly, and I take great heart from this there is clear evidence that actually the principal, of proper joined up thinking can reverse decline and an excellent example is Bristol which has been plagued for years with congested streets, and very little bus support and a press that hated the incumbent operators for years as I found to my cost back in the day. The difference today is tangible, built on a platform of political strategy and consistency to free the network and allow the bus access before withheld. Conversely the local operator First under the leadership of James Freeman has invested heavily in new vehicles and innovative fares structures including reductions to encourage passengers back on the bus after years of desertion. The tricky bit was to encourage reliability by offering real bus priority and inclusive working for longer term bus strategies. In addition good work has been done in the West Midlands where again strong and determined leadership with the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, along with strong investment by National Express West Midlands in vehicles and technology has instigated passenger resurgence against a back drop of greater congestion across the region. Merseyside have followed the lead and fair play unity and joined up thinking when performed properly can and do stimulate bus patronage.

So, I do take heart from this very useful body of work, it does not surprise me at all, since I joined the National Bus Company In 1983 almost 40 years ago can you believe the same principles will always apply. Get the bus out, pick up the passengers, and put the money in the piggy bank, simples. Or so we might think, but like everything not quite the case. However, today it is very different as the bus is finally being given the political respect and recognition of its potential to be the saviour of mass transit and climate change issues. With that in mind I take heart from this positivity and we have a collective duty as an Industry to embrace this opportunity that will like Haley’s Comet only appear very rarely so must embrace, invest, lead, and lobby we have one throw at the dice, let’s make it happen no matter where we live.

Written by Austin Birks

January 10, 2020

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