London’s buses form the backbone of the capital’s public transport system. Its 10,000 buses operating nearly 700 routes serve many areas that are not reached by London’s tube and rail, and provide an essential service to many Londoners, especially those on lower incomes who are more likely to use them.
But despite this, the number of people choosing to travel by bus has been falling since 2014, and it is predicted to fall by a further 2.3 per cent per year from 2016-17. Vehicle congestion – on the rise in the capital – is often cited as a major contributing factor, as it means buses have become a less reliable, slower option for commenters.
With ballooning bike numbers, many areas have seen cyclists and buses come into direct conflict, slowing them down further. Private Hire Vehicles emerging as competitors on some routes (especially off-peak), have also contributed to the drop. With fewer passengers choosing to travel by bus, tube ridership and London's suburban rail network are increasing overcrowded.
Reversing the downward trend in bus ridership would ease pressure across London’s transport network. The current mayor has introduced a number of changes to the bus network, made all the more pressing given Transport for London’s declining revenues and rising operating costs, with the view of turning around its fortunes.
One of the first measures introduced was the Hopper fare, which gives passengers the right to a second free bus journey within an hour of their previous one. Its popularity has meant an improved Hopper, allowing unlimited journeys within the hour, will launch in 2018. The mayor has also taken steps to renew bus prioritisation measures, improve information and customer service, and reviewed traffic signals to improve bus journey speeds and reliability.
Are these measures starting to have an effect? Recent TfL journey data suggests at least a slowing down of the decline in use. While four-week periods during 2016 saw year-on-year declines of up to 23 per cent, since May this year, the available data (to 16 September) shows three out of five periods saw year-on-year growth, something not seen since late 2014.
Whether this is just a blip in the longer term trend downwards, or a ‘bottoming out’ is hard to tell – future passenger number releases will start to build up a fuller picture.
On a positive note meanwhile, GLA analysis suggests 100m Hopper fares were used within the first year of operation, although this is small drop in the ocean (compared to over 2.2bn bus journeys in total over the same period), and the net addition of journeys is likely to be lower than this. Other measures – having only been announced earlier this year – are likely to take longer to result in significant changes.
There is certainly more the mayor can do. His draft Transport Strategy contains ambitious targets for reducing private car use, which will be particularly tricky in outer London, and buses will surely play a role in this. The introduction of demand-responsive hybrid bus-taxi services, as suggested in Centre for London’s Street Smarts report on the future of surface transport in London, could be a way to improve the network. Similar in nature to CityMapper’s recently launched ‘Black Bus’ route, these would be smaller than traditional buses, and operate routes where travel demand is high and possibly infrequent, but supply is lacking.
In Central London, more bus prioritisation measures such as developing bus rapid transit corridors would help bypass issues of congestion, although managing the conflicting demands for limited road space is a tricky balancing act.
The game is a long and complex one for London’s buses, and a definitive judgement on the effectiveness of the policies already introduced must wait, but even more can be done to ensure they continue to serve the city and Londoners’ mobility needs.
Tom Colthorpe is a researcher at Centre for London.
Bus journeys are one of a number of indicators analysed in ‘The London Intelligence’, the Centre’s quarterly report which analyses London’s performance across a range of sectors and issues. The Centre’s ‘Street Smarts’ report was launched in October.