A new report called ‘Lessons from London’ urges radical change

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The next government will need to consider “radical” changes to arrest a long-term decline in bus use, according to Professor Mike Waterson of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) at the University of Warwick. Cities around England should learn from London’s system of bus franchising, he says. He also says that long-term reforms could include emulating German laws that deter public bodies from paying expenses for taxi travel.

Professor Waterson makes suggestions in a paper published last week, Driving change in the bus market: lessons from London, at the Social Market Foundation which studies the current state and future prospects of bus services in England. Bus travel is still by far the most commonly used and cheapest form of public transport. Outside the London commuter area, travelling to work by bus is up to 10 times more common than rail commuting, and around 10% of people in major conurbations rely on the bus for getting to work.

Yet bus use is falling while ticket prices rise, the paper shows. Ridership per person has fallen by an average of over 1% each year in the nine years since 2009/10. Fares have risen by an average of around 2% each year above the Consumer Price Index (CPI) measure of inflation.

All the main political parties have acknowledged the importance of bus travel in their 2019 manifestos, but Professor Waterson says that: “in reality, different areas of the UK require different solutions to enable their bus networks to thrive.” In the short term, English cities should learn from the bus franchising system in London, he argues. In most cities, private operators compete on the same routes.

In London, operators bid for route-based franchises to run services.

Waterson says that this system creates more effective competition between operators. Some cities including Manchester are planning to copy London’s franchising model, which the paper says may well prove beneficial. But better management of franchising: “may provide only a relatively short-term (say five-year) boost to ridership,” the paper concludes.

In the long run, Professor Waterson warns, ministers will have to make more radical changes to promote bus travel and to meet environmental and congestion concerns. One option is to emulate Germany’s Travel Expenses Act which will not normally reimburse expense-paid travel by taxi on public business. German federally-funded institutions insist that travel should only take place on public transport. “Such a policy, if introduced in Britain (as regards at least to travel on the public purse), would lead to some modal shift. Radical moves such as this should be considered in Britain,” Waterson concludes.