All aboard the Bus Bill
Though the Bill falls short of providing new resources, it provides the tools for local authorities to tackle bus provision creatively and in response to local need.
The newly drafted Bus Bill is currently trundling its way through Parliament, promising to arrive at its destination with new local franchising and decision making powers.
Outside London, bus companies currently compete on the street for passengers but if the Bill is passed they will instead compete for franchises set by local authorities with a set level of service for a specific area. The hope is that this will help combat the current skew towards well used, more profitable bus routes – literally leaving many people and communities standing in the cold.
Though the Bill falls short of providing new resources, it does provide the tools for local authorities to tackle bus provision creatively and in response to local need.
The Bill has barely made the headlines despite it having the potential to make a very tangible difference to millions of people. Some 4.5 billion bus journeys were made in England last year, 34% of which were by people in later life and people with disabilities travelling at concessionary rates.
These changes also have the potential to herald a new era in the availability of information to passengers of all ages. Open data and ticketing provisions in the Bill will make it easier to provide passengers with new ways to access information such as timetables, routes and vehicle location. Though these powers will only be available in the first instance to newly elected Metro Mayors, it is expected that more places will be able to take advantage of the new powers on a case by case basis.
Tech start-ups like Uber and Deliveroo have disrupted transport, yet innovation has not been widespread in public transport despite the opportunities. For example, while 91% of buses in England are fitted with smart ticket technology, currently complex competition and data arrangements mean that only London can fully make use of the advantages that this technology can provide to passengers (IPPR North, 2016). The Bus Bill will free local authorities to contract bus providers in a way that, theoretically at least, will allow them to increase provision in under used, less traditionally profitable, routes, and to set innovative new data sharing, ticketing and fare structures.
In London, the ease of use of the Oyster smart ticket system, the real-time arrivals technology accessed at bus stops or on smart phones, and the ability to set fare caps, freezes and structures are all reasons cited for London having bucked the national downward trend in bus use in the last two decades. Bringing these regulatory changes could have double the impact outside the capital, with twice as many older and disability concessionary fare journeys made outside London, (30% compared to 15%).
So why are we so excited about the bus bill?
Most of us take for granted our ability to get out and about. In addition to getting to essential places in our lives like work, school, the supermarket or the doctors, travel and mobility is essential to staying in touch socially. It contributes to our sense of independence, and our ability to fully experience the world we live in.
However, as people age, mobility can also change. Age related impairments and vulnerabilities, and even ageist views about older drivers can limit car use. In the UK, for example, you need to re-apply for your driving license once you hit 70, despite a lack of clear evidence to suggest people suddenly become unsafe at this or any age.
For people in later life who have to forego their cars, especially in rural areas, there is an even greater risk of social isolation and loneliness than for previous generations whose lives were, in general, lived closer to home. It is therefore not surprising that people in later life repeatedly give high priority to transport in consultations and age-friendly community audits. This is why we have been talking to places like Leeds and Manchester about the potential for fresh approaches to community and public transport.
Buses are of course, just one part of the jigsaw. It is also important to have all the necessary services (including hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and grocery shops), social networks and activities (including friends’ houses, day centres, churches and parks) available in the local neighbourhood.
But it’s a start. It is why we are watching this Bill carefully and look forward to being part of what might happen as a result. Keep track of the Bus Bill’s progress.