Transport Committee Inquiry into Bus Services
across the UK
Submission by Dr. Alan Storkey 5/5/2006.
The title of this inquiry is "Bus services
across the UK" and I want to stay with the strategic level
of the review. The argument will be that, at present, bus journeys
are very limited in their strategic aims, and especially that
buses have not been part of an "integrated transport policy",
as is claimed by Government policy. This contribution will show
why full integration has not occurred, how it can be remedied
and why subsidies are needed at present, but may be less necessary
with a reformed road-based national transport system.
The advantages of buses are important. By bunching
journeys they economize on road space use in crowded areas. They
also cut fuel consumption and greenhouse gases. By addressing
congestion, they also reduce the fuel consumption of other vehicles.
Potentially, they are crucial for green, uncongested travel.
This depends on utilisation and occupation levels.
Though there is some improvement in London, the overall level
of use is disappointing and it seems that bus occupancy levels
are low, especially outside rush hours and at the outer margins
of the routes.
The reason for this, I suggest, is the limited
kind of journeys which can be undertaken by bus. They are used
for commuting and shopping, and for suburb to city centre travel,
but they are rarely part of longer journeys. Usually, as buses
move into the outer suburbs they are relatively empty. It is difficult
to establish bus occupancy rates, but they may be not much more
than 10 overall. London is more successful partly because many
routes hardly have an outer end, given the greater size of the
metropolis, though at the edges the same phenomenon exists. Effectively
the routes peter out and leave no alternative but the car. Train
and coach are normally geared to city centre rail and coach stations,
and there is no link to longer distance travel.
There is, in effect, no integration with bus
travel beyond the suburbs. There is not an integrated bus policy.
Given the volumes of car traffic moving on the M25, the Manchester
and Birmingham orbitals, the failure to provide road-based public
transport beyond bus routes and on motorways is serious, and explains
our inability to cut into car transport.
A Reformed Coach System.
A similar problem exists with coaches. They
remain at present organised around city centres, and are therefore
locked into inner city patterns of congestion, even when passengers
come from the suburbs and are travelling outwards. Travel speeds
for the journeys are as low as 30 or even 20 mph, although these
vehicles travel comfortably at 60-70mph. Because coaches are infrequent,
they need booking. At present they are the most unreformed part
of the transport system, a residual service for time-rich and
Yet, again, as with buses, they are the most
efficient powered form of personal transport. Each coach hoovers
up a mile of car traffic at 60 mph assuming normal (not full)
occupancy. They save road space by a factor of fifteen to twenty,
simply by bringing people together and eliminating the space between
vehicles. They cut fuel consumption by 80%, but because they cut
the congestion and slowness of other vehicles this pushes up towards
90% or more, making them greener than any other possible form
of transport. They can tackle congestion where it occurs, because
coaches can be put where car traffic is heaviest, on motorways,
orbitals and major trunk roads. Because they are smaller units
than trains, with reasonable demand it is easy to push up frequency
times and offer an on-off service. As the Oxford-London route
shows, despite its disabilities, a frequent on-off service increases
demand five fold or more, even though the full journey speed is
little over 30mph.
What is needed to reform the coach system is
a comfortable, fast, frequent network with congestion free transfers
into the heavy centres of population. Orbital services round London
on the M25, Birmingham and Manchester motorways are crucial. Coach
stations with platforms and flat entry, allowing easy and rapid
transfers, need to be moved to motorway and major trunk road intersections.
Clearly, this would allow rapid transfer to and from buses and
coaches, without getting embroiled in city centre congestion,
and would provide a true alternative to the car. Crucial, too,
would be systems of coach priority, justified by their efficient
use of road space, which would guarantee their journey speeds
Compared with all other transport infrastructure,
the capital costs of such a reform are remarkably low, because
coach reform largely uses existing infrastructure, the road and
motorway network, more efficiently by a factor of fifteen and
most of the capital is going into vehicles. A full M25 coach and
transfer system would possibly cost less than £1 billion.
A far fuller explanation of this model is available to the Committee.
