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Transport / Mass transit

In England, a call to regulate city buses

Bus ridership in Greater Manchester has collapsed since the lockdowns began. The city region hopes to bring back better service through a regulated bus network.

Deregulated buses in Manchester
Buses facilitate economic inclusion like no other public transport. A British think tank suggests that re-regulating them is essential for reliable, equitable service. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

England has seen three national lockdowns and additional local restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Public transport patronage across the country and its city regions collapsed during the first lockdown, falling by over 90% across Greater Manchester’s transport network in March 2020. At times, bus operators struggled to provide full service as staff shielded from the virus. Passenger capacity per bus was also greatly reduced under social distancing restrictions.

While Greater Manchester’s passenger numbers started to recover before the second national lockdown, they have consistently remained far below pre-pandemic levels as many work from home. Meanwhile, the city region’s car traffic saw a faster “recovery”, and levels of cycling were consistently higher than pre-pandemic levels during the spring and summer, before dropping in the autumn.

These shifts have had a marked financial effect on public transport. The UK government has provided some support, including a rolling national fund for buses running at £27.3m ($37.6m) each week. Greater Manchester’s tram system, Metrolink, received support worth £61.55m to keep its network running from March 2020 to January 2021.

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In response to these changes and potential long-term impacts, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, led by Mayor Andy Burnham, recently completed a public consultation to consider its proposed franchise model to re-regulate buses. This proposal would mean the local transit body, Transport for Greater Manchester, would control bus service and design routes and timetables while contracting out day-to-day operations.

The UK government limits local government’s available options for managing bus service in England. Franchising is the option that maximises local control over buses. In Greater Manchester, it has public support: in the initial consultation, over 80% of respondents were in favour of franchising.

Among the English city regions with mayors and devolved powers, Greater Manchester is most advanced in seeking to locally control buses. A prior consultation there, ending in January 2020, was required under the statutory process of setting up a franchise model. The second sought to ensure that the process remained valid in the context of Covid-19. This might seem excessive, but the likelihood of a legal challenge from private bus companies hangs over the process.

The current model

Within England at present, only London has a franchise model for its buses. After deregulation in the 1980s, private operators set routes, frequencies, timetables, fares and quality standards for bus networks outside of London. As a result, there is no “guiding mind” tasked with building transport networks. Instead, operators follow commercial motives, and route-by-route profits trump coherent network building.

London buses
Better buses are needed now just as much as before Covid-19. In London, the systems are franchised, which IPRR argues should be the UK standard. (Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Following deregulation, passenger bus journeys outside London plummeted from 3.37 billion to 1.98 billion from 2019 to 2020 while rising by 0.93 billion in London. While use of private cars and taxis rose across England, London’s 10% increase in annual car and taxi vehicle miles between 1993 and 2019 was far outpaced by 35% growth for the rest of England.

Elsewhere in Europe (including the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany), municipal bodies have greater control over all aspects of local transport, and municipal ownership of operating companies is common. In England, such ownership is discouraged; in fact, English law expressly forbids creating municipal operators to bid for contracts.

Even in the US, which British commentators often regard as car-centric, local governments have a significantly freer hand over buses than their English counterparts – though the extent to which those powers are fully utilised is another matter.

The journey so far

At IPPR North, our research has long shown that England’s deregulation experiment has failed. The lack of an attractive bus network for passengers contributes to rising car use and congestion, severe air pollution and communities severed from opportunities. Meanwhile, passengers have faced rising fares and service cutbacks.

In Greater Manchester, 2019-20 heralded a low point of around 177 million passenger bus journeys, down from 227 million in 2009-10. Per head, that is around 63 fewer passenger journeys – almost four times lower than London’s 233 per person.

Within Greater Manchester, there is a gulf between successful routes and “bus deserts”.  Competition has driven service frequency up and fares down in specific locations, such as Manchester‘s Oxford Road corridor, often cited as Europe’s busiest bus route. Inter-operator competition happens there, but many buses run empty due to oversupply, creating congestion and pollution. Despite investment in local roads to prioritise buses and reduce congestion, air pollution on Oxford Road sees annual mean concentration of nitrous oxide at 59 microgrammes per cubic metre of air, versus a target of no more than 40.

The rest of the city region faces another reality. Broadly divided into north and south, operators run poorly integrated routes with individual fare systems. Little real competition on routes means local monopolies have formed, leading to expensive, infrequent and often unreliable bus service. This lack of integration is complicated and pricey for passengers. There are over 150 types of tickets, and switching between operators, a tram or a rail service demands separate fares, with no facility for automatic fare capping.

Regulating for benefits

Across England, we are all paying the price of deregulation – whether or not we use buses. Better buses are needed now just as much as before Covid-19.

Buses facilitate economic inclusion like no other public transport. They are the most used public transport in Greater Manchester, where 31% of households have no access to a car. Jobseekers are particularly reliant on buses. Despite some people heralding the end of workplaces, many jobs will always require attendance in person. Indeed, during the pandemic, many workers – often the lowest-paid yet most important – continue to do so.

Bus drivers are workers too, and decent wages and conditions within that industry are not guaranteed under deregulation. Franchising would allow local politicians to demand good working conditions and fair wages for workers in franchises. This is common practice in Europe. For example, 13 of the 16 German states, and cities including Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin, have standards covering issues like working conditions, pay and collective bargaining in public tendering, including for bus services.

Buses matter beyond commuting and work, providing access to healthcare, green spaces, leisure, friends and family. But routes that serve these functions are often seen as less economical on an individual basis and vulnerable to cuts. Bus franchising can rebuild this function of the network, allowing cross-subsidisation of routes to support social needs alongside commuting – combatting economic as well as social isolation.

The sustainable case for regulation

Air pollution is a serious threat in Greater Manchester, and the city region is aiming for net-zero carbon emissions. Our previous research highlighted how Manchester’s air pollution is “lethal and illegal”, with England’s highest rates of emergency hospitalisation for asthma. The current bus fleet doesn’t help matters: in 2018, over one in five buses fell into the most polluting categories.

Regulated buses can reduce carbon emissions, not least by making the vehicles attractive to riders with an affordable, reliable and integrated network, which challenges the dominance of private cars. The local control that franchising affords encourages local government to invest in capital projects and revenue spending – which should include investing in low-carbon fleets.

The case for a regulated bus network in Greater Manchester and England’s other city regions is strong, and it’s time for combined authorities to pull the franchising lever. But this decision is not the end of the journey – transport entities will then find their role significantly expanded. It’s a transition that will not necessarily be easy and will need significant resources in the first few years to get it right. Covid-19, its disruption and the fall in passenger numbers during the crisis make this harder. There is a gap that government ought to fill, providing transitional support to help unlock the real benefits that franchising can bring to our cities.

Marcus Johns is a researcher fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.