Boris Johnson has promised “London-style” bus services for other cities. So where’s the money coming from?

A bus in Middlesbrough. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Boris Johnson will have to do some work to improve buses. Quite a bit, if we are going to see the “London-style” services outside of the capital that he promises.

The money is there: £5 billion, less a bit for cycling and fair bit more that will go straight into the procurement of new low-emission vehicles. But before England becomes a bus utopia, some things need to happen. Boring things. Detail things.

What are “London-style” buses? We don’t know. But we have some clues, because in 2017 the Bus Services Act made it possible to operate buses in England in much the same way as they are in London. Features available in this legislation include allowing elected councils or mayors to decide how services are run, plan the routes, choose the specification of the vehicles, their livery and branding and fares, and integrate bus ticketing with other transport modes.

Unfortunately, no local council or mayor has used these powers, and only one is exploring it seriously, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority led by Labour mayor Andy Burnham. Liverpool City Region, also Labour run, recently indicated that it is getting more serious about going down the required route of statutory consultations and secondary legislation, but all this is time consuming. Is Johnson going to speed this process up? 

And there is a political problem, potentially, for Boris Johnson. Many of the places in England that have lots of people who could be using the bus are run by Labour mayors. Johnson might be helping the mayors back into office by giving them a success story. Conversely, he might be able to steal the credit for what could have been Andy Burnham’s greatest achievement, sorting out the Manchester buses. 

Johnson might be wise to start in the West Midlands, a region with lots of people, buses that need sorting out and a Conservative mayor – although one, admittedly, who has not been as enthusiastic about buses as the northern mayors. The issue this highlights for Johnson is that his bus offer must be attractive to local politicians for them to be compliant. It will need to be locally-led, and possibly difficult for him to control.

The likes of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are not in fact the worst affected areas for the huge cuts in bus services that have happened under austerity budgets since 2010. Those have been the more rural areas where running a bus service is hard anyway, because of low density and dispersed settlement patterns. Boris Johnson might find that these areas are hard to help. The answer is either sustained annual funding, which seems unlikely; or a technological solution like demand responsive travel services. Either way, it is very unlikely all of the 3,000+ routes cut will be restored.

One aspect of London buses that cannot be replicated elsewhere is funding. With no operational grants from central government, the capital’s bus fares are subsidised by the profits from London Underground. No such cash cow exists in other cities. So, what does Boris Johnson have up his sleeve?

Serving new housing developments could also prove difficult. We’ve been building more homes, but they are often at low density and remote from amenities, jobs and established centres of population. Merely extending existing routes creates lengthy services that are unattractive to passengers along the whole route and are vulnerable to delays caused by congestion. 

And congestion will need to be fixed to make buses an attractive option to passengers. Available ways to deal with congestion and generate sustainable revenue for buses include congestion charging, charging clean air zones and the workplace parking levy. Two of these are “London-style” and one of them works in Nottingham. Is this all a bit much for Boris Johnson, or will he leave it up to local leaders to do the politically hard part of charging motorists? On the plus side, that procurement of low emission buses would ensure operators were exempt from clean air zone charging.

If you want to know where all this money is going and what exactly “London-style” buses turn out to be then keep an eye out for the upcoming National Bus Strategy. It should give us all the required details – unless of course it is delayed.

Steve Chambers is an urban planning and transport consultant, lecturer and campaigner.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.