Better Buses in Greater Manchester.

We are pleased to republish an article that appeared in The Big Issue North, by Pascale Robinson, coordinator of the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign. First though, we’d like to introduce it, in the context of our thinking on a viable Greater Manchester.

People with placards getting on a bus.

Campaigners, including some from Steady State Manchester, at the Better Buses launch.

Steady State Manchester is happy to back the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign. Why?

Firstly, environment and climate change: 29% of carbon dioxide emissions in our city come from transport. If we are to encourage the radical shift away from the private motor car that is needed, then, in addition to human powered travel over short distances (walking and cycling mainly), then there needs to be affordable and attractive shared transport between the places where people need to be. The current pattern of public transport in Greater Manchester is largely radial in nature – much better connections in and out of the centre than between suburban neighbourhoods. So a lot of people end up using private cars to go between places. The results are the noise, the crisis of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions at levels far in excess of our share of what’s left of the global carbon budget to keep warming within minimally safe limits. Moreover the sheer number of cars, as well as causing congestion, means that walking and cycling become unpleasant and often dangerous.

Secondly, economic and social justice: at present people with low incomes have to spend a considerable part of their income on transport. Public transport is costly (typically much more so than in comparable European cities) and since it doesn’t go where people need to be taken, people are often forced to run a car, a big drain on household budgets.

Bus regulation would be an essential first step in getting the kind of public transport system that would meet these two goals of ecological and social justice. We would also like to see people travel less: working, playing and resting near home rather than wasting time being transported across the city would improve the liveability of the city, reduce costs and reduce environmental impacts. So while we support bus regulation, we want to see efforts made to restructure the city around liveable neighbourhoods that meet most of the functions people need. That won’t happen overnight, but economic, environmental and social factors mean we need to start the move in that direction and escape the treadmill of fossil-fuelled hypermobility.

Why don’t we just bring our buses into public control/hands?

Pascale Robinson                                                              Originally in Big IssueNorth                                                                                                          (thanks for permission to reproduce it)

Buses make up of 80% of public transport journeys in Greater Manchester.

They’re the backbone of our local economies, to our ability to access jobs and opportunity. When they’re unreliable, they hold us back. 37% of job seekers in Greater Manchester cited transport as one of the keys barriers to getting a job. That’s over a third of us not able to get our foot in the door.

So why isn’t our transport up to scratch? Why are our buses expensive, late and infrequent? Why aren’t our local transport authorities doing their job and setting up the infrastructure for us to live our lives?

The simple answer is the system currently doesn’t let most authorities run or have any oversight of bus networks.

Currently, most bus networks across the country, including Greater Manchester’s, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, are deregulated, except for a few pockets (where publicly owned buses companies exist). Bus companies only run the routes they want to, and they set the fares. Most think that it’s the local transport authorities that are in the driving seat, but actually the only time they can put on a bus service is when there is a big need and they have cash to offer to bus companies. They’re at the mercy of big bus companies, who run the profitable routes and take public money to foot the bill of other services. It’s against competition law for bus companies to cooperate, so you cannot have a smart ticket which lets you get on any bus or tram in one city, with a cap on daily spend that guarantees you’re getting the right price. We have a patchy, fragmented network which no one takes accountability for as a result.

And why would they want to cooperate on better services? Many bus companies hate the idea of a daily cap on spend, like you have with the oyster card in London. The system works well for them. Some 40% of bus companies revenue is public money. Shareholders of ‘the big five’ pocket £149 million a year on average, all while First raised fares last week in West Yorkshire and Leeds. There was an outpouring online, with one Leeds bus passenger saying ‘Absolute joke. No wonder people are preferring to drive rather than use public transport.’

This wildly inefficient use of public money is increasingly untenable, as government cuts to bus budgets mean there is less cash in the pot to offer socially necessary services.

So, what could we do instead? How can fix our buses and make bus companies accountable to us?

Regulation. Regulating a network basically means that one body, a local authority, have oversight of it, deciding the routes in advance, tendering out contracts to bus companies for a set amount of years. Authorities can use profits from busy routes to subsidise other routes, because they receive fare money, so all communities can have a bus service. Local authorities decide the timetables, pensions of drivers, maximum emissions that buses give out, what fares to charge, and more.

It’s pretty exciting, and Greater Manchester is one of the first authorities in the UK to consider it, which if successful, would set a precedent for others to follow.

Bus companies will tell you that everything can be achieved when you ‘work in partnership’. Partnerships will mean wi-fi on your buses. Partnerships are an alternative to regulation. We think they’re just not an option.

Why? Partnerships are voluntary agreements between bus companies and authorities, which bus companies themselves have to support for them to get through. This is not going to get us the bus system we as passengers and staff deserve. We need regulation.

Is it coincidence that under London’s regulated bus network, where Transport for London (accountable to the Mayor) runs the buses, they have one of the best bus networks in the world? Clean, reliable, frequent, and affordable. Is it coincidence that in the last five years alone Jersey’s regulated bus network has seen as 32% increase in passengers? All this while Greater Manchester has lost 8 million miles of bus route since 2010.

Why haven’t all these things that bus companies promise been done already? Are they worried about the reduced profit margins that regulation means?

Bus regulation is not a catchy slogan. However, regulated and deregulated bus networks are the difference between our access to jobs, services, and your loved ones. Regulated bus networks mean world class buses, one of the big ways we’ll achieve less congested cities with healthier air.

We need you on board to win this fight however. To call for regulated buses in Greater Manchester, which could set the precedent for all the UK to regulate, please sign the petition at www.betterbusesgm.org.uk

People and placards at the bus

ANother shot from the launch. Pascale is on the right of the picture.

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