Buses make up 80 per cent of public transport journeys in Greater Manchester.
They’re the backbone of local economies and our ability to access jobs and opportunity. When they’re unreliable, they hold us back. Some 37 per cent of job seekers in Greater Manchester cited transport as one of the key barriers to getting a job. That’s over a third of us not able to get our foot in the door.
So why isn’t our transport up to scratch? Why are our buses expensive, late and infrequent? Why aren’t local transport authorities doing their job and setting up the infrastructure for us to live our lives? The simple answer is the system currently doesn’t let most authorities run or have any oversight of bus networks.
Currently, most bus networks across the country – including in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield – are currently deregulated, except for a few pockets (where publicly owned buses companies exist). Bus companies only run the routes they want to, and they set the fares. Most think that it’s the local transport authorities that are in the driving seat, but actually the only time they can put on a bus service is when there is a big need and they have cash to offer to bus companies. They’re at the mercy of big bus companies, who run the profitable routes and take public money to foot the bill of other services. It’s against competition law for bus companies to cooperate, so you cannot have a smart ticket which lets you get on any bus or tram in one city. We have a patchy, fragmented network which no one takes accountability for as a result.
And why would they want to cooperate on better services? Many bus companies hate the idea of a daily cap on spend, like you have with the Oyster card in London. The system works well for them. Some 40 per cent of bus companies’ revenue is public money. Shareholders of ‘the big five’ pocket £149 million a year on average, all while First raised fares last week in West Yorkshire and Leeds. There was an outcry online, with one Leeds bus passenger writing: “Absolute joke. No wonder people are preferring to drive rather than use public transport.”
This wildly inefficient use of public money is increasingly untenable, as government cuts to bus budgets mean there is less cash in the pot to offer socially necessary services.
So, what could we do instead? How can we fix our buses and make bus companies accountable to us? Regulation. Regulating a network basically means that one body, a local authority, has oversight of it, deciding the routes in advance, tendering out contracts to bus companies for a set amount of years. Authorities can use profits from busy routes to subsidise other routes, because they receive fare money, so all communities can have a bus service. Local authorities decide the timetables, pensions of drivers, maximum emissions that buses give out, what fares to charge, and more.
It’s pretty exciting, and Greater Manchester is among the first authority in the UK to consider it, which could set a precedent for others to follow.
Is it coincidence that under London’s regulated bus network, where Transport for London (accountable to the Mayor) runs the buses, they have one of the best bus networks in the world? Clean, reliable, frequent, and affordable.
Bus regulation is not a catchy slogan. It’s the difference between your access to jobs, services, and your loved ones and it’s one of the big ways we’ll achieve less congested cities with healthier air.