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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 04:34 GMT
Still waiting for the bus
John Ware
By John Ware

Ten years ago the new Labour government promised better integration of transport and a greater role for the bus.
Bus out of service
Outside London, bus passengers have continued to defect to cars

But an integrated transport system - "that eternal cliché" as Stephen Glaister, Professor of Transport and Infrastructure at Imperial College, London, so pungently puts it - means vastly more than park-and-ride schemes and bus and train timetables that match up.

Ultimately, it is about weaning us off our addiction to unsustainable hyper-mobility by redesigning our towns and realigning all modes of transport so that we use our cars less, and our own two feet and public transport more.

The integrated dream burst upon the early Blair years with a high voltage vision - the creation of the Department for Environment, Transport and Regions.

At the heart of an integrated transport system must be the bus. It remains the most widely used and most cost effective form of public transport

Here were gathered all the indispensable components of an integrated system under one roof of the mightiest government department ever created, with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott poised to fuse them into one coherent whole.

Well, it did not happen.

Though passionate about integration, Mr Prescott did not have sufficient clout with No 10.

Bus decline

At their urging, successive transport ministers tried to pick away at his policies which they regarded as anti-car, like his idea for an out-of-town retail parking tax.

Moreover, the link between the environment and transport was broken in the autumn of 2000 when, confronted by a blockade of petrol depots by tanker drivers, the chancellor abandoned the fuel escalator - the annual above-inflation increase in fuel duty - introduced by the Tories to damp down demand.

Buses in a congested London street
So congested are the roads that a modest shift from car use will require a massive increase in buses

At the heart of an integrated transport system must be the bus. It remains the most widely used and most cost effective form of public transport.

But outside London, bus passengers have continued to defect to cars. Despite the government's pledge to develop quality public transport, nothing they have done has reversed that decline.

Transport authorities also say they need to get control of routes and bus timetables.

Bigger subsidies

The government, however, has allowed bus companies to determine both, which has led to a free-for-all.

The Transport Select Committee says this unregulated bus system seems to have exacerbated the decline of the bus in the English regions as they focus on the most profitable routes at the expense of less profitable ones.

In isolated rural areas cars and taxis may well be more practical than buses carrying mostly fresh air.

But in semi-rural areas and the suburbs, buses are both socially necessary and the only public transport solution.

It has taken the government nine years to acknowledge that the current deregulated model for buses outside London isn't working
Yet more and more of these routes are being abandoned by bus companies because they are not making a satisfactory commercial return which many regard as being at least 10%.

So transport authorities are having to pay ever higher subsidies just to persuade companies to stick to these routes.

But the unregulated system does not allow transport authorities who are paying these subsidies to inspect the bus companies' books so they can never be sure if a bus company would be making a loss without them or just not a sufficiently large profit.

"We'd like some more transparency," says David Brown, passenger services director of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, "so we can see and understand the reasons behind bus companies not wanting to run a service."

In London, with much bigger subsidies more akin to European levels and with the Mayor uniquely able to set the routes and the timetable, bus usage has soared by 59%.

So big is London's patronage now, ministers have claimed that overall bus use is increasing in the whole country.

Bus lane
Bus lanes have improved journey times by 13% for London buses

This disguises the fact that the bus is in deep decline in most urban areas outside London, especially the large conurbations, save for a handful of places: Telford, Brighton, Dorset, York, West Sussex and Cambridgeshire.

It has taken the government nine years to acknowledge that the current deregulated model for buses outside London is not working.

Road pricing

Now they have promised to give transport authorities the powers to move towards a more regulated system closer to the London model.

But the bus companies are threatening a legal challenge and it may be another four years before there are clear benefits. The transport select committee laments that the Department for Transport "appears to have given up in the short term" on the buses.

In the longer term, the only way of reversing the decline of the bus is to improve its image as being unreliable by giving it more road space.

But so congested are the roads that a modest shift from car use will require a massive increase in buses.

Once again, all roads lead back to road pricing. It offers a virtuous circle because it both reduces demand for car use and provides funds for more buses.

Are we getting there on the buses? Maybe, but only if the government's proposals do put more transport authorities back in the driving seat and there is road pricing.

Episode three of Are We There Yet? will be broadcast on Tuesday, 20 March, 2007 at 1930 GMT on BBC Two.

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