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7 Ways to Improve London’s Bus Services

As London promotes its grand and glamorous infrastructure projects, the bus system seems unremarkable and un-cool.

It doesn’t make for good newspaper copy. Indeed the only bus-related issue that has stirred up much controversy in recent years is the introduction of the Boris bus – a lovely bit of industrial design, which, some argue, is not worth the bill.

Yet buses are of course a vital London service. The economic case for government support for buses is exceptionally strong. They are the main mode of public transport in outer London. Twice as many people take a bus every day as take the tube. They serve poorer over richer users, with the result that cuts to bus subsidy and services hurt poorer Londoners hardest. And, yes, they are also a relatively environmentally-friendly, green form of transport.

These have been pretty good times for London’s buses. The service has increased significantly, with the number of journeys growing by two thirds from 2000 to 2013 (1.4bn in 2000, 2.3bn in 2013). Subsidy has been relatively high, at least as compared to other regions. Indeed there are more bus journeys taken in London every day than throughout the whole of the rest of the UK.

But government cuts have our bus services hit hard. The Chancellor favours capital over revenue funding, and puts buses in the latter category, with the result that funding has been been dramatically reduced – the 2013 Spending Review cut TfL’s revenue funding by 25% for 2015-16.

A long term plans for London busses?

Of still greater concern, the Mayor does not seem to have any long term plans for London’s bus services. With the latest forecasts suggesting that London will grow by 2 million – almost twice the population of Birmingham – in the next 20 years, the Mayor has rightly been busy strategising. But where there are strategies for rail, roads, streets andcycling, there is no strategy for buses. The Mayor and TfL seem to be feeling their way forward, rather than planning it. The result will almost certainly be a poorer, more congested bus service.

Last week Centre for London held a seminar on the future of London’s buses, and my analysis and suggestions have been informed by discussion at this event. I am particularly grateful to Stephen Joseph for his excellent presentation. Below I provide a series of ideas, some big, some small, to help ensure a strengthened London bus network in the future.

  • With children, disabled and older people all getting free bus travel, the bill for concessionary fares is a very hefty one – a quick estimate puts it in the region of £450 million per year. There seems to be a strong case for raising the age as which older Londoners are entitled to a Freedom Pass from 65 to 70 or above. Londoners are living and working longer, and we badly need to find ways of increasing bus revenues.
  • It is time for the Mayor to undertake a thorough review of taxi and cab policy in London, including looking at lane space allocation.  Black cabs currently make up 37% per cent of vehicles on Oxford Street but carry just 1% of passengers. That cannot be right.
  • The Mayor has rightly called for more devolution of tax raising powers and tax revenues to London. This could well help our bus services. Transport spending in London is arguably skewed towards big infrastructure just because it is easier to get money from central government for these capital intensive, highly visible projects than for ‘revenue’ services like buses – though an extra pound spent on buses might well have greater economic and other benefits than an extra pound spend on tunnels and rails.
  • Our roads are increasingly crowded spaces. The bottom line is that we need to continue to find ways of tipping the balance of road users away from private vehicles – both passenger vehicles and goods vehicles –and towards trains, bikes and pedestrians – and buses. By far the most effective way of doing this would be to introduce road user charging. The mayor and TfL remain committed to this as a long-term objective, but if there is any strategy to get us from here to there it’s a well kept secret.

Finally, three readily achievable ideas:

  • I am sure I am not alone in often getting off a bus too late or too early because I am not sure of the exact rout and location of stops of the bus I am on. TfL should introduce route maps on buses like the ones we have on tube trains.
  • Road works hit bus services particularly hard, and it is hard to avoid the impression that utilities and public authorities are still too cavalier in the way they approach them. Organisations that dig up London’s roads should be obliged to display their logos prominently: ‘This disruption is brought to you by Thames Water/BT/British Gas/Transport for London’. That would concentrate minds wonderfully.
  • During the last mayoral election, Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick argued that TfL should give passengers on night buses the right to be dropped off anywhere on a bus route and not just at bus stops, so increasing safety and encouraging bus use. This was an excellent suggestion as should be acted on forthwith.