Buses are back on the political agenda in the UK. The two main party leaders, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, have both made modernising public transport central to their pitches in the current general election.
The big-ticket items on both sides are to do with railways. Both parties promise to invest in new high speed trains and in improving the poor services in the north of England, and Labour promise to take train companies back into public hands as part of their extensive programme of nationalisation. That isn’t surprising: railways have always appealed to the politician who wants a grand projet as a legacy.
The attraction of the humble bus is a little harder to explain. As ever in politics, the answer is to follow the numbers. Bus journeys dwarf rail journeys – there are 10 times more of them every year. But those numbers are in decline and, together with route closures and the reduction in bus grants – down nearly a half in a decade – the missing bus has become a symbol of austerity and government neglect of the public realm in villages, towns and cities. In parallel, the rise of new city region mayors has created powerful politicians outside London, like Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham. who make the case for public transport as crucial to economic vibrancy and city regeneration.
Crucially, though, for this election period, buses are used by large numbers of Labour voters the Conservatives want to win over. And Johnson is that rare Tory leader: one with a genuine passion for buses. As mayor of London he had a new double-decker designed and built for the city’s transport network – the eponymous “Boris Bus”.
In many ways, London is the model for the reforms that Burnham wants for Manchester and Labour is offering in its manifesto. When Margaret Thatcher opened the bus market in England to competition in the 1980s, she exempted London. The mayor franchises bus routes, protecting Londoners from the free for all of the “bus wars” that privatisation brought. Transport for London, the mayor’s strategic agency, also integrates ticketing for rail, tube, tram and buses through the Oyster card.
Cynics with a long memory will see City Region Mayors controlling public transport as just the return of the English Metropolitan Counties in a new guise. There is some truth to that. What is interesting is that the drive is towards franchising rather than the wholesale municipalisation of the bus network.
This is because the new generation of bus industry leaders talk the same language as politicians. Meet the Chief Executive of one of the bus companies and the will talk to you about climate change – they will tell you that their buses are going electric, that one full double decker replaces 75 cars and that their “Chatty Bus” helps to tackle loneliness and improve mental wellbeing. Great corporate citizens who see that their buses are vehicles for so many important policy outcomes.
However, the problem with bus policy – both Labour and Conservative – is that it risks missing the fundamental point. Neither party has any coherent strategy for halting, let alone reversing, the decline in bus usage.
Franchising is not the answer. In the words of HL Mencken, that’s a policy which is “simple, obvious and wrong”. The lesson of London is not that bus privatisation is a failure, nor that buses are cheaper or more frequent than outside the capital. Bluntly put, it is that the main competition to buses – the car – has been made systematically more expensive. It’s not just the congestion charge, it’s also the way that bus and cycle lanes cut car space and make roads more congested and slower for drivers. Then there’s planning policies that have central London so much denser – unlike most of the country’s big cities. And the cost of parking in large parts of London – plus tough enforcement – which increases the expense of driving.
In the end, this is the harsh reality that the battle between the Labour and Tory parties over bus policy conceals. It is impossible to make buses so cheap and the networks so extensive that people give up cars: that would be unrealistically costly. People will only be driven out of their cars by making them far more expensive.
But there’s a collusive consensus here. Drivers in English towns and cities are precisely the swing voters over whom the parties are fighting in the marginal constituencies which will decide the election. Neither Johnson nor Corbyn would dream of suggesting a policy that would make driving more expensive.
So we are left with warm words and modest change that may slow the decline of bus use but the full potential of this form of transport – which is now nearly 200 years old – will remain untapped.
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John McTernan was a senior adviser to the Blair government.