Why are Britain’s buses in crisis?

A number 15 London bus. Image: Oxyman/Wikimedia Commons.

Buses are Britain’s most frequently used form of public transport: last year, 4.4bn bus trips were made across England, and buses account for 59 per cent of all public transport trips in Great Britain (compared with 21 per cent by rail). But since 2010, local authority funding for buses has halved, and thousands of services have been cut.

This affects everyone, but especially people on low incomes, the young and the elderly. Without immediate action to halt the decline of Britain’s buses, many could be left without a way to access vital services and opportunities – and ultimately, excluded from society.

In England, the young and the elderly collectively account for nearly half of all bus passengers; children under 16 account for 19 per cent, and those aged over 60 account for 25 per cent. Fewer bus services mean their travel options shrink significantly. Working age people – that’s 21- to 59-year-olds – tend to travel more by train.

England’s lowest income people also make 75 per cent of their public transport trips by bus. If we divide the population up into five groups – from the lowest income, to the highest income – then the lowest income group makes three times as many bus trips as the highest income group. By comparison, the highest income group make 20 per cent fewer public transport trips and 75 per cent more private transport trips, while travelling more by train than bus.

Bus services are particularly important to those without access to a private car or van. For them, bus journeys make up 43 per cent of motorised trips – compared with just 4 per cent among people who have access to private transport. Those lower-income households without a car or van also made 30 per cent fewer trips overall in 2016.

But even those households with a car or van suffer from poor public transport options: around 9 per cent of all UK households have a low income but high motoring costs. Without good public transport, these households have no option but to find savings elsewhere, to meet the cost of driving.

How did it come to this?

Outside London, England’s bus market was deregulated and privatised in the mid-1980s, which means that local authorities don’t plan and manage the bus network. Instead, private bus operators decide where, when and how frequently to run buses. Since bus operators are focused on routes that can deliver a profit, the service can be sparse, and tends to be focused on peak hours.

Local authorities can choose to fund socially inclusive bus services to complement the for-profit network - but these services have been hit particularly hard by successive governments’ cuts to local authority budgets. This is because – unlike social care – local authorities are not obliged by law to fund bus services.

Since 2010, local authority bus funding has dropped by 46 per cent – from £374m in 2010-11, to £203m in 2017-18. A few local authorities have cut all subsidies: for example, in Oxfordshire, a 2015 FOI request from the Campaign for Better Transport revealed the agreed total budget for supported bus services in the fiscal year 2018-19 was zero. There, the community had to step in to run their own, not-for-profit service.

Local authority spend on buses in England for each financial year from 2010 to 2018. Image: Buses in Crisis Report.

Bus usage has also been in long-term decline: over the past two decades, miles travelled by bus have fallen 17 per cent. In 1990-1, bus trips accounted for 74 per cent of all public transport trips in Great Britain – today, it’s 59 per cent.

But this isn’t just a result of people switching to other forms of transport. The decline in miles travelled by bus is driven by a steep fall in travel on local government funded bus services. Travel fell 46.6 per cent over the decade to 2016-17, and 13.8 per cent between 2015-16 and 2016-17 alone. Meanwhile, over the same decade, bus miles travelled on commercially operated services have only increased by 1.8 per cemt.

Stopping the fall

Over the last 25 years, bus usage per person has increased by 52 per cent in London, while falling by 40 per cent in England’s other metropolitan areas. More than half of all bus trips in England now happen in London. London has, to some extent, managed to buck the long-term downward trend, because unlike in the rest of England, the bus market there was not deregulated.

Buses galore. Image: davidsbill/Flickr/creative commons.

London retained its ability to strategically plan and manage the routes, frequency, times of operation and fares of its buses. Its model means that profitable routes can cross-subsidise less profitable – but socially important – routes. What’s more, having control of the bus network means all the different modes of public transport can be organised to deliver better travel options to all, and a viable alternative to the car.

In 2017, the UK government passed the Bus Services Act – a tacit acknowledgement that the current deregulated bus market model is not working. The new law gives combined authorities with a directly elected mayor similar powers over bus regulation to London.


Only six regions currently qualify: Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West of England and West Midlands. Elsewhere, local government services are being cut further, while private companies provide limited services at high prices (over the past two decades bus fares across England have risen 45 per cent in real terms).

The Bus Services Act also bans local authorities from setting up their own bus service. Well-run municipal bus companies could save local authorities money which could blunt the severity of bus cuts - Nottingham and Reading are successful examples of this model.

The ConversationRegulating the bus market would clear the way for bus services to address transport inequality and poverty. Bus services help tackle social exclusion and loneliness, and allow those living outside the city centre and without a car to access employment, education and healthcare. As bus services are cut, not only do many people’s travel options shrink or vanish – so does their ability to be a part of society.

Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.