Institution of Civil Engineers calls for road strategy & bus regulation

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The report also calls for more acceptance of multi-operator smart ticketing and real-time information

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has released a report entitled State of the Nation: Transport.

In terms of roads management, the ICE said: “Decades of rising motor traffic has strained the capacity of the network. Population growth and renewed economic growth could do so further. This is particularly the case around our major conurbations and on the main links between them but it is not the whole story. There are still parts of the country where roads do not meet modern standards and where journey times, reliability and safety standards are inadequate. This is particularly the case for Welsh North-South routes, and for some single carriageway trunk routes in Scotland and England.”

The ICE argued that one way to ensure a clear funding stream would be to hypothecate the proceeds of current taxes on motoring to provide this fund – or to support the activities of a private sector operator under the supervision of an economic regulator. The body claimed motorists currently pay far more in fuel duty and Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) than is re-invested in the roads themselves. Income to the Treasury from roads-related taxes is expected to fall in the longer-term even if mileage increases as more fuel-efficient and electric and other non-petrol/diesel vehicles become more common.

Against this backdrop, ICE said that in the longer term a more sophisticated system of charging for road use is likely to be the best solution. ICE did however recognise the political challenge in delivering such a change and the need for a full and open national debate on the different options.

In contrast to rail, local buses have not – with a few exceptions – seen significant increases in patronage, the ICE argued. In England’s Metropolitan areas (excluding London), ridership has halved since the mid 1980s, although more people use buses than trains and in many areas they are often the only option for those without cars.

ICE said it would like to see changes to ensure “a better, more attractive, bus service” which in urban areas offers a competitive alternative to the private car and congested rail for many trips. It made the following recommendations:

  • Enhancing Metropolitan areas’ effective powers over routes, fares, frequencies and vehicle standards (particularly with respect to emissions). To this end, UK Government should review the effectiveness of Quality Partnerships and particularly Quality Contracts, making the latter a more practical option if other means prove inadequate;
  • Reviewing compulsory concessionary fares schemes in order to optimise their considerable budgets against clear transport and other objectives. While understandably popular with beneficiaries the scheme’s equity and long-term value for money appear unclear;
  • Requiring operators to accept multi-operator smart ticketing as a condition of operation (as is the case in London, and for concessionary fares in Scotland);
  • Ensuring reliable, accessible real time running information is universally available via simple mobile applications; and
  • Outside London, current arrangements work well in places (Oxford and Brighton, for example) but such good practice needs to become the norm, rather than the exception.

ICE did recognise that a more regulated approach to bus services could impose costs on the public purse, where budgets are already under pressure. However it argued that with around £2.5bn of public money being spent on bus operations in England each year, representing a large part of operators’ income, there is also scope to achieve more from current spending.