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.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.