The Bus Services Bill escaped the focus of commentators when it was mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech – but for people living in most of the country, it could make a significant difference to their daily lives. Not only that, but this bill paves the way for a key political battle in next year’s inaugural “Metro Mayor” elections.
Outside of London, our bus networks don’t work particularly well. Across most of England, bus companies can in theory compete “on the street”, vying with one another for passengers at the same stop, and on the same route. In practice, there is little or no competition in most parts of the country. Large providers monopolise whole markets in some places; don’t run any services at all where they see no short-term demand; and cause congestion and waste where they do compete, with half-empty buses jostling for passengers in our busy town and city centres.
For many people this means an unpleasant daily experience. Passengers have to buy a different ticket if their journey means changing bus companies. There’s more pollution in the air in our increasingly populated city centres. And the quality of these services is often poor in punctuality, frequency and the standard of the bus itself. Bus passenger journeys outside of London have been in decline for decades.
London might as well be a different country: in the capital, mayor Khan and Transport for London are in charge of their bus network. There is plenty of private sector competition: buses compete to run a particular service, but these contracts and routes are specified by the transport authority. This doesn’t just mean TfL can make the whole transport network work far more smoothly for passengers; it also enables them to invest more, or set, freeze or cap hourly “hopper” fares. And of course they are able to roll-out a particularly effective form of integrated smart ticketing – first Oyster, and now contactless. London now accounts for more than half of all the country’s bus passenger journeys, and patronage is rising – unlike elsewhere.