Associate feature: the bus network needs investment not a change of ownership

Written by George Mair, CPT on 21 November 2018 in Comment

The Confederation of Passenger Transport says the Scottish Government should focus on a partnership approach

Confederation of Passenger Transport

Buses are vital to Scotland. Buses connect people and create communities.

There are more bus journeys each year in Scotland than every other mode of public transport combined.

These journeys enable people to access education, work and healthcare; replacing many potential car journeys and thereby helping to meet Scottish Government objectives around improved air quality.

Despite the clear value to society of buses and the continuing hard work and investment of the bus industry, bus use in Scotland is falling, largely for reasons that are outwith the control of bus operators. 

The Transport (Scotland) Bill recognises the need to address this issue and includes provisions designed to ensure that there are sustainable bus networks across Scotland.

It proposes to do this by providing local authorities with a toolkit of options to work in partnership with bus operators, introduce a bus franchise, or operate bus services directly.

CPT Scotland supports the Bill’s aims and the government’s commitment to sustainable and active travel. 

However, the bill’s focus on regulatory models fails to acknowledge the real factors that are behind falling bus use and may lead to local authorities devoting time and resource to considering regulatory change when the reality is that a focus on more practical measures is needed.

Recent independent research on bus patronage trends, conducted by KPMG, concluded that reduced passenger numbers are the result of a range of factors including increasing traffic congestion, changing shopping habits, increased car ownership and reduced public sector investment.  

In fact, the study showed that almost 75 per cent of Scottish patronage decline is attributable to factors outwith bus operators’ control.

Rather than providing means by which to tackle these issues, the bill’s current focus is on providing for different models of ownership. 

Changing the regulatory structure of the bus industry will not address key issues such as congestion, and will not reduce the costs of operation or improve the environmental performance of the bus fleet.

Practical measures such as bus priority infrastructure, improved land use planning and a reduction in car parking would make a far greater difference to passengers.

These measures can all be built into a voluntary or statutory partnership between the public sector and bus operators under existing legislation.

Franchising and municipal operation may appear as appealing means by which the public sector can exert greater control over bus services.

However, neither model changes the fundamental economics of bus operation.

In fact, both models transfer the revenue risk to the taxpayer at a time when local authority budgets are stretched to breaking point.

It should be remembered that the much lauded ‘London model’ of franchising is set to face a £1bn funding deficit next year, amid falling passenger numbers.

There is a strong case for investing in bus. Research shows that every £1 invested in bus infrastructure can generate more than £8 of wider economic benefits.

It is therefore CPT’s firm belief that the focus of the bill should be in facilitating schemes which deliver these results through a collaborative approach between private and public sector transport stakeholders. 

CPT will continue to advocate for a future based on partnership. Our aim is for the Transport (Scotland) Bill to be amended to create a supportive and stable policy environment that enables local authorities and bus operators to work together to deliver better buses for the millions of Scottish people who rely on them.

George Mair is the Scotland director of the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) UK, the trade association for the bus and coach industries. 

This article was sponsored by CPT

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