A recent immigrant reviews some of the UK’s bus services

London buses in the snow. Image: Getty.

As a public transport user day in, day out, I’ve had the experience of riding local buses in few UK cities. Even though it’s a pretty small country geographically, its infrastructure varies widely depending on where you live.

Since I’ve lived the majority of my UK life in London so far, I thought it would be interesting to compare how its bus services compare with other areas. I’ve lived in North Devon’s main town Barnstaple for a while, where I depended mostly on rides from my father. In a few months time, I’ll be moving to Birmingham, which still thinks of itself as the second city of the UK.

But I’ve tried the bus service is all three areas more than a few times – so, I’ll be comparing a capital with one of the UK’s second tier cities and a regional town.

Here’s a chart, summarising the outcome of my research:

London: The defender

The first thing you should know about London buses is that they are not the main method of public transport for Londoners. London boasts the world’s oldest underground network: only a few cities in the world can compete to that service, and certainly there’s nothing like it anywhere else in UK.

But London’s iconic buses do also play a vital role for a huge number of Londoners. They’re still the cheapest way to travel the last leg of your journey back to home, and the top deck of a double decker is a great place from which to explore the capital.

London’s buses are run by multiple different companies, but these days they’re all red and they’re all regulated by the mighty Transport for London authority. You don’t need to know which company is operating your bus: all you need is the route number and the bus stop.


All the buses also have announcements and digital displays listing the next stop inside the bus: if you are travelling somewhere for the first time, you should still be able to follow and updates and get off at the right stop.

To make payments, you can the good old Oyster Card system or a contactless credit/debit card. There is a flat £1.50 fare for a single journey no matter how many stops you travel on or which zone you are travelling to. Since last year, all the buses you take within a single hour are considered as a single journey, just like on the tube. There is a daily cap of £4.50, which is fun because you can make unlimited journeys, and still be charged only £4.50. Trust me, London doesn’t get any cheaper than this! You can purchase a monthly bus pass for £81.50, but I wouldn’t bother, since pay as you go would be cheaper a lot of the time.

Real time bus arrival data display is on offer in most of the London bus shelters, and stops without a shelter are quite rare these days. This data has been made public, so that travel apps like Citymapper and Google can update their users about the next bus in their closest stop. All the buses have two doors for getting on or off the bus.

Birmingham: the Contender

A Birmingham bus on its rounds. Image: Image: Hamz/Wikimedia Commons.

I have not travelled many times on buses in Birmingham, or in the West Midlands in the broader sense, but I can spot the differences already. Birmingham doesn’t have an extensive train or light metro rail like Manchester, let alone London – so, there are many areas where bus is the only option for those who don’t drive.

This city has an identity as a motor city and has been notoriously famous for its road accidents. To reduce congestion around the city, the Transport for West Midlands and West Midlands mayor Andy Street are working hard to take people out of their cars and make public transport more popular again.

The colour of Birmingham/West Midlands buses vary widely, because each operator use their distinctive branded colour for the buses. The biggest operator in the region is National Express West Midlands (NXWM), responsible for around 80 per cent of bus journeys in the region.

Multiple operators often run buses on the same route – but an NXWM ticket won't be valid on a Claribels bus or a Diamond bus. To avoid this issue, you can purchase an ‘nbus’ (n means network) day ticket, accepted on most West Midland’s buses. But these are more expensive – so if you know your journey is covered by NXWM buses, you simply should buy a NXWM ticket and so keep your cost to a minimum.

A London’s oyster style Swift card has been growing more popular among the West Midlanders, but it’s not really a ticket in itself: rather, it’s a payment card, and you have to touch and hold the card on the reader until the driver has finished processing your ticket order.


Multiple types of tickets are available for different areas, times of the day, and number of people in your group – so unless you know which ticket you’re looking for, you might end up spending more. Once your order is processed, you have to wait for the paper ticket to print out and keep hold of it unless it’s a single ticket. You will need to show this paper ticket next time you board a different bus, unless you want to pay again.

The cheapest adult single ticket can be only £1.50 for a short hop and in some parts of the Black Country, but longer journeys cost up to £2.40. Day tickets covering individual networks can be between £3 and £4.60; an nBus day pass, which let you ride on any bus, is £4.90. But without going to the TFWM website, it’s really hard to figure out which ticket you should take before you start your journey.

As to longer tickets, a four week bus pass from NXWM is only £62.50 via M-ticket, and a monthly region nbus pass is available at £64.50 by direct debit. So, a monthly bus pass is cheaper than in London – but single tickets are definitely more expensive in Birmingham. There’s no changing buses, and no daily cap, either.

NXWM has introduced superior quality premium buses, and you can ride them for the same price of a regular bus, if your area is served by one of the X bus routes. These buses are more spacious, fitted with free wi-fi and features voice announcements, unlike regular buses in the region. Some of them shuttle to skip stops to give a faster journey time. But unlike London buses, West Midlands buses have a single door to get in or out.

A Sweden based company MaaS Global has launched its Whim ticketing service in the West Midlands, to help counteract the lack of integration. The monthly plan Whim Everyday will allow you to travel on all the region’s public transport, including train and Midland Metro, for £99. As I write, a bus only package is on the way, and I am excited to see if whim can resolve the ticketing complications in the region. If the HS2 connectivity package is delivered by 2026, and the 20 year “Big City Plan” is successful, the future looks bright.

Barnstaple: The forgotten

A Stagecoach Bus in Barnstaple bus Station. Image: Dave Growns/Flickr/creative commons.

Barnstaple is a relatively small town in south west England, but is a popular holiday destination during the summer. I’ve lived there for about two years, and taken the local bus service fewer than ten times. North Devon is definitely not a public transport stronghold, and First Group withdrew its service from Barnstaple in 2012, but Stagecoach is still active there.

It’s unlikely that a Barnstaple resident can take a bus without walking at least 15–20 mins from their home to the bus station or the Green Lanes shopping mall in the town. From the bus station, there are 21 and 21A buses with at least 10 destinations. I have no idea why they need to keep the same route number for multiple destinations: it means you not only need to keep the bus number in mind, but also have to focus on the final destination.


The network will take you to towns like Bideford, Great Torrington, Ilfracombe, Croyde and Westward Ho!. The last time I took a bus to Westward ho!, I had to wait about 45 mins to get the next bus on my way home. I could suggest the bus network for a leisurely look around, but won’t suggest anybody to take the service on a day to day basis to go to their workplace. Some people might do it, but most workplaces won’t actually be covered by the service provided, and the only option left for the locals will be driving their own car.

Because it’s a monopoly for Stagecoach, pricing is relatively simple: £2 for a single, £4.60 for an unlimited day rider ticket. All the available monthly plans cost below £50, which is a plus.

The last time I checked, the buses weren’t accepting card payments, but would return change if you pay in cash (something not possible in London or Birmingham). There is no live bus arrival API available from Stagecoach, but the buses do maintain the published time table.

There is no tangible future plan to revive the dying bus services around north Devon. This one of the reasons I left the place in the first place.

*****

Use of public transport in UK is decreasing year on year: there are many towns like Barnstaple scattered around the country, but no other city whose bus network is anything like London’s. We need better buses to decrease the divides around this country.

Sami A. Rahman tweets as @samiar_uk.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.