Image © David Dixon via Geograph

Greater Manchester is getting its public transport off the struggle bus

It is the first combined authority outside of London to bring buses back under public control.

It is the first combined authority outside of London to bring buses back under public control

When it comes to iconic forms of transport, few can top London’s red double-deckers, which over the years have featured in Olympics ceremonies, rap music videos and millions of tourist’s photo albums. Bus use in the city increased by 52 percent per person between 1993 and 2018 (more recent stats are thrown out of whack by the pandemic). Outside the capital, however, British buses are in a bit of a sorry state. Over that same quarter century, the bus use per person in England’s other metropolitan areas decreased by 40 percent.

It isn’t that Brits don’t like buses. Indeed, they’re still by far the most used type of public transport around. Instead, people are being turned off by issues like increasing fare costs and decreasing availability. During the austerity years, which kicked off in 2010, local government funding for buses was almost halved. Things haven’t got better: close to one in ten local bus routes were axed in 2022.

Fewer bus journeys looks like a problem. Over the years, billions of trips that would have been taken by bus have instead been taken by car or not taken at all. In the former case, that means more congestion, pollution, and environmental damage. In the latter case, it means people may be missing out on activities that are personally, societally or economically enriching - meeting up with friends, going to job interviews, shopping, volunteering, accessing social services, seeing a new art exhibition and so on. This loss will be disproportionately borne by disadvantaged groups who struggle to access cars or pricier forms of public transport: young people, old people, people with disabilities, and people on the lower end of the income spectrum.

Since London isn’t having the same problems with bus use, some people are wondering if a solution is for other cities’ buses to become a little more like the red double deckers. For years, London has been unique in England and Wales for having a transport system that is under public control. Using a franchise model, Transport for London (TfL), a local government body, sets bus timetables, fares, and routes. It also owns all the fare revenues, while bus companies bid for TfL contracts to operate the service. As a result, TfL can offer travellers things like flexible tickets - if the tube breaks down, you can use your ticket on the bus instead – and capped daily fares.

The story is different in other cities. Since the Thatcherite deregulation of the 1980s, bus routes, timetables and fares are owned by for-profit bus companies. Although multiple companies usually operate in one area (Greater Manchester had almost 40 bus companies roaming its streets in 2022) they are forbidden by competition law from working with each other to coordinate their schedules and routes, and passengers cannot switch between services without buying a new ticket. For-profit bus companies, unsurprisingly, are also uninterested in things that will cause them to lose money, such as running buses at unpopular times of day, or along low footfall routes, or giving fare discounts to people of a certain age or income bracket. Since society at large isinterested in, say, pensioners being able to afford to get to hospital appointments or night workers being able to get to their jobs, the local government steps in and subsidises these parts of the bus operation.

In 2017, the UK government announced that England’s ten combined authorities would have the power to switch to a bus franchising model like London’s. Six years later, the first example of this is happening. The wheels of the first of Greater Manchester’s yellow ‘Bee Network’ buses hit the streets in September 2023, with the whole fleet due to become fully operational by 2025. It promises a significantly better passenger experience, with buses that are better value, more reliable, more accessible, and more sustainable. Capped fares and flexible tickets will be offered. Judging by local news coverage, the scheme is popular, not least amongst journalists who have been given ample opportunity to make puns about the “buzz” the Bee Network has generated.

Given all these benefits, why has it taken so long for Greater Manchester to move to a bus franchise model? And why has no other combined authorities yet followed suit? As always, the answer basically boils down to money. Overhauling and then running a bus network is expensive, and local governments are increasingly strapped for cash. Greater Manchester has spent £135 million on the switchover. That’s almost five times what it was spending on bus subsidies under the old model – and of course, it will need to keep paying for those money-losing bus activities. Cities are also concerned that bus companies might lodge expensive legal challenges against them if they try to take over their business, and that local authorities will struggle to find and fund the expertise needed to deal with the UK’s complicated transport regulation.

TfL subsidises its buses by diverting revenue from its more profitable forms of transport like the Tube: to the tune of about £722 million a year pre-pandemic. But other parts of the country don’t have such an obvious cash-cow. There are, however, other options. Greater Manchester is cracking down on fare-dodgers. Fines will increase by 20 percent, to £120. Plus, since all the revenues from buses now go to the local government, Greater Manchester can use any profit from busier routes to subsidise quieter ones. Plus, assuming the changes to the bus network succeeds in its aim of encouraging more bus journeys overall, revenues may rise even while fares are going down.

Zooming out a bit, getting more people onto buses could also save governments money in other areas. Pulling on some of the examples listed at the top of this article, a better bus service could translate to cleaner city air, better job opportunities and more chances for vulnerable people to socialise and get support from their community. If that happened, less state money would need to be spent on things like healthcare and social services. Economists call these sort of hidden spillover effects of an economic decision ‘externalities’. Smart economic policy should add in positive and negative externalities when considering various options, such as whether to franchise a bus service. That’s how we can tell what the actual ‘cost’ of a particular policy is.

Quite a few of the positive externalities of better buses will benefit the national government rather than local ones. For example, it is Westminster that funds the NHS. In theory, that should make the UK government keen to chip in to help publicly controlled bus systems get going. In practice, the current government is making cuts to transport funding across the board. It announced in March that it would reduce transport spending in this parliamentary term by £800 million, saying its priorities are “controlling inflation and reducing government debt”.

Combined authorities interested in franchising models are therefore probably on their own. Many will be watching Greater Manchester closely to see if success is possible. If the Bee Network takes off, it might well inspire copycats elsewhere. Liverpool has already said it would like to follow suit, and is currently awaiting the results of a public consultation into the idea.

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