Such a reform would then open up the way for
a fully integrated coach and bus service. Buses would then pick
up long-distance travel, out of town commuting, shopping, orbital
movements, start of journey travel and a range of other journey
purposes. The UK with high population density should be ideal
for this journey gathering road-based system. It would complete
the integration of the system which is at present so obviously
Let us consider a concrete example which could
be duplicated hundreds of times. At present the 298 bus moves
through North London, out from Southgate, Cockfosters and then
Potters Bar. Often in the outer stretch of the journey the level
of occupancy is very low as it passes through greenbelt land.
With an M25 Orbital Coach system in place all the journeys to
and from the M25 into North London and to Potters Bar would be
accessed by this bus. It would enable a transfer from Junction
24 to the Piccadilly Line at Cockfosters and would quickly expand
its demand and frequency. Its effectiveness as a service would
be increased many times. Moreover, all the journeys from and to
the M25 transfer from car to coach and bus would ease congestion.
Presently there are several hours a day where these roads are
choked. Some more bus priority measures would enhance this mode
of travel over the car.
Most people live in suburbs and the outer area
of cities. At present, buses integrate with city centre trains
and coaches. Usually, that involves an in-out movement which makes
the journey time grossly inefficient. Bus-coach integration would
completely change this process.
At present, buses are subsidised because they
are such a virtuous form of urban transport helping congestion,
fuel consumption, greenhouse gases and people without cars. We
are used to subsidised bus transport, but it is expensive and
the DfT wants to keep costs down.
Parsimonious responses from the DfT suggest
that there policy in relation to coaches consists only in a fear
of opening up another subsidised market. Yet, this response shows
a failure to see the full scope of the bus and coach market. Where
buses and coaches are frequent they are much more fully used,
as the London-Oxford or Oxford Road, Manchester examples show
clearly. By contrast, the level of frustration with motorway,
orbital and outer urban movement in cars is volcanic. Yet, as
the underground shows, people can cope with multi-transfer journeys
if they are reasonably comfortable, cheap, frequent, fast and
reliable. If an integrated bus-coach system were created, there
would be a chance to move into the £100 billion a year budget
that people spend on cars in a substantial way. It would open
up a market in which buses and coaches would be highly competitive.
The present distortions of the transport market
are known, but unaddressed politically. The public cost of using
cars would involve a tax of something like £1.75 a litre,
and car costs are lower than they should be, partly as a result
of New Labour's failure to tax responsibly. Yet, still this is
a vast market, with vast private investment, and it is very cost
inefficient; a ton of steel moving 1.4 people nationally with
all the associated costs does not add up to a cheap system. Even
at current prices, there is probably a vast suppressed demand
as a result of the inefficiency and infrequency of coach and bus
transport. Coaches cost only a fraction of the amount, save capital,
resources, fuel, driving time, parking and garaging costs and
are a cheap form of travel, even with leg room and comfort. This
is a cost effective, marketable policy in which both coaches and
buses can be closer to unsubsidised market provision.
This market needs to be built up, so that revenue
can begin to provide investment funds. The key is the vast amount
of traffic moving round the orbitals, the outside of the conurbations
and the major motorways. The volume of car traffic guarantees
high demand, if the frequency, speed and comfort of coaches and
buses is established.
At present, the DfT collects hardly any data
on coaches and relatively little on buses. The department has
not had a considered policy on coach transport for a decade or
more and has thus turned its back on the most effective form of
powered transport available in terms of energy use and addressing
congestion. Whereas coach transport with low levels of investment
increase the capacity of the road system by a multiple factor,
road charging at great cost adds no capacity to the road system.
The failure to address this alternative to road pricing and to
look at integrated coach-bus transport policy is culpable and
should be addressed. Policy is being driven by high cost companies
rather than ecological and transport sense.
The recommendation, therefore, is that the Government
does some proper work on coach transport and reviews the relation
between coach and bus transport so that proper integration of
the two services can be considered and developed as policy. Part
of this is evaluating a coach system with orbital coach services
and intersection based coach transfers. Such a system could be
up and running in five years, transforming the potential of bus
transport and giving the British public a full effective road-based
public transport system.
Dr Alan Storkey