As I grew intoxicated by the liberally applied Lynx of my literal bosom buddy for the bus journey to Victoria this morning I found myself wondering about the future of our bus network in London. As a result of sustained investment the buses in London are now widely used and generally provide a good and valuable service. Whilst it did not feel like it in the febrile sardine tin that is the 170 in rush hour, London as a whole is well served by its bus network. However, there is a risk that the current lack of forward planning for the buses means that olfactory assaults such as the one I suffered this morning become the norm for the London bus commute.
The benefits of buses have already been widely noted. They reduce congestion and can thereby have environmental benefits. They are vital to the economic performance of the city and also are important in terms of social justice as they tend to serve more deprived areas more widely than other transport services.
Why then is the bus network so often overlooked in favour of more glamorous transport solutions? It is a vital component of any plan for transport in London and yet the Mayor does not appear to have any cogent plan for its development. Rather, Boris has spent £15.5 million and £6 million per annum on his cable car project. Although, in fairness, as empty, corporate sponsored vessels they do serve as an apt metaphor for so much of his tenure as Mayor.
Boris’ flagship move with the buses has been to introduce new routemasters at a cost of over £11 million. These buses also require a bus conductor to man them at a cost of £63,000 per annum per vehicle. To spend these sums of money and not increase the capacity of the bus network is absurd. To prioritise aesthetics over practical solutions is to place style over substance.
With an increasing population the pressures on the bus network are going to grow considerably. TfL predicts an increase of 7% in bus passenger journeys. If investment in the bus network is not carefully managed then we will find that the service will deteriorate from the current levels whereby the users of the service are largely satisfied.
At present however subsidies are likely to be cut. This decrease in funding is likely to result in further increases in fares and examination of cost cutting measures. Fares have already risen by 57% on Boris’ watch. As the bus is generally used by those on lower incomes, with around two-thirds of all bus trips made by Londoners whose annual household income is less than £25,000 compared to one-third of all rail trips, then any fare increase predominantly falls on those least able to afford it.
Cost cutting measures could impact on the ‘concessionary’ age groups, namely school age children and adults over 65, and the availability of free travel to these groups. This would impact the important social role of buses. The intangible benefits of increasing the mobility of the elderly and the young should not be overlooked. The other obvious area in which cost cutting measures could be implemented is by maintain a downward pressure on staff costs. If this is not carefully managed it could result in problems with staff retention and impact on the quality of the service offered.
The worry is that without a cohesive plan the ability of the bus network to meet more demand with less money is seriously damaged. This will have deleterious social and economic consequences. It is vital that the Mayor does not overlook the bus network and develops a policy that priorities expanding capacity of the bus network in the most cost efficient way. Grand gestures such as the new routemaster are a complete red herring. Sadly the signs are not promising. There are plans in place for river transport but none for the bus network. Boris’ commitment to showmanship rather than solutions could cost the capital dear.