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by Valerie Davidson, Chief Executive, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT).
22 May 2024
Associate Feature: Reforming Strathclyde’s public transport: the franchise model’s promise for the region’s bus network

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Associate Feature: Reforming Strathclyde’s public transport: the franchise model’s promise for the region’s bus network

In the intricate tapestry of Strathclyde’s transport infrastructure, the bus network is a vital thread, critical to the working of the economy and sustaining the social fabric of our region. 

Buses serve as a lifeline for many, connecting communities, facilitating access to employment and education, and reducing congestion and pollution. Buses also support our town centres and provide essential access for people who cannot, or do not want to, use cars. More journeys are made on bus than any other mode of transport – it is essential to so many lives.

With more than 11,500 bus stops across our region – from Union Street, Glasgow to the top of the Rest and Be Thankful – buses are truly at the heart of our communities.

The importance of developing a robust network was highlighted in Strathclyde Partnership for Transport’s (SPT) Regional Transport Strategy (RTS) 2023 – 2038, which sets out how transport in our region must develop over the next 15 years in order to help mitigate climate change and support inclusive economic growth. The importance of this cannot be overstated – it’s time to stop thinking of public transport as an “add on” or a “nice to have”, but much more as a key enabler to a functioning and successful society and economy. 

But the development of a robust bus network and delivery model in Strathclyde is not only key to the delivery of RTS. It has a cross-cutting and increasingly important role to play in the future delivery of national, regional and local public policy. It can also help to achieve targets across a wide range of sectors, including social inclusion, climate change, economic development and public health and wellbeing. 

The pressure and focus on buses, therefore, in the delivery of public policy, has never been more significant. 

A declining bus network
Yet, amidst the recognition of importance, a discordant note resounds – the current model of delivery is not working for all communities and doesn’t meet the needs of people across the Strathclyde region. 

Echoes of dissatisfaction have continued to reverberate from the public, councils and wider stakeholders alike over the last several years. The lamentations are varied: dwindling services, infrequent schedules, escalating fares and the perennial woe of buses delayed or absent due to congested roads, and all the while an integrated approach to bus service planning with other modes of transport remains an elusive aspiration. 

The hard truth is that bus use in the west of Scotland has been in a state of sustained, long-term decline for many years before the Covid-19 pandemic. The size of the bus network is declining, and bus service frequency and network coverage is on the same trajectory. 

This is not good enough for people who rely on buses every day, and it isn’t good enough to break the cycle of bus decline to get people out of their cars and onto public transport. 

We need a lot more from our bus network. We need it to be a lifeline for anyone who needs it, to ensure our transport network helps make our region a more equitable, healthy, and inclusive place. We also need it to be a change agent to help deliver on the transformational behaviour change required to meet our ambitious climate change goals. 

To do this, we need an accessible, safe and integrated network that is easy to use, and one that our society has confidence in. We need more affordable fares. We need more reliable and quicker buses. And, ultimately, we need buses where we need them, when we need them. 

SPT’s recommendations for the short-term
We need to do something now to halt the declining use and ensure we build for growth, delivering a bus network that is sustainable, attractive, accessible and affordable for passengers and communities. 

The introduction of the 2019 Transport (Scotland) Act afforded SPT with new powers to address these issues firsthand and reform the bus market in Strathclyde, which is why we have recommended a dual approach to changing the way the bus network is organised in our region. 

Bus Service Improvement Partnerships (BSIPs) offer the potential to deliver greater information provision, improved ticketing, and a more consistent standard of service across the region. An ambitious BSIP also has the potential to deliver moderate improvements in service levels. 

These statutory partnerships between SPT, local authorities and bus operators would also lock in bus priority commitments and investments from both public and private sectors. 

But while we’re confident that BSIPs have the potential to halt the decline of our bus market, they are only an interim solution, and one that embeds our commitments to bus prioritisation while we work to establish a robust network that delivers for the Strathclyde region for years to come. 

A franchising model that delivers for the people of the West of Scotland  
We recognise our responsibility to improve bus service delivery in Strathclyde and we know that simply halting the decline in the bus network through BSIPs is insufficient in the longer term. Our aspirations must be higher, towards the realisation of a world-class local bus franchise model the people of the West of Scotland deserve. 

We propose a model, similar to those in London or Manchester, that would allow SPT to take responsibility and be accountable for the outcomes it desires by specifying what the bus network should look like to meet the needs of passengers and communities. 

Local services franchising is likely to have major beneficial effects for enhanced service levels. As well as making fares more affordable, it can deliver a regional integrated network that truly supports both multi-modal journeys and future public transport investment, including Clyde Metro. Bus is a key mode in the future metropolitan transport network.

This will take longer to develop and implement, but we believe this model gives the most certainty in the long term and has the potential to reverse the decline in bus usage in Strathclyde, which will contribute towards the delivery of a better network that works for everyone. 

There are many franchising models and we will ensure whichever one is developed is one that works for this region, learning from others who have gone down this path. 

My hope for a better bus network in Strathclyde 
While local bus franchising offers the greatest prospects for realising these outcomes, it will take time to establish, and maintaining the status quo in that time is not sustainable. The time for action is now. 

We’ve spent the last month gathering thoughts and opinions from the general public, businesses, politicians and external stakeholders through a public consultation. 

Our recommendations set out a strong case for significant investment to tackling a declining bus network. Regardless of whatever final model is advanced, we must also reallocate and prioritise additional investment in road space to make buses a viable alternative to the private car. Bus priority is critical to the success of any new model.

The current situation doesn’t work for the people who matter the most – the travelling public who lack other options. My hope is that together we can create a brighter future for bus travel in Strathclyde. 

This article is sponsored by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT)

